Te Ahi Tupua

Case Study - The World's largest 3d Printed Structure

When Stacey Gordine began sketching Te Ahi Tupua, a 12-metre-high public artwork inspired by Maori heritage and the geothermal forces in Rotorua, he knew the design was ambitious.

With a huge, flowing helical form that would need to stand up to the wind and the elements, Stacey and the team at Te Puia would have their work cut out to find someone to construct it.

They scoured the globe for someone who could build the structure. 

No one could build it. 

Then Kilwell Fibrelab presented a solution, right on their doorstep


The Challenge

Art Meets Science

Te Ahi Tupua – meaning the eternal flame – posed two major construction challenges. First up, it’s flowing, helical design features incredibly complex shapes. And second, its installation location is exposed to the wind, as well as being surrounded by traffic. This cocktail of complications meant the structure had to meet rigorous test tolerances.

Lead artist, Stacey Gordine had originally designed the sculpture to be made with steel, but a global search for someone to roll the complex curves proved unsuccessful.

Challenge accepted

Brainstorming around the boardroom table at Kilwell Fibrelab, an idea sparked. Conventional methods for roll-wrapped carbon fibre tubing allow for varying thickness, unusual profiles, and tapering, but waveforms of Te Ahi Tupua defied all conventions.

Then a divergent question emerged, “what if we 3D printed it?”

Extreme R&D

Technical lead, William London, knows just about everything there is to know about carbon fibre. But 3D printing was totally new. Starting with the 3D models, Will figured out how to break the structure into manageable, 3D printable-sized chunks. His team tested and tested, before arriving at a viable production method that would meet the aesthetic design requirements, as well as the load requirements.

The structure was manufactured and assembled in sections. Each section featured a 3D printed core, which was then wrapped in a carbon fibre sock, before being infused with catalyst to cure the carbon fibre.

The construction method proved so successful that when the load requirements were increased, mid-way through construction, Will and the team were able to bulk up the carbon fibre layup to come in above spec.

"They stepped up and had the courage to take it on"

Stacy Gordine - Lead Artist, New Zealand Māori Arts & Craft Institute
If your competitive edge comes from composites, we hear your call.