When Is the Future Getting Here?

As celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. We’ve seen an incredible amount of technological advancement that has led to huge changes, whether it’s the Gutenberg press, the invention of stainless steel, the internal combustion engine or humble old Wi-Fi. Each of these advancements would have been regarded as a marvel to previous generations; the ability to create multiple identical copies of books almost instantly, being able to put petrol into a tank and travel at great speeds or send messages and information from one device to another without wires or any physical connection.

Now we’re very careful about phrases like “Tomorrow’s technology… today!” but we recently found a story about a canal bridge in the Netherlands that struck us as almost miraculous. It’s not necessarily the bridge itself, but how it was made. Bridges from steel are usually quite a big undertaking, it requires a large investment of time and money to research the conditions, calculate the material stresses, make sure that the design is up to standard, then have the individual panels and steel supports created, built and certified before it can be used.

Last year, there was a bridge in the Netherlands that wasn’t built from individual parts, it was 3D printed using stainless steel.  The design of the bridge was loaded into a computer program, and the steel printer – essentially the same principle as a welding arm – started to print from the canal side. Rather than creating an arc across the canal that was then built up, the whole design, including footpath, hand rails, decorative work and fittings, basically in cross sections going across the canal in mid-air.

Watching the video, you can see how the use of form, utilised with careful and precise metalwork, builds up to create an incredibly strong structure. As the metal printer uses stainless steel, it should bind together strongly and form a tough outer layer that prevents corrosion or weathering, even repairing itself against scratches and wear through frequent use.

It’s certainly a ground breaking use of the technology, and the bridge is in its final testing phase now that it’s complete. The plan is to use real-time sensors to measure the ‘health’ of the bridge, including signs of metal fatigue or over-stressing, not only to keep the bridge safe and usable, but also to inform and inspire future designs and make improvements to other 3D printed metal objects.

While predictions about tomorrow’s world are usually wildly wrong, every so often the future seems to knock on the door of the present and announce itself… and the ability to create a bridge out of thin air using nothing more than a computer and a set of lengths of stainless steel wire is incredibly advanced!