Published On: Wed, Jun 24th, 2015

How 3D Printing Can Revitalize Our Ailing Infrastructure

For the past few years, 3D printing has been all the rage, and with good reason. There have been folks who’ve designed prosthetic human hands with 3D printers. Others have done the same kind of thing for animals, constructing 3D-printed prosthetic limbs for dogs and other animals who’ve lost theirs. Then again, there are some rather more unnecessary uses of the technology; head over to Soho in Manhattan, and you can snag a 3D replica of yourself and your dog. Who doesn’t need one of those?

As you can probably tell, the possibilities of 3D printing are virtually endless. And if one Dutch designer has his way, the world may very well see the beginning of a new era in construction, with all kinds of projects being produced without any real manpower—just robot and machine power.

Joris Laarman, along with his company MX3D, plans to build a 24-foot bridge over a canal in Amsterdam. He’s expecting to break ground about two years from now, and once the project commences, it should be wrapped up in about two weeks.

The catch? There won’t be any humans involved in the construction. Instead, construction will be led and fully facilitated by a six-axis robot that’s able to lay metal on vertical, diagonal and horizontal planes. Essentially, this robot will build the bridge as it crosses the canal.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Let’s hope that the folks at MX3D put a camera on the construction so we’re able to check in from time to time to see how it’s progressing. Or at the very least, film a time-lapse video to document the project. (For now, the company has released a visualization of what construction is expected to look like.)

3D Printing & Infrastructure: The Implications

For years, we’ve been hearing about the aging infrastructure in America. When infrastructure ages, we all know what can happen: Just look at the bridge collapse in Minnesota that occurred nearly eight years ago and claimed the lives of 13 people during rush hour.

Many politicians, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have vocally expressed their concern about the state of America’s infrastructure. Earlier this year, Sanders proposed a bill that would divert $1 trillion of public monies to help bring our bridges and roads into modern times.

While the work might be necessary, Joe Taxpayer might not be too fond of Uncle Sam spending even more money. After all, the country’s national debt towers over $18 trillion; it stood at $10 trillion in 2008.

However: anyone who’s ever managed a project or run a company will tell you the same thing: Salaries and human-related insurance costs are usually, by far, the largest chunks of any expenditure. As such, businesses and other organizations are constantly looking for ways to boost organizational efficiency—and many of these efforts happen to be technology-related.

While it might cost a pretty hefty chunk right now to assemble a skyscraper or a huge bridge with a 3D printer, the price of technology always falls to the ground over time. As such, we can assume that sometime in the future—whether that’s 5, 10, or 30 years from now—3D printing will be incredibly more evolved, and decision makers will be able to leverage it without having to break the bank.

Make no mistake: while progress in this country can be slow, as with our gradual shift from dirty energies like coal and oil to biodiesel and ethanol, the 3D printing revolution may move at a much faster pace; in just the short time it’s taken for “3D printing” to become a household phrase, the technology has improved in manifold ways. It’s hard not to feel like we’re witnessing the advent of Replicator technology, as popularized by Star Trek.

Workers Who Won’t Unionize

What if an army of robot engineers was commissioned to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure instead? Sure, such robots would force a lot of humans to look elsewhere for employment. But as technology evolves and prices come down, these master 3D-printing machines may very well serve as an incredibly cheaper alternative to human labor—one that is more accurate and much less likely to make a costly mistake.

Therein lies what’s arguably one of the biggest conundrums of our times. Some more pessimistic (or realistic, depending on your point of view) folks are already arguing that robot workers will replace many human employees sometime in the future. This means more jobs can be completed in less time, and potentially with smaller budgets. Or, in other words: 3D printing could fix America’s crippled infrastructure at a fraction of the price.

But as the wealth gap grows, how will these blue collar workers, replaced by robots, find work? How many former American employees will be left with the threat of unemployment, or other financial threats like foreclosure and bankruptcy? How will they be able to pay for their food, housing, and healthcare? After all, it’s important that we don’t move forward, full speed ahead, toward this uncertain future before we fully understand the implications. Should the needs of human beings not supersede the demands of cost-effectiveness and efficiency?

While it’s true that technology does have a way of displacing workers, it also has a way of creating new jobs. Should 3D printing prove itself effective in building infrastructure—and in the name of progress, let’s hope it does—we’re likely to see entirely new industries emerge alongside it. Out with the old and in with the new.

In any case, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.



About the Author

- Daniel Faris is a freelance journalist and blogger from Central Pennsylvania. He writes about progressive politics for Only Slightly Biased, and progressive music for New Music Friday.