The company that's 3D printing for the future
Enabled by Lenovo workstations, MX3D built the world’s first fully-functional 3D printed steel bridge -- and the manufacturing industry may never be the same.
If you can imagine it, MX3D wants to print it. The company is taking 3D printing outside the box -- literally -- by adapting the advanced technology beyond the realm of everyday objects into heavy manufacturing and design with the hopes of changing the way we build, live and travel. In MX3D’s version of the future, humans will one day live in 3D-printed houses, drive 3D-printed cars and, perhaps, occupy a 3D-printed colony on the moon.
These sorts of structures require innovative engineering and design techniques, hardly suited to the consumer-grade 3D printers constrained by limited materials and box-like apparati. To materialize its grand plans, MX3D had to think bigger, but the 3D printing technology that the company required that had yet to be built. So MX3D invented it.
The company’s revolutionary 3D printing tool materialized in 2014. The device is unlike conventional 3D printers, which work by layering polymers on top of each other to create a computer-modeled object. MX3D’s printing tool is best described as an industrial robot blended with a welding machine -- characteristics that enable the machine to print massive structures of nearly any shape or size in mid-air, with hardy materials like steel and resin. As the robots complete sections of their project, they push forward onto the newly created space and continue the printing-welding process.
The applications for MX3D’s printing technique are as expansive as one’s imagination. Already, a handful of the firm’s 3D-printed sculptures are being exhibited in museums across the world, but the innovative technology has the potential to extend beyond art and small manufacturing into heavy industry and bulk production. Eventually, the firm hopes to place its robotic welding arms onto wheels that can zoom around a factory and/or a construction site and assist where needed, whether building a housing complex, an aircraft or even a high-rise.
For the initial proof of concept, MX3D looked to the waterways of Amsterdam. The city is a feat of aquatic engineering, with more than 160 canals snaking across its swampy geography. These canals, placed end-to-end, stretch the length of more than 1,000 football fields. To traverse such an aqueous territory, one must rely on boats and, most importantly, bridges.
“We thought it made sense to make a bridge to show that the technique, that technology like 3D printing, is actually ready for the industry,” explains Tim Geurtjens, the cofounder and CTO of MX3D. “You can make durable, actual, functional objects with [3D printing]. And the bridge really showcases that.”
Building a bridge is no small feat, and the construction of these man-made crossings has plagued engineers since ancient times. Early bridges were likely rudimentary structures consisting of wooden logs and dirt, before stone, and later steel, became the preferred building materials, favored for their durability and strength.
Every bridge — no matter how rudimentary its materials — must balance the same physical forces: tension and compression. The former is an outward pulling force, the latter an inward pushing force. These forces channel their loads onto a series of supports in the middle and on each side of the structure, ensuring the weight of the structure and that which it carries is evenly dispersed across the plane. Despite their ubiquity, bridges are deft feats of engineering, and the smallest miscalculation could mean a catastrophic collapse.
Yet for MX3D, a bridge it had to be.
In the fall of 2018, after six months of printing and years of development, the MX3D bridge — a gorgeous mass of 12.5-meters of undulating stainless steel — was finally complete. Due to environmental and permitting restraints, the company constructed the bridge inside its laboratory, from where it will be eventually transported by low boat to its permanent home along the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, a famous canal in Amsterdam’s historic city center.
The 3D printing tool is controlled by advanced software that computes massive quantities of data. For this, MX3D turned to Lenovo’s workstation solutions, specifically the ThinkStation P910, which has the performance edge to efficiently process incredible amounts of information, all while running topology optimization applications such as Autodesk Fusion 360.
“The workstations are really important for us to be able to run our software and to be able to calculate the intricate shapes of the bridge,” Guertjens says.
For on-the-fly modifications, MX3D engineers and designers rely on the ThinkPad P40 Yoga to sketch alterations — and to implement them with ease and speed. This is important when one is attempting to manufacture something as massive and complicated as a bridge.
The work hardly stops there. Once the bridge is installed, MX3D will get to work on creating a “smarter bridge.” A series of sensors lining the structure will monitor everything from structural measurements, like strain and vibration, to environmental data, such as air quality and temperature. Using a Lenovo ThinkStation, engineers will be able to measure the bridge’s stats in real-time and track how the structure changes with age. Eventually, the bridge will “learn” to comprehend factors such as how many pedestrians are crossing it and how fast.
This data will be used to create a “digital twin” of the bridge that will reflect its performance and behavior live, and allow engineers to test various modifications that will inform future designs. Geurtjen says the “smarter bridge” will be the equivalent of “a living laboratory.” After all, it’s the future MX3D is chasing, and the stylish footbridge is just the start for the firm’s 3D printing endeavors.
The 3D-printed bridge — a tantalizing synthesis of traditional design sensibility and 21st century technology — is just the start for MX3D. The impressive walkway “proves large-scale 3D printing can be done with sustainable materials and freedom of form,” MX3D cofounder Joris Laarman has said. The bridge, he says, is a “beautiful metaphor,” representing a meeting of old and new “in a way that brings out the best of both worlds.”