Engineers in the Netherlands have used robots to “print” a 12-metre steel bridge which will span one of Amsterdam's famous canals.

Six-axis robots were used to "draw" the 4-metre-wide structure using layers of molten steel. Dutch designer Joris Laarman is working with Amsterdam-based robotic manufacturing technology start-up MX3D to build the bridge inside a former shipbuilding hangar.

Engineering firm Arup and researchers from Imperial College London are due to perform several full load tests to prove the structural integrity of the bridge but informal tests have already been carried out and the team say the structure has performed well.

MX3D aims to have finished the printing, placing the deck and coating the bridge by October in time for Dutch Design Week.

Made by machine

The construction of the steel bridge is just the latest in a line of extraordinary firsts for 3D printing technology.

San Francisco start-up Apis Cor reported that it had become the first company to launch a mobile unit that could print an entire house.

A 3D-printed home in Russia
Image: Apis

Not just that, when it tested the printer on an experimental site in Russia, the houses were finished in just 24 hours.

Dubai, as it often does, has taken things a step further by announcing that 25% of the emirate’s new buildings will be made using 3D printers by 2025.

The move is part of an ambitious 3D-printing strategy announced in 2016 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Dubai.

The 3D-printing strategy aims to reduce labour by 70% and cut costs by 90% across different sectors, according to the Dubai Future Foundation.

3D-printing construction has the potential to help solve a looming global housing crisis as more people gravitate to living in cities: the UN predicts that by 2030, the world will have 41 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants.

Patient printing

3D-printing technology is set to transform medicine too. There are a huge variety of possible uses from patient-specific surgical models to personalized on-demand medicines and even 3D-printed human tissue.

And studies have already shown that surgeons who rehearse procedures using 3D-printed models of the relevant part of each patient’s body complete the real operation faster and with less trauma for patients. This saves money but it also saves lives.

Printed meals

3D food printers can be used to extrude soft liquid edible matter through nozzles that build up layer by layer in patterns directed by a computer program.

They can pump out everything from chocolates, confectionery, biscuits and pancakes, to pasta, pizza and other savoury snacks.

News reports and industry blogs are very positive about what 3D food printing can offer. They have covered such events as Michelin-starred chefs experimenting with 3D food printers in pop-up restaurants in Europe.

But there is a serious side to printed food too – with its potential to cater for astronauts, air travellers and people in emergency situations.