A pioneering new Amsterdam bridge that will be the world’s largest 3D printed metal structure, is to be virtually recreated in Britain to test and monitor its performance.
The bridge is being 3D printed at the workshops of Dutch company MX3D, using a robotic arm that welds layer upon layer of stainless steel onto the emerging structure. The curving, sculptured design is scheduled to be placed across a canal in the Red Light District of Amsterdam in 2018.
So innovative is the approach that a team from the UK has been brought in to test the strength of the printed material and to build a virtual twin for real-time analysis.
The twin will be generated using data from an array of sensors fitted to the actual crossing. Feedback from the model could lead to modifications or to changes in future 3D printed structures.
“The 3D bridge being installed by the MX3D team next year will be a world first in engineering,” said Professor Mark Girolami of The Alan Turing Institute – Lloyds Register Foundation in London.
“We need to understand the structure in its entirely, and the way that we do that is by building a digital twin that captures all of its properties – how it reacts to the forces of wind, how it reacts to people walking over it, how it reacts to extremes of temperature.
“We then have this feedback loop when the digital twin learns about the physical model and we can then use that in making further design changes or design enhancements in the way we construct further structures like this.”
The new bridge will be installed across the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in Amsterdam. Its structure is complex and ambitious, and the layering of the metal by the robot arm produces a surface that resembles rough ironwork in texture rather than stainless steel.
While this has its own aesthetic appeal, engineers at Imperial College London will analyse its tensile strength by pulling and pushing samples at the university’s engineering department.
3D printing plastics in design, prototyping and even manufacture is now commonplace, and 3D printing in metals is developing fast. Nasa and SpaceX are already 3D printing rocket components out of metal, using electron beams or lasers to fuse metal powder into layers.
The makers of the new bridge believe their approach will be cheaper and take the technology to a completely new scale.
“High-precision techniques are great solutions for industries like space that need high-precision small parts but before we started, there was no real solution for 3D printing bigger than a shoebox,” said Gijs van der Velden, co-founder of MX3D.
He says their approach could fulfil “the wildest dreams of architects and designers”, enabling them to build structures which are currently unbuildable.
His next idea is to take their 3D printing robots outside and to deploy them in shipyards to make repairs and modifications to metal hulls.
Digital twinning promises to be equally transformative, feeding back critical information in real time to avert problems and inform design changes.
A virtual twin of Crossrail – the future Elizabeth Line – will be used to monitor electrical components and systems across the network.
Meanwhile, Glasgow and Bristol are among many urban areas worldwide looking to become “smart cities”, where sensors measure traffic systems, buildings and pollution levels and feed the data into a real-time digital model.
Last month, the National Infrastructure Commission launched a competition to help build Bristol’s digital twin. Entrants have been asked to recreate local bus routes and waste collections to help map the city’s future infrastructure needs.