In a canal criss-crossed city that’s both positively lousy with bridges (over 1,200 of them!) and home to a 13-room dwelling erected with the assistance of a 20-foot-tall 3-D printer, it only makes sense that Amsterdam would also be the site of the world’s first functional, life-size 3-D printed bridge.

In the not so distant past, the very idea of a canal-spanning footbridge made from steel and “drawn” in midair by a small team of industrial — and industrious — 6-axis armed robots without the need for support structures would have come across as crazy, cockamamie, something dreamt up after a long afternoon spent in one of Amsterdam’s famed coffeeshops.

Today, thanks to Dutch 3-D printing startup MX3D, that starry-eyed idea is very much a reality.

And much like Amsterdam’s 3D Print Canal House, located just a quick ferry ride away from Centraal Station in Buiksloterweg, MX3D envisions the building of the aforementioned pedestrian bridge as a largely public affair complete with an on-site visitor center, tours and seminars that offers visitors an insider-y glimpse into the wonderful and always-evolving world of 3-D printing technology.

The on-site construction of a bridge using metal-printing robotic arms is no doubt a logistically complex process (certainly much more challenging than robotic bridge-building within the secure confines of a lab) that does away with the “box” that traditionally houses the printer itself. It’s also a process that MX3D wants the public to be part of every step of the way.

The exaction location of the MX3D Bridge has yet to be unveiled although it’s expected that a public visitor center-cum-research and development hub will open as soon as this September. The bridge itself, a highly detailed cantilevered arch bridge that will span about 24 feet, will likely go up over a two-and-a-half month span in 2017.

Says Jaris Laarman, the designer of the so-called “bridge to the future in the ancient capital of innovation:”

I strongly believe in the future of digital production and local production, in 'the new craft.' 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.
Laarman elaborates to Fast Company on the decision to build a bridge: “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? 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."

While the bridge is very much the baby of MX3D, the firm has teamed up with a variety of partners and sponsors to help bring the bridge — and the game-changing technology behind it — to life including design and engineering software giant Autodesk, Dutch construction firm Heijmans and Delft University of Technology. Amsterdam city leaders have also thrown their support behind their project as the bridge, once completed, will function as a tourist-snaring display of homegrown Dutch innovation.

As for the printer itself — dubbed MX3D Metal, it’s described as “an affordable multiple axis 3D printing tool” — it’s easiest to think of it as one part independent robot, one part welding machine. Quartz analogizes it best by comparing the printer hybrid as a sort of high-tech spider with the intricate bridge itself being a spider’s web. Essentially, the slowly sliding machines print their own support structure as they progress, eliminating the need for scaffolding.

A rendering of MX3D's planned 3-D printed bridge for Amsterdam

Maurice Conti, Director of Strategic Innovation with Autodesk, speaks to the impact that moten metal-spewing robotic printers could have on the future of construction: "The MX3D platform is a potential game changer. Breaking free of the traditional limitations of additive manufacturing — small size prints and poor material performance — this technology opens up possibilities for architectural-scale, relatively low-cost, metal structures that are as complex as the designer’s imagination."

While Amsterdam certainly has an exciting, tech-centric new attraction on its hands, it's highly unlikley that burly, hard hat-clad humans will disappear completely from construction sites in the Netherlands and beyond at any point soon. Still, it’s not totally out of the question that, in the near future, humans will be joined by teams of steel-spinning robots that work quickly, efficiently and with significantly less profanity.

Via [Co.Design], [Quartz]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.