From Lady Gaga’s rings to the necklace containing the poison used to kill King Joffrey, Margaret Canning talks to Laser Prototypes Europe, a Belfast firm whose 3D printing expertise has been sought by pop divas, TV producers and Formula 1 teams
Northern Ireland has been a cradle for commercial innovation from shipbuilding to cybersecurity in the years since the Belfast Telegraph was founded in 1870.
But some of our innovators fly below the radar.
One remarkable example is Laser Prototypes Europe on Prince Regent Road in Belfast.
It became a pioneer in 3D printing/rapid prototyping (RP) in the 1990s, long before the techniques became commonplace.
Now its expertise in making multiple models is sought far and wide. It made eight versions of Dippy the Dinosaur’s head for the Natural History Museum in London for a nationwide tour of the model dinosaur two years ago.
There have been orders for props and models for the film and TV industry. It helped create animatronic animals such as a snake and crocodile for the BBC series Spy in the Wild, in which fake animals with cameras in their eyes spied on the real thing.
Much of its work is in manufacturing items for the medical industry, aerospace, the automotive sector and several Formula 1 teams based in the UK. It’s recently been successfully audited to carry out work for another major aerospace company in Great Britain.
Closer to home, it works with Bombardier and defence manufacturer Thales in Belfast, and in the Republic, with medtech clients such as Cook Medical and Medtronic.
In many cases, the identity of clients is tightly protected. Sales director Campbell Evans says: “We’re always looking at new product development, new designs, and signing NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). We usually can’t tell people what we’re working on.
“We do next day delivery by courier to places as far away as Australia and Venezuela.
“We turn around quotes faster than our competitors and turn jobs around faster than our competitors turn around quotes.”
It worked extensively on jewellery and props for Game of Thrones, the cult fantasy TV series which was filmed by HBO in Northern Ireland between 2009 and 2018. “Being based in Belfast helped us then because Game of Thrones was just down the road.
“We did all the black and gold masks for the band of assassins called the Sons of the Harpy, and produced the Hand of the King badge.
“We produced Jaime Lannister’s armour from plastic but made it to look like metal.
“We also made soldier’s helmets and the necklace which contained the vial of poison used to kill King Joffrey. That was 3D printed.”
He says the company’s engineering team are young and dynamic, with many coming straight from university.
The technology is constantly advancing, with a growing focus on additive manufacturing.
The theory is that instead of traditionally manufacturing items out of a large block of material or with expensive tooling, a creator starts with nothing and builds up in successive layers drawn by a laser until a part is literally grown in the 3D 9rinting machine. This reduces material waste and gives the flexibility of being able to produce very complex geometries and whatever quantity of parts are required very quickly.
“Materials have also improved. We have introduced a new high-temperature material which will withstand 300 degree-heat, and rubber material for direct 3D printing.
“Even now there are new materials coming on board, and going forward we’ll always have a need for that low volume, low quantity production.
“There are very few industries that you can think of that definitely don’t use rapid prototyping. But a really large unit like a blow-moulded oil tank wouldn’t lend itself to 3D printing as it’s simply too large.
“But you do also have people 3D printing burgers and houses, and kidneys, lungs and hearts. We won’t start doing that but there are research companies who have taken patient cells and used them to print living organs.
“The printing of food like burgers I think is just the hobbyist side of the industry, whereas we’re at the coalface of industrial prototyping and modelmaking.”
Game of Thrones isn’t the only TV fantasy production it’s worked on. It produced crystals and puppets for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a Netflix series made as a prequel to the 1982 film The Dark Crystal.
It’s currently working on 3D printed models for several more music videos and Hollywood blockbusters, which Campbell says he can’t name. Those models will then be used to help create hi tech animatronics and puppets.
And in 2016, it worked on mood rings worn by Lady Gaga in her Grammys tribute to David Bowie. But he’s quick to add the diva herself wasn’t popping round for fittings. “We got the order for the 3D printed Lady Gaga mood rings from a design company in London which works with us regularly and got them shipped out to LA for the performance.”
The rings gave Lady Gaga control of the stage, an LED wall, and a three dimensional hologram of David Bowie, who had died a month earlier.
The rings were made using stereolithography, then hand finished and painted to a rose gold and opal clear finish by LPE.
Engineers then incorporated graphics technology, which responded to the ring and how Lady Gaga moved on stage.
Demand for 3D printed products from the medical sector has soared during the pandemic. It’s been making items such as PPE and jigs and fixtures to aid speedy production and parts for ventilators, hospital beds and hoists.
The company was founded in 1991 by Tom Walls, who is managing director.
He had been working for aerospace manufacturer Shorts but on a trip to America, witnessed the practice of stereolithography, a form of 3D printing, for the first time.
Campbell says: “That process was first discovered in 1986 and he brought it here in 1991. About 10 years ago rapid prototyping hit the mainstream and now most people’s offices have 3D printers in the corner. People are really surprised when they realise we were doing that as a service back in 1991.”
It now has 28 employees and a multi-million pound turnover.
And Campbell is confident that it won’t suffer a major hit from coronavirus and lockdown. “If one industry such as aerospace is suffering we often find that another is rampant.”Visit our anniversary hub where we celebrate 150 years of the Belfast Telegraph