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3D printing is finding new uses, like replacing the lost 250-year-old dragon sculptures at a historic royal palace in the United Kingdom.

3D-printer maker 3D Systems said it has installed 72 large-scale 3D-printed dragons at the Great Pagoda at Kew as part of the final restoration of a palace that was originally built in 1761 during the reign of King George III.

The place is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Back in the 1780s, the painted wooden dragons that adorned the octagonal corners of the pagoda were removed to accommodate roof repairs. But they were never replaced, and rumors floated that the dragons had served as payment for royal gambling debts. Experts now believe the wood simply rotted over time.

Above: The 3D-printed dragon was hand-polished and painted for its final look.

Image Credit: 3D Systems

As Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) began the restoration, it searched for a way to authentically replicate the dragons, and in such a manner that they could withstand the inclement English weather.

“We turned to 3D Systems to provide the rapid throughput, accurate details, and excellent finishing that was needed for this project,” said HRP project director Craig Hatto in a statement. “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 Systems made the lightweight, durable dragons using a scan-to-CAD (computer-aided design) workflow featuring Geomagic software, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), 3D printing, and high quality finishing. They were made with a durable polyamide 12 nylon material capable of producing a look and feel comparable to the original dragons.

Above: 3D Systems created 72 3D-printed dragons for a palace restoration.

Image Credit: 3D Systems

Bringing the dragons back to life required a unique combination of research and reverse engineering by the company’s On Demand Manufacturing team to enable rapid digital production of the parts.

The project involved scanning a wood-carved dragon with the Faro Design ScanArm into 3D Systems’ Geomagic Design X reverse engineering software. The CAD-designed dragons are hollow and are 60 percent lighter than wood alternatives.

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

The 3D-printed dragons were finished by 3D Systems’ skilled artisans, who hand-painted each piece.

The Great Pagoda at Kew opens to the public on July 13, 2018.

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