In June of last year, we wrote about MX3D's groundbreaking 3-D printing robot that can print a steel bridge in mid-air. Developed by Dutch designer Joris Laarman and backed by the software giant Autodesk, the technology makes it possible—for the first time—to affordably 3-D print metal structures. Aside from the bridge, which won't be built until 2017, a line of furniture designed by Laarman in 2014 is the only time we've seen this 3-D printing technique used to manufacture a product.
That is, until last week when a team of students from TU Delft in the Netherlands used MX3D's robot to create the first fully-functional 3-D printed metal bike. Made from a stainless steel composite, the Arc Bicycle weighs about the same as any other steel bicycle and, judging from the video the team released, rides every bit as well.
Here's how the 3-D printing process, called MX3D-Metal, works: a robotic arm—like the ones used in car manufacturing or at Amazon’s shipment centers—with a computer-controlled welding machine emits a molten metal composite. A software created by Autodesk feeds the robot arm instructions for where the metal should go. During the printing process, the metal hardens quickly enough that no additional structure is needed for support. Unlike a MakerBot or other desktop 3-D printer, there's no printer bed—instead, the structure is formed in mid-air.
The Arc Bicycle, which was designed by the TU students then printed in MX3D's lab, is exciting because it showcases another potential application for MX3D-Metal. It's not perfect: though most of the frame is 3-D printed, the head tube and the seat tube—joints bearing much of the weight—are not. Still, as the MX3D-Metal technology continues to advance, it's easy to imagine it being adapted to other methods of transportation. Just as we were getting used to the idea of a 3-D printed bridge—will we soon be able to 3-D print cars and ships?