In October of 2017, the first 3D printed bridge bore a group of hard-hat-wearing city officials on bicycles as they wobbled across a canal in the city of Gemert in the Netherlands.
Officials and locals celebrated the opening of the 26-foot (8 meters) bridge that connects two roads over a small water-filled canal, said Phys.org. This structure represents a milestone for 3D printing of large-scale objects.
Printing the bridge’s 800 layers took about three months. The designers say the reinforced, pre-stressed concrete can handle loads equivalent to the weight of 40 trucks. In Amsterdam, Dutch startup MX3D is printing components for a stainless steel bridge to span a canal, according to Phys.org.
3D printing is coming into its own as a manufacturing process for large-scale objects. Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing is based on building up layers of materials into three-dimensional objects. It works on the same principle as an inkjet printer, but instead of ink, the printer lays down layers of plastic, metals, ceramics and more, according to How Stuff Works.
A 3D printed bridge is just the latest concept to come to life. Several 3D printed houses and offices have popped up around the world; the Washington Post has covered 3D printed houses in China, and Inhabitat has reported on a 3D printed office building in Dubai. San Francisco-based startup Apis Cor printed a concrete home in Russia within 24 hours. A large 3D printer laid down the 400-square-feet (about 37 square meters) house’s walls and partitions, and workers finished the roof, wiring and insulation, according to Engadget.
In Amsterdam, The Canal House is taking shape as part of a three-year research project. Designed to resemble a traditional canal house, the project is showcasing the advantages of 3D printing for large projects, including flexibility and customization, according to 3D Print Canal House.
This technology also holds incredible potential for the creation of small homes or shelters, quickly giving people a dry, safe place to stay in the wake of natural disasters, said 3DPrint.com.
The automotive industry has welcomed 3D printing as well. In addition to rapid prototyping and other design uses, a printed car has taken to the highway. Start-up Local Motors printed a small two-seater to demonstrate the feasibility of printing large automotive structures. For the first prototypes, it took about 40 hours for the carbon-reinforced plastic body to take shape. If it were to get crunched in a fender bender, the owner could remove the drive train, seats and any undamaged parts and bolt them to a new body. The technology could make transportation more affordable in developing countries. And people could design their own one-off cars and have them printed to their specifications, according to Popular Mechanics.
The Shape of Things to Come
The tale of the first ratchet wrench NASA astronauts printed on the International Space Station could forecast the future of manufacturing. Not only was the ratchet printed in space, it was created from a computer file emailed from the ground. “This technology may change how NASA completes exploration missions and even the way science is conducted on the station,” said NASA.
Northrop Grumman is part of a group developing the Archinaut, a robotic assembly system supporting the Made In Space initiative that will manufacture parts to combine with prefabricated components on the space station. The goal will be to control the system from Earth, minimizing the need for astronauts to interact with it. A similar principle could be used to manufacture complex objects without the need for engineers or scientists on site.
The 3D printer can manufacture components or sections of objects much larger than itself. The Axiom Space Station, which is the first privately owned space station, will be an orbital manufacturing hub that uses 3D printing, said 3DPrint.com.
As 3D manufacturing matures, it’s clear the technology could bring vital products to remote areas to decentralize and democratize the means of manufacturing.