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A 3D printer at work Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images

How To 3-D Print a Steel Bridge

'The underlying principle is very simple. We have connected an advanced welding machine to an industrial robot arm.'

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – A Dutch startup has unveiled plans to build the world’s first 3-D-printed bridge across an Amsterdam canal, a technique that could become standard on future construction sites.

Using robotic printers “that can ‘draw’ steel structures in 3-D, we will print a (pedestrian) bridge over water in the center of Amsterdam,” engineering startup company MX3D said in a statement, hoping to kick off the project by September.

The plan involves robotic arm printers ‘walking’ across the canal as it slides along the bridge’s edges, essentially printing its own support structure out of thin air as it moves along. 

Specially-designed robotic arms heat the metal to a searing 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,500 degrees Celsius) to painstakingly weld the structure drop-by-drop, using a computer program to plot the sophisticated design.

“The underlying principle is very simple. We have connected an advanced welding machine to an industrial robot arm,” said the bridge’s designer, Joris Laarman. “We now use our own intelligent software to operate these machines so they can print very complex metal shapes, which can differ each time.”

So far, the robotic arm has been used to print smaller metal structures, but the bridge will be the first ever large-scale deployment of the technology, MX3D spokeswoman Eva James said. It is hoped that the bridge, which also involves the Heijmans construction company and Autodesk software, will be a first step toward seeing the technique used on construction sites, especially those involving dangerous tasks such as on high buildings, she said.

The technique also removes the need for scaffolding as the robot arms use the very structure they print as support.

The designers are now in talks with the Amsterdam city council to find a site for the project which they hope will be completed by mid-2017.

“I strongly believe in the future of digital manufacturing and local production,” Laarman said. “It’s a new form of craftsmanship. This bridge can show how 3-D printing has finally entered the world of large-scale functional objects and sustainable materials.”

Amsterdam city council spokeswoman Charlene Verweij said the Dutch capital was supporting the project, though “We are still in negotiations as to where, exactly, the bridge will be built.”

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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