World’s first 3D printed stainless steel bridge unfairly criticized



Queen Máxima of the Netherlands attends the official opening of the world’s first 3D printed stainless steel bridge. MX3D

A bridge built over the Mississippi River in the late 1860s revolutionized bridge building. Famous civil engineer James B. Eads designed and built the bridge that connects St. Louis and East St. Louis, Illinois.

The structure has three spans that each exceed 500 feet. It was the longest bridge in the world at the time and the first to span the Mississippi. The most extreme design element of the Eads Bridge, however, was the new material used for its superstructure: steel. No other steel bridge existed.

The “Eads Madness,†as the project was called, drew taunts from bridge builders and raised safety concerns among the public. To allay people’s fears, Eads arranged for an elephant to cross the bridge before the opening. The wisdom of the day was that elephants should not walk on an unstable surface.

The elephant walked calmly from St. Louis to East St. Louis. It was followed a few weeks later by 14 trains carrying coal and a parade of 15 mile people. Eventually, bridge architects around the world also followed suit, as they made steel the material of choice for long bridges.

James B.’s impact on bridge building came to my mind when I read the recent opening of a 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam. Dutch company MX3D built the bridge, the world’s first such structure to be 3D printed from stainless steel.

The company used its WAAM (wire arc additive manufacturing) robotic system for the work. Four 6-axis robots worked for six months to produce the 12 m long and 4,500 kg pedestrian bridge designed by Joris Laarman Lab. The robots laid more than 1,100 km of wire.

The bridge also has a sophisticated sensor network. They collect structural data and measure environmental conditions such as air quality and temperature. Researchers at Imperial College London analyze the data, comparing the information to a ‘digital twin’ of the bridge that reflects the changes experienced by the bridge. The data collected would provide valuable information to designers of future 3D printed metal structures.

In honor of the achievements of MX3D and its partners, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands unveiled the bridge during its official opening.

Pretty cool, eh? Not everyone thinks so.

As with the Eads Bridge, many unwarranted criticisms of the 3D printed structure have arisen. Some of the jabs are due to the Amsterdam Bridge looking unnecessarily bulky. Other critics have sounded its design, sensor array, and inappropriate modernity in a city founded in the 13th century.

Here is a sample of the responses to an article on the bridge that appeared on the design magazine website. Dezeen:

• “Ostentatious and terribly designed. A waste of materials.

• “The problem is the heaviness of the bridge compared to the rest of the environment.

• “Not out of place.”

• “It looks terrible. “

Certainly, the bridge is on the horse side and the design is incongruous with its surroundings. But that’s not the point. That’s the point: MX3D printed a nearly 40-foot-long stainless steel bridge. This has never been done before. The effort should be applauded instead of being pinched because of the aesthetics of the design.

Will Amsterdam Bridge transform bridge building like Eads’ madness did? It is highly improbable. But it is possible. Change requires a starting point. The road and the bridge to the future begin with a first step.



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