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3-D Printing

Printing steel from mid-air

By Gretchen Salois

Designers at MX3D work with Autodesk to 3-D print a bridge over one of Amsterdam’s busiest canals

November 4, 2015 - In the Netherlands, research and development startup company MX3D has invented its own multiaxis 3-D printing tool equipped with an industrial robot, advanced welding machine and software allowing it to print a bridge slated to connect a canal in Amsterdam’s Red Light District in 2017. The entire structure will be printed as one solid piece, built in an old ship wharf house and transported by barge to site along the canals it seeks to connect. 

Not for lack of trying, MX3D created its own makeshift 3-D printer after shopping around and finding no one willing to make one with the capabilities they required to print on a large scale. 

Having developed its own 3-D printing technique, which is essentially a 6-axis robot and welding machine coupled together using MX3D’s software, the company strategized the best way to print larger objects. “First we tried placing the robot on a podium and printing left and right, up and down,” recalls Tim Geurtjens, co-founder and CEO of MX3D. “We found we were limited to the size building we printed in. We could print a line from the floor to ceiling and horizontally starting from [one wall to the other] and soon realized we could print just about anything.”

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The wire-fed 3-D metal printer goes beyond the typical 10 in. high cube-sized printers available in the marketplace. “It takes us 30 minutes to print with our combined machine what would otherwise take 48 hours to print,” he says, noting the trade off for speed is that tolerances are not as tight. “But you don’t need the same accuracies for architectural applications like for turbines in the aerospace industry or medical implants, so we went for scale and decided to go for accuracy afterward.”

After hearing about MX3D’s 3-D printer “hack,” San Francisco-based Autodesk flew the Dutch team state side to hear plans for the canal bridge. “Autodesk’s enthusiastic response to help us find partners from the industry is what brought us [to this point],” Geurtjens says.

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High bar

Before creating its custom 3-D printer, MX3D started with a CNC milling machine. “We bought [it] online for 1,500 euros,” recalls Geurtjens. “We rented a robot and used some already available software online to drive the robot and took it from there.”

MX3D has five engineers developing the printer’s bandwidth to determine final limitations. “We put the bar quite high for ourselves. At first we wanted to build the bridge from either side [of the canal] as two pieces that met together,” he says. “But after visiting the final location a few weeks ago we realized it’s too crowded to do live and we would need security 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

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Transport is also a consideration but in this case, markedly different as the final bridge is to be shipped completed and as is with no welding or riveting together on site. 

Construction location of the bridge moved to NDSM ship wharf outside the city. Meanwhile, the company is working with a local technical university in the Netherlands to test material for strength. The bridge will be printed out of primarily from carbon or stainless steel. 

ABB Robotics headquartered in Zurich and welding equipment from Air Liquide and Oerlikon in France have partnered to learn from MX3D throughout the process. “We’re interested in technique and looking at what welders will be capable of in the future and our partners are interested in seeing what we can do with their technology,” he says, adding uncovering the unknown is the most exciting part of the process. 

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“I still marvel at how technology has connected us in so many ways,” Geurtjens muses. “The Internet allows us to communicate over such distances so easily and here we are planning to print out a bridge.” FFJ

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