A Robot Makes a 3-D Printed Bridge

One of 10 innovations to win a 2016 Invention Award

Artist's rendering of 3D printing a steel bridge

Artist's rendering of the MX3D printing a steel bridge

The multiaxis industrial robots are essentially robotic arms equipped with extruding tools and the software to control them.MX3D

For the past 12 years, the Joris Laarman Lab in Amsterdam has crafted experimental furniture and artwork. To produce their more ambitious designs, Laarman and his partners adopted 3-D printing early on. But existing printers couldn't produce their larger creations. So the team built its own system, called multiaxis 3-D printing, or MX3D, and they have plans to create a 3-D printed bridge.

“We thought, ‘Why not get an industrial robot, attach an advanced welding machine to it, and see what it does?’” says Tim Geurtjens, chief technology officer of Joris Laarman Lab and its spinoff R&D company, also called MX3D. First, the team developed software to control the industrial robotic arm. Then they attached extruders—the parts of printers that push out material—to it and started printing with copper and aluminum. Most 3-D printers attach the extruding tools to a frame, which gives them three axes of movement. The MX3D has six: It is a mobile, freely moving robot that can travel with and around the printed structure to build an object of nearly any size or shape.

To showcase MX3D’s ability to create durable, large-scale objects, the team is printing a fully functioning 3-D printed bridge out of steel in Amsterdam—a city of 165 canals. They wanted to do a project that would demonstrate the technology and inspire people at the same time. “So we came to the idea of printing a footbridge,” Geurtjens says, “since we are from Amsterdam, after all.”

MX3D's Specs

  • Inventors: Tim Geurtjens; Joris Laarman; Gijs van der Velden
  • Company: MX3D
  • Maturity: 3/5

This article was originally published in the May/June issue of Popular Science. Check out the other 2016 Invention Award winners here.