From low-cost housing to life-saving implants, 3D printing technology is having a growing influence on our lives, and the latest innovation to be announced is a full-sized 3D-printed bridge.
Industry experts MX3D are planning to create a steel bridge in Amsterdam in the Netherlands using independent robot arms. These arms will start on one side of the river and cross over to the other bank, building the structure as they go.
Software studio Autodesk and construction firm Heijmans are two of the partners working with MX3D on the eye-catching project, which is scheduled to start in September once a final location has been chosen. The robotic 3D printers are going to construct their own supports as they go, heating the metal to 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 Fahrenheit) before melding it into place.
The site is set to be a tourist attraction even before it's completed, with a visitor centre in the pipeline that will provide running updates on the bridge's process.
"What distinguishes our technology from traditional 3D printing methods is that we work according to the 'printing outside the box' principle," MX3D Chief Technology Officer Tim Geurtjens says on the project site.
"By printing with 6-axis industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens. Printing a functional, life-size bridge is of course the ideal way to showcase the endless possibilities of this technique."
The printing arms have been through several iterations to get them ready for the task: MX3D engineers say they've seen machines explode, get clogged up and lose their bearings along the way, but now the final version of the hardware is ready to launch into action. A small-scale test run has already taken place, producing a bridge a few feet across that could take the weight of a human being.
The style of the bridge has been sketched out by Dutch designer and artist Joris Laarman. "I strongly believe in the future of digital production and local production, in 'the new craft'," he says. "This bridge will show how 3D printing finally enters the world of large-scale, functional objects and sustainable materials while allowing unprecedented freedom of form. The symbolism of the bridge is a beautiful metaphor to connect the technology of the future with the old city, in a way that brings out the best of both worlds."
The project isn't just showcasing the novelty value of 3D printing, because the technology could eventually have a practical use too - in areas where natural disasters have occurred or local infrastructure has been destroyed, a self-contained bridge-printing robot could prove invaluable in connecting communities together again.
In the meantime, keep your eyes on MX3D's new bridge in Amsterdam, because you'll be seeing a lot more of this technology in the years to come.