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Fancy a stroll across a 3D printed bridge?

Tech > Fancy a stroll across a 3D printed bridge?

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11 August 2021, 4:23 PM

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3D-printing – that’s for making fun model toys and replacement parts, right?

Wrong! Well, it is used for those things, but it’s also used for so much more. One of our favourite uses  has recently come from the world of construction. The world’s first 3D-printed steel pedestrian bridge has been installed in Amsterdam, spanning nearly 40 feet across the famous Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in the Red Light District. And not only was it unveiled by a robot – it was built by them too! They combined four traditional robots with welding tools (a match made in heaven), and tada! 6 months later, a beautiful bridge was born. R2D2 and Wall-E have been keeping busy…

Created by Dutch tech start-up, MX3D, and supported by a variety of tech giants including Arup, ABB and Lenovo, this curving 6-ton structure is a feat of total engineering brilliance – showing how groovy new tech can work with materials like metal to create new and improved structures – and in ways we never thought possible before.

Our Amsterdam bridge is truly special though because it’s also aliiiiiiiive! The Smart Bridge has been equipped with a state-of-the-art sensor network, allowing real-time analysis of the bridge’s health and use to be reported into a ‘digital twin’, where researchers will monitor pedestrian traffic and crowding, and use this insight alongside physical monitoring of the bridge to predict when repairs may be needed – all before any damage has even thought about appearing. Pretty cool, huh?  

While this is only due to stay up for two years while the existing bridge undergoes renovation, this does open up the possibility for 3d-printing across all kinds of building and infrastructure. But is this really sustainable?

The short answer is yes, although there are many factors to consider.  

3d-printing has also been used to create a pedestrian bridge in Venice, Striatus, using specially printed concrete blocks. It’s not named after some Greek god though; the name refers to the special way the bricks were produced and assembled – resulting in a bridge that needs no reinforcement or mortar. Each block was printed in layers that sat at right angles to the main structure, creating a striated structure where any weight and pressure from pedestrians actually further strengthened the bridge. The precise nature of the printing also meant that far fewer materials were used in the production process – genius!

The Smart Bridge in Amsterdam also proves the structural viability of metal as another material for 3d-printing, and that (combined with the versatility of those rad little robots) opens up the possibility for repairing metal structures rather than needing to replace. Less waste = yet another win for Mother Nature.  

Both bridges are just the tip of the sustainable tech construction iceberg, though. Did you know that houses are being 3d-printed now? We’d hate to try reloading the paper tray for that…

There have been so many different builds that have tried and tested various materials and processes – including bioplastic, local soil and clay, and even waste from rice production. There is seemingly no end to the list of things that can be used to 3d-print with, helping to reduce waste and environmental impact, keeping costs down, and saving on production time as a result. Some claim to take just 24 hours to print! Even when you factor in time for contractors to assemble the printed parts and install windows and doors, you’re still saving tonnes of time compared with traditional building practises.

Of course, the cost of a 3D-printer and the materials to build your own humble abode won’t be in the realms of affordable for some time, but it’s a huge step forward for tech, and a giant leap forward for preserving our planet.  

From jewellery and fancy fashion, to art, prosthetic limbs, artificial organs and even engines for space rockets – there are so many novel applications for the ever-evolving world of 3D-printing, we can’t keep up!

The big question is – what should we try to get 3D-printed next?

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