3D-printing the 2015 QEPrize trophy

Dr Robert Langer holding the QEPrize trophy.

Categories: QEPrize

23 October 2015


On 26th October, Dr Robert Langer received the trophy for the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. This year’s trophy has been produced by QEPrize donor company BAE Systems using a process called Additive Manufacturing, or 3D-printing.

Creating the trophy

The 3D-printing process involved several stages to go from our winner’s design to the finished trophy. First of all, the design needed to be converted into the correct file used by the 3D-printer. The design was examined to check that the shape was correct and all surfaces were joined in the right places. Then, it was rotated into the best position for building. The engineer planned where any supporting structures would need to be placed during the build process. Then the file was sliced into layers to be built one by one on top of each other by the machine. The next step was to build the trophy itself. Once the machine was all set up, the file was sent across and a click of a button began the process. This was the simplest part - the operator could sit back and watch as the machine printed the object!

The trophy was made using three different 3D-printing processes. The inside of the base is plastic and the outside is made of stainless steel. The main trophy structure was coated with nickel and copper to achieve a highly polished surface. Additive Manufacturing Delivery Lead Greg Flanagan tells us he was keen to achieve a high-quality finish. “The part could have been built in one piece using just one process, but for such a high profile item it was thought that a variety of technologies used in conjunction would give the best aesthetic result.”After the object has been 3D-printed, it’s time to remove it from the machine. In some cases, at this stage, the product is finished. However, with metallic objects like our trophy, the operator had to carefully remove the powder from the build chamber and clean the trophy before it could be safely removed. After removing the trophy from the machine, it was time to apply the finishing touches. A machine was used to cut the excess material off the edges of the base of the trophy. Then, to create a polished surface, the outer faces were blasted with glass beads and finished by hand.

3D-printing challenges

Printing the trophy hasn’t been without its obstacles. One of the biggest challenges for the team was to figure out how to accurately reproduce the trophy from the design. Greg Flanagan says, “In general, Additive Manufacture affords a lot of design freedom versus conventional manufacturing processes. There are however some generic principles for AM design as well as some more subtle rules for each of the AM processes.” Despite these issues, the engineers at BAE Systems were able to solve the problems that came up. “The experience of the team in dealing with this type of issue meant that the hurdles were soon overcome without too many sleepless nights!”Now that the QEPrize trophy has been finished, Greg and his team can get back to 3D-printing all of the usual items BAE Systems produces. The 3D-printing machines provide a major advantage for the engineers, enabling them to build models in short spaces of time. This means that they can carry out tests and identify problems at an early stage. The 3D-printers are also used for other purposes, including making parts for wind tunnel models and cockpit simulators. Greg is looking forward to future 3D-printing projects in the pipeline at BAE Systems. “We are on the brink of having both Metallic and Non-Metallic processes qualified to manufacture parts which will be flying on our Aircraft.” This will significantly improve aircraft manufacturing, providing a fast, accurate method of producing parts.

Winning design

This year’s trophy was designed by 20-year-old Euan Fairholm, who was delighted to see his winning design brought to life. Euan says, “Those who have worked on bringing the trophy to its final form and ultimately 3D-printing it, have done an excellent job. It looks better than ever and having it made by this process, which has found many applications in engineering, is quite fitting considering the nature of the prize.”

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