There is no doubt that 3D printing now sits at the core of multiple industries, thanks to its enormous range of applications; automobiles, clothing, and food can now be made – and remade – with extreme accuracy and zero waste. Even 3D printed apartments are already designed and programmed. 3D printers are now entering the construction industry since numerous homebuilders have chosen to automate parts of the construction which can be both time-consuming and expensive when built by hand. Especially when it comes to government-funded infrastructure, lowering the cost without risking low quality and public safety is an imperative.
The Netherlands can now be proud of their innovative approach in addressing infrastructure issues. The Dutch are celebrating the world’s first 3D-printed concrete bridge, which is located in Gemert and is primarily meant to be used by cyclists. It consists of some 800 layers of reinforced, pre-stressed concrete. The eight-meter bridge spans a water-filled ditch to connect two roads, and in conjunction with the BAM Infra construction company was tested for safety to bear loads of up to two tons. Its construction only took three months of work, while the 3D printing method is apparently more effective than traditionally filling a mold, meaning fewer scarce resources were needed and there was significantly less waste.
The Netherlands is among countries, with the United States and China, taking a lead in the cutting-edge technology of 3D printing, using computers and robotics to construct objects and structures from scratch. Last year a Dutch start-up called MX3D has begun printing a stainless steel bridge, of which a third is already completed. The aim is to finish printing by March and lay the bridge over an Amsterdam canal in June. It is safe to assume tomorrow’s building engineers and architects will ideally need to master the software programming skills on which 3D printing rests.
Learning to work with automated technology will be an increasingly important requirement for the welders, masons, bricklayers, carpenters and other workers who physically build our houses and offices too. Don’t expect widespread redeployment in the sector just yet, however. As MX3D’s chief technology officer Tim Geurtjens told The Guardian, “some jobs will be completed much more efficiently by robots than by people, but you always need skilled craftsmen on the spot. The one thing you can’t teach a robot is to be creative.” The most likely scenario for the near future is that 3D printing will be used to make specific building components, not the whole building itself. Whether these be small bespoke electric sockets or girder brackets, or larger-scale floor panels or entire walls remains to be seen.