Green infrastructure: 3D constructed bridges

Can three-dimensional (3D) printing help us build a “greener” future? Could we be 3D printing the infrastructure around us?

“Construction 3D printing” refers to various technologies that use 3D printing as a core method to fabricate buildings or construction components. In other words, 3D printing is already assisting the construction process by lowering labor costs, increasing complexity and accuracy, producing less waste, and making the whole process “accelerated.”

Close up of traditional 3D printer in action. Photo from Flickr user PICNIC Network
Close up of traditional 3D printer in action.
Photo from Flickr user PICNIC Network

The term “construction 3D printing” was first coined in 2011 by James B. Gardiner, an Australian architect who pioneered architectural design for construction 3D printing with two projects in the 2000s. Gardiner thought that 3D printing would only further infiltrate our infrastructure, and he wasn’t wrong.

3D printed bridge

MX3D—a company that researches and develops “groundbreaking robotic 3D print technology”—says they are going to print a fully-functional steel bridge.

Tim Geurtjens, co-founder and CTO of MX3D, says that printing a functional, life-size bridge is the “ideal way to demonstrate the endless possibilities” of a specific technique of 3D printing, one that uses multi-axis print technology.

But, can it really work? The company certainly thinks so, and it could lead to greener practices in the future. MX3D says their robots print with sustainable materials, like metals and synthetics, bringing digital technology—and robots—to industrial production.

Multi-axis 3D printing

By printing with six axis multi-purpose industrial robots, MX3D is “no longer limited to a square box,” according to Geurtjens. In other words, there’s less constriction and more room for opportunity than the traditional 3D printing we’ve seen in the past.

3D printed bridge prototype by MX3D
3D printed bridge prototype by MX3D

MX3D engineers are said to be craftsmen and software experts. In 2014, the company equipped itself with an industrial robot with an advanced welding machine and developed the software to control it. The machine allows for 3D printing of strong, complex structures of virtually any shape and size.

You can read more about the process here.

Benefits of 3D printed infrastructure

So, we know how it works, but more importantly, will it work?

Concerns about durability, practicality, and longevity naturally arise when it comes to replacing traditional construction with 3D printed construction elements. That said, there are many benefits of working with 3D printing technology.

First off, it would be faster—possibly by 50 to 70 percent compared to typical production times. This would allow the construction of bridges and similar structures to be up and in use in half the time! Secondly, since 3D printed materials are typically made with “green” practices in mind, besides saving 30 to 60 percent in construction waste, what is wasted could be later reused.

And engineers and designers, as we mentioned previously, won’t have to adhere to typical construction methods. Believe it or not, those long rectangular beams that make up bridges and buildings are not only wasteful (as rarely the whole thing is used), but it costs a lot to produce. 3D printing will make “curvilinear” construction practical. In other words, being able to use round shapes will both impart more strength and stability to the structure but be more efficient overall.

3D printing, the future?

With the MX3D Bridge, the company wants to prove to the world that digital fabrication has a place when it comes to building large-scale, functional objects made from durable materials.

Pilot studies have even demonstrated that construction 3D printing may be the ideal way to construct extraterrestrial structures on the moon or elsewhere, where environments aren’t well suited for labor-intensive construction done by humans.

Simulation of robot on Mars building infrastructure
Simulation of robot on Mars building infrastructure

Interplanetary construction aside, will construction 3D printing forge its place in the realm of large-scale construction here on Earth? Will it be taken seriously, or will concerns over its durability and practicality stop 3D printing construction from making its mark?

Like so many other brilliant, technological advancements and inventions budding in the 21st century, only time will tell. In the meantime, answer this: What could you 3D print?


Related links

3D-printed house:

3D-printed bridge in Spain:

(Video/Project) MX3D Bridge:

Go! ABC-UTC article:

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer