Robots Building Bridges

There’s something iconic about an old photograph of a skyscraper being built. Take the picture above for example. You’ve got a group of men oozing nonchalance, snacking, reading papers, and possibly drinking alcohol (far right), all while dangling their legs over an I-beam as if they had no idea they were hundreds of feet in the air. These men were working with nerves of steel, limited technology, and no safety equipment.

Photos like the one above, are iconic because they document something truly impressive. Despite the danger and difficulty of building a skyscraper at the turn of the 20th century, these men seem uncannily comfortable. It’s a testament to the abilities of mankind in both engineering and mental fortitude. These men were pioneers.

Needless to say, structural architecture at the turn of the 20th century was done quite different from how structural architecture is done today. There is still an element of pioneering. But instead of human workers, today’s pioneers are robots.

Dutch company MX3D plans to use two industrial robots to 3D print a steel bridge over a canal in Amsterdam by 2017. The company wanted to use additive manufacturing to create something that is “both functional and meaningful”.

The advantages of additive manufacturing are clear to see, but as of yet, additive manufacturing hasn’t had its predicted revolutionary effect. The potential is certainly there, but 3D printing still has a long way to go before it is as useful as it possibly can be.

The Dutch company describes their additive manufacturing process as being like drawing in air. The robots are able to create complex curves out of steel, and have already built several smaller scale bridges and structures.

If MX3D succeeds in building a functional bridge solely with automated 3D printing robots, that would be a huge step for additive manufacturing. Robots would be able to replace the human element at dangerous work sites, and that’s just one of the possible benefits.

There are definite similarities between the black and white photos of human workers dangling from skyscrapers and the images of robot-builders dangling from a steel bridge. The nuances are certainly different, but both images are truly awe-inspiring.