This past summer xraydelta noted that with a plan to build a footbridge across a canal in Amsterdam by robots using metal-based “additive” 3D printing, the potential for breakthrough in some of most backward sectors, such as construction, was now beginning to take shape. As described in Design Chronicle, the bridge is the work of MX3D, a company spun-out from a furniture-maker with support from Autodesk (an U.S.-based design and engineering software firm), Heijmans, a Dutch construction firm, and ABB, a Swiss-based maker of, among many things, industrial robots.
Up until now most of the public awareness of 3D printing has been focused on 3D printing approaches that takes place within a machine that range in size from small hobbyist desktop models the size of a large microwave oven, to ones the size of a minivan. But this approach – the use of robots that can operate in places and conditions unsafe for humans — and the use of additive methods using materials like metal alloys and other exotic substances brings the potential for even more massively disruptive innovation in huge industries such as residential and commercial construction.
According to The Economist, Skanska, a large Swedish construction firm, is working with Loughborough University in Britain to develop a concrete-printing robot; Dubai is planning to 3D-print a set of office buildings; MIT is developing an approach using swarms of smaller robots to fabricate large structures; Winsun in China has also experimented with 3D-printed structures such as a 5 story apartment building. NASA sees on-site 3D printing as perhaps the best way to build structures on the Moon or Mars — rather than the enormous energy cost of lifting materials out of the Earth’s gravity well, they would send robots to extract local materials from the lunar or Martian surface to build structures.
For those of us who work to make processes better, these developments are exciting, but they require transformation of the surrounding bureaucratic processes (think municipal building permits) — and huge amounts of cultural and leadership behavioral change — in order to fully realize the vast potential of these technologies.