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Design a 3D-Printed Canal Bridge?

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as long as it takes for the next bus to come
How Do You Design a 3D-Printed Canal Bridge?
Gijs van der Velden

CEO of MX3D

It took six years, countless redesigns, 4,500 kilograms of stainless steel, and several six-axis robotic arms to complete the 3D-printed canal bridge in the Red Light District of Amsterdam.


Opened in July 2021 by Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, the project came to life through intense collaborative efforts between the municipality of Amsterdam, robotics company MX3D, and Joris Laarman Lab among many others.

We look back on the project with Gijs van der velden, CEO of MX3D.

The bridge was printed and built into two parts in MX3D’s workspace at Amsterdam’s NDSM Shipwarf. title=
The bridge was printed and built into two parts in MX3D’s workspace at Amsterdam’s NDSM Shipwarf.

How do you deal with clients as a creative?


The increasing popularity of 3D printing has baffled us with achievements such as 3D printed food, jewelry, clothing, furniture, and experiments with larger objects such as the first 3D printed canal house.

The team at MX3D specializes in 3D printing large metal objects, with an impressive portfolio of art structures, furniture, and architectural objects. Named the MX3D Bridge, the canal bridge project presented the team with a whole new set of challenges.

Normally when taking on clients, the challenge is making the concept clear, or producing within a given budget. But in this case, the bridge had to become a fully-functional part of Amsterdam’s infrastructure.

Gijs van der Velden:”The project was much more challenging because the bridge had to tick all the boxes when it comes to safety, requiring countless reviews and tests to make revisions”

 

It was imperative that the design was both aesthetically pleasing and 100% safe. 

"We really had to collaborate and, at times, juggle between all the different concerns."
 

Gijs:”So many parties were involved, all with their own interests. We really had to collaborate and at times, juggle all the different concerns. The municipality had the final say, deciding what we were allowed to do, and therefore what our project would look like.”

How do you allow yourself to fail?

With an object that had to be continuously tested to ensure safety, there was no way to know upfront what was possible, it kept changing.

Gijs:”We had a very ambitious design, but in the beginning, we had no clue if we could do it. We literally thought: let’s see how far we get! We could have created a simpler design to avoid discussion, but we wanted to show the world what can be achieved with 3D printing on a larger scale.”

Alternate choices had to be made after each evaluation. The original design was completely different; a bone-like structure that looked quite similar to a tree. 

Digital visualization of the stress analysis of the MX3D Bridge title=
Digital visualization of the stress analysis of the MX3D Bridge

It took a year to fully develop this initial design, only for it to be wiped off the table completely. It had too many safety risks that the municipality didn’t want to take. 

Gijs:”We lost a year, but we had already been working with all the involved parties for a year too, learning so much while guiding each other through adjustments. Yes, we had to start all over again, but with much more background knowledge.”

And this showed, as the team created a new design much faster.

How do you bridge the gap between old and new?

MX3D was founded to explore the potential for printing metal objects on a larger scale, which all started when Laarman combined robotic arms with welding machines. This machine is able to print lines in mid-air, by adding small amounts of molten metal at a time.

"Spanning one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam’s red-light district, the futuristic bridge forms a stark but exciting contrast to the picturesque, old canal houses."

The completed base of the bridge in the workspace. title=
The completed base of the bridge in the workspace.

Spanning one of the oldest canals in Amsterdam’s red-light district, the futuristic bridge forms a stark contrast to the old canal houses. 

Gijs:”We went for the curvy design to demonstrate how organic shapes can be created with heavy materials such as metals. Maintaining these playful shapes throughout the railings, we made sure it was stronger in certain places, and more open in other places.”

The bridge was placed into position with a crane. title=
The bridge was placed into position with a crane.

How do you turn a 3D printed bridge into a living laboratory?

 

Finally cutting the red ribbon in 2021, the research and evaluation didn’t end there. Installed by The Alan Turing Institute, the bridge is equipped with a network of sensors to measure the structure’s ‘behavior’.

Measuring strain, vibration, and displacement, along with other environmental factors, allows the bridge’s health to be monitored through the years.

Gijs:”The bridge is completely safe, but it’s still a new kind, created with new technologies. We need to see how it withstands certain weather conditions, and how often maintenance is necessary.”

Obviously, the municipality is interested in reducing maintenance costs, while technical universities want to explore how such objects can be used in cities. 

Gijs:”We use the data to find out what we should adjust or do better next time. We want to research how to make 3D printed objects even better in the future.”

The MX3D bridge is already an impressive work of art as it is, but functioning as a living laboratory providing useful data, there is no telling what’s next. 

Official opening of the MX3D Bridge by Queen Maxima of the Netherlands in July of 2021. title=
Official opening of the MX3D Bridge by Queen Maxima of the Netherlands in July of 2021.
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