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3D printed SLS dragon on the shop floor at ODM High Wycombe, UK

Despite their fiery exterior (and interior) dragons are delicate creatures that require careful attention… and occasionally a major makeover. Take the case of the 80 painted wooden dragons that once adorned The Great Pagoda at Kew in London.

The Pagoda was commissioned in 1761 during the reign of King George III. Crowds came to marvel at the striking 163-foot structure with its ornate and highly fashionable Chinoiserie style. The dragons were a standout, adorning the octagonal corners of each successive level.

Roof repairs in the 1780s necessitated the temporary removal of the dragons but for some reason they were never replaced.  Their disappearance sparked several rumors, including one that they had been used as payments for royal gambling debts. Experts believe however that the wood simply rotted over time.

Getting the Royal Treatment

SLS Nylon 3D printed dragons weigh 60% less than the wood counterparts

Now jump ahead 250 years. The Great Pagoda at Kew has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and needed major restoration. Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) took on the challenge of restoring the architectural treasure to its former glory. But bringing the dragons roaring back to life posed some particular problems in terms of design, quality, time, weight and cost.  So HRP reached out to 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing facility in High Wycombe, UK, to submit a proposal for a dragon makeover which was accepted.

One of HRP’s biggest concerns was the dragons’ weight. Reintroducing 80 full-weight, large-scale figures could be too much for the aging structure.  Like many celebrities, the dragons needed to go on a crash diet before they could make their comeback.  This, combined with the time and cost requirements, meant that traditional materials and manufacturing processes were impractical.

When Dragons Go Digital - 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing

3D scanning with a FARO design Arm and Geomagic Design X software

Bringing the dragons back to life required a unique combination of research and reverse engineering by 3D Systems’ On Demand Manufacturing team to enable rapid digital production of the parts. Based on designs using the scarce historical information available, wood carved dragons were produced and then scanned with the FARO® Design ScanArm into 3D Systems’ Geomagic® Design X reverse engineering software. The use of CAD enabled innovative engineering solutions for the dragons, including hidden features to facilitate mounting as well as a much lighter-weight, hollowed statue  - 60% lighter than wood alternatives. These innovative solutions were enabled by the fact that the dragons were being 3D printed and would have been difficult, if not impossible to produce using traditional methods.

“We turned to 3D Systems to provide the rapid throughput, accurate details and excellent finishing that was needed for this project,” said Craig Hatto, project director, Historic Royal Palaces. “The engineering skill of 3D Systems’ team, the opportunity to light-weight the dragon statues, and the material longevity of SLS 3D printing were key considerations for this project.”

3D printed dragons on the shop floor and ODM HIgh Wycombe

The dragons were printed on 3D Systems’ SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) machines in DuraForm® PA, a durable polyamide 12 nylon material capable of producing a look and feel comparable to the original dragons. The resolution and mechanical properties of DuraForm PA make it an ideal candidate for complex parts with thin walls or snap fit requirements. In the case of the Kew dragons, these features suited both the functionality requirement of installation as well as the cosmetic requirements of the historic restoration. The 3D printed dragons were finished by 3D Systems’ skilled artisans who hand-painted each piece.

View the new 3D Systems case study on how the dragons were created and made.

 “In 3D printing, we are not limited by the need or time required to wait for tooling,” said Nick Lewis, general manager, On Demand Manufacturing, 3D Systems. “The existence of digital 3D data gives us freedom to produce parts rapidly, and with custom sizes.”

The significant weight reduction enabled by SLS 3D printing ensures that the historic building will be able to support the dragons for many years to come.   

The Great Pagoda at Kew opens to the public on July 13, 2018.  Dragons get in free.

Please visit the company’s website to learn more about 3D Systems' On Demand Manufacturing.