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Robots to 3-D Print a Footbridge

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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AMSTERDAM--The future of construction may involve robots capable of 3-D printing structures out of thin air.

That’s if MX3D robot designer Joris Laarman has anything to do with it.

Already capable of laying their own tracks and printing molten metal in mid-air, Laarman’s MX3D machines are going to attempt to build an intricately designed walking bridge in 2017.

MX3D Bridge / YouTube

This visualization is a rendering of what the MX3D robots’ bridge-building project will look like.

“We thought to ourselves: What is the most iconic thing we could print in public that would show off what our technology is capable of?” Laarman told Fast Company.

“This being the Netherlands, we decided a bridge over an old city canal was a pretty good choice. Not only is it good for publicity, but if MX3D can construct a bridge out of thin air, it can construct anything.”

Bridging Some Gaps

In the fall of 2017, Laarman will take his robots to the edge of an Amsterdam canal, turn them on, and let them do their work. Two months later, the robots will have finished printing their 24-foot-long, intricately designed bridge.

Or, so he hopes.

MX3D / Adrian De Groot

The MX3D six-axis robots can design intricate structures in mid-air using a composite steel material while making their own tracks across open spaces. In 2017, the robots will use that technology to attempt to build a walking bridge over an Amsterdam canal.

Although MX3D has demonstrated that its six-axis robots can build sculptures in mid-air, the company’s designers and engineers will not know how well their systems can accomplish the bridge-building project until they actually try it.

“Robots tend to assume that the universe is made of absolutes, even though that’s not true,” said Maurice Conti, the head of project partner Autodesk’s applied research lab, in an interview with Fast Company. “So we need to program them to have real-time feedback loops and adapt in real-time, without even being told to.”

In addition to compensating for the mistakes that sometimes happen with 3-D printing even in stable lab conditions, Laarman and his team have to build a robot that can withstand a real-world environment.

For example, the machines will have to be able to adjust to temperature fluctuations and possible vandalism that could occur as a result of leaving a robot in a public place.

Design on the Go

In fact, the MX3D robots are all about overcoming challenges. Their tasks are more like welding than 3-D printing.

MX3D’s Joris Laarman explains the process behind developing robots that will build a walking bridge over an Amsterdam canal.

The robots don’t use a printer bed as most 3-D printers do, and they don’t have an existing printer track. Instead, they build their own tracks, which allows them to move horizontally, vertically and diagonally. An MX3D machine can cross gaps and empty spaces simply by printing itself a new track.

The material that the robots will "print" to build the bridge is different from that of most 3-D printers, too. They usually print with plastic or resin, but Laarman’s robots will use a new steel composite designed by the Delft University of Technology.

Despite being a composite, the material is as strong as regular steel.

MX3D / Joris Laarman

Although Laarman has demonstrated that his machines can build sturdy structures in a lab, he will have to overcome real-world obstacles—such as fluctuating temperatures and possible vandalism—to complete the bridge project.

That means that not only can the robots create a sturdy bridge, but they eventually could be used to construct buildings and other structures.

“Imagine some day in the future, just going somewhere, dropping off a robot, and coming back two months later to have this huge piece of infrastructure there, without any human intervention at all!” said Conti.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Commercial Construction; Robotics

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/24/2015, 8:18 AM)

Looks really neat - please follow up when the project starts, and when it is finished, particularly any challenges they had to overcome (specifications? safety? Power onsite? et cetera) - I'm hoping that by the time the bridge is started they get a bit better control over the process so that the strands are less lumpy. Should give a noticeably better strength-to-weight ratio. A time lapse of the bridge construction would be great as well.

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