Ctrl Print your bridge

June 11, 2015

Peering over the edge, Jan van de Ven and Jurre van der Ven are examining the construction of the Melkmeisjesbrug in Amsterdam. Call it professional research, certainly now that Heijmans and MX3D (Joris Laarman Lab) will be printing a bridge somewhere in Amsterdam. So simple walks through the city will always have a purpose from now on. A conversation about this new form of craftsmanship, the need for more constructors with IT know-how and robots on the construction site.

Next step

Jurre, Infra Innovation Manager at Heijmans, explains the reasoning behind the partnership: “Heijmans realises things must change. We are perfectly compatible with MX3D because we share the same outlook and will be able to realise it together. We are able to offer knowledge and know what the market wants. They are involved in other types of production and want to scale up from furniture to a bridge. We will be testing for the first two years, but want to effectively start printing the bridge in year three.”


Jan van de Ven (left) and Jurre van der Ven see the collaboration with Joris Laarman Lab as a logical step towards a fully automated building site.

Jan, manager Business Development Infra continues: “The eventual aim is to create an automatic construction site. Printing art work in 3D was an important step in this process, but production technology is now entering a new phase. ABB currently sells 12,000 robots per year in China. Even though wages are low there, some things can only be manufactured by robots. Robots, which were previously only suitable for serial production, are now able to do a great deal more thanks to today's ‘computing power’ and the user-friendliness of software. ‘On demand’ is quickly increasing in popularity in all sectors. In addition, there is increasing demand for special shapes - and everything has to be as cheap as possible. 3D printing is the culmination of all these requirements. And this is something we need to react to.”

MX3D 3D printing a metal bridge

Technique or process?

Jan uses a DIY example to clarify the final objective: “Everyone has probably experienced it when, for example, trying to renovate their kitchen. You notice how the installation process doesn't exactly flow smoothly and is difficult to manage. You always encounter something new, which alters the course of the project. Meanwhile, our customers (rightfully) want the construction process to be predictable and manageable. The 'automatic construction site' is a concept where all parts of the construction process are coordinated, which causes energy to be minimised and construction-related waste to be eliminated. That's what you call a fully managed and reliable process.”

The 'automatic construction site' is a concept where all parts of the construction process are coordinated, which causes energy to be minimised and construction-related waste to be eliminated.

But a couple of major steps need to be taken to realise completely automatic construction sites. Jan: “It all starts by drawing in 3D, which is something Heijmans always does by incorporating all information in so-called 3D Construction Information Models. These models then coordinate the various aspects involved in the construction process. The next step involves creating a parametric design, which means if something is changed in a particular area of the design, the consequences will also be automatically implemented in the rest of the design. This design is then produced, and that's where 3D printing plays a major role. We are thus within touching distance of robotising the whole construction process.”

Freedom of design

Jurre explains the immediate benefits of using 3D printing for construction purposes: “Construction and design are currently rather separate factors in construction - the architect designs something and the constructor interprets the design and builds what he thinks is needed. But using 3D printing for a bridge makes design and construction operate hand-in-hand. For instance, both activities are done at the same time, instead of first building the structure and then adding the design later. This means we will also have to start looking at design in a completely different manner. The exact roles played by design and construction during this approach still need to be examined together with the people at Joris Laarman. But extensive testing will first need to be carried out.”

Wake up call

Jan also has something else to say about Heijmans' objectives in this partnership: “Such projects are always a good way of improving your in-house know-how because, naturally, we want to show our customers which possibilities are available to them. And, in our opinion, these developments should be a real wake up call for our education system. We need people with different skills than those currently being offered. IT is one of the most under-rated aspects in the construction sector, but is one of the main driving forces for innovation. The construction sector needs people who are able to understand IT, construction as well as design. But today's qualifications are not combining these three important factors.”