A rapid prototyped paradigm shift?

A “paradigm shift” was one of those catching business terms like “thinking outside the box” it seems like we couldn’t get away from at the office. I can only apologize for the term and then just leaving it there. Now, on with the idea.

At the recent RPM in Truro I presented a short talk on 3D printing. I discussed my relationship with 3D printing in general and handed around some examples of models I’ve created so far. Listening to myself talk a thought occurred to me with regard to 3D printing and the potential of rapid prototyping in general within the hobby. I’m still reflecting on it and thought I’d try and introduce it here. I regarded 3D printing as a means of extending my workbench. Indeed the first models I printed using Shapeways’ 3D printing service were clerestory roofs and they were perfect examples of this approach. Over the years I’ve fooled around with various methods of forming clerestory roofs for passenger car models with mixed results. The idea of printing one pair seemed brilliant and indeed proved to be true. Extending this further, making two, three, or however many I needed with just as much ease seemed so amazing I printed more. Holding three identical roofs in my hands it was easy to see that the theory was proven without any doubt. Further, Shapeways printed these three in less time than I could have made up just one pair. “Welcome to the future!” I proclaimed to myself and just about anyone else who was listening.

So here’s the bigger thought that I’m mulling over: I believe that these processes will democratize the very way we relate to the manufacturing of model trains and it could offer some exciting potential in how we select the “right” scale for us to work in. Where before we might decide to work in HO scale because it is a scale that seems so well supported by manufacturers or avoid something like S or TT for the opposite reason RP technologies could offer something of a leveling effect. I really dislike referring to a scale as a “scratchbuilder’s scale” and wonder if the ability to 3D print stuff sort of bridges that gap a bit if you’re not ready to make every single part of every model. Instead of the choice of scale being driven by supply of product at a cost to you and your vision, it could be driven by your comfort level and further by its potential to represent the prototype you’re modeling – basically abridging a statement like “3D printing made it possible for me to model XYZ in HO scale” to what, I feel, it should be: “…made it possible for me to model XYZ.”

In a number of ways we’re still only in the early days of this revolution but the potential it offers could have a profound effect on the hobby but it’s a potential I find interesting to ponder on.



Categories: How I think

15 replies

  1. Well said, Chris… for those with the skill set needed for 3D printing, it’s an incredible extension of what we once considered possible.

    For everybody, it opens up the possibility of high quality products that you will never see in a mass produced for… at a cost, of course, since the technology is still young and a bit pricey.

    After 25 years working professionally with various 3D printing technologies as they developed, it feels wonderful to be pushing the limits of the technology, creating model railroad parts and kits in retirement- and it allows me to create items I could never successfully scratchbuild!

    • Thanks Steve

      Your’s are superb points. Thank you for the comment.

      The technology is advancing at a rate now so fast that it can be hard to find one’s place in the market. I’m excited to think that some models not so practical to print before are actually becoming viable. Further, the quality of the prints is simply superb and I’m thrilled to see access to this technology, at this level of quality, becoming so widely available.

      I think this can only be exciting and good for the hobby. I’m so excited to be a part of this conversation and to be here, now, while the hobby grows yet again.


  2. Chris,
    I think we see the beginnings of this now. As a side thought, the collaboration among modelers who bring different skill sets to a project, has many examples, such as the build threads you follow on the Westlake Forums This is where I see things going. Unless one has strong design skills, going it alone is a difficult threshold to cross. That said, so many possibilities are now open to modelers.


    • MIke,

      Collaboration is the big story in 3D printing that isn’t getting told. That combined with the very way in which each member of the team to produce a model contributes their passion to the end model is another story that begs to be told but isn’t.

      Many of the models in my Shapeways store are the result of this type of collaborative production.

      Often the model is the result of a request from a modeller passionate about the prototype. They provide photos and information that only further illustrate the model. Their passion is hard to ignore and as a resource to make the best parts, that’s the difference.

      Complimenting that passion is mine for design coupled with my experience in the same. So passion feeds passion.

      Finally, Shapeways steps in with their interest in production.

      Where in traditional manufacturing where the manufacturer owns each step of the process there is always a risk that they’ll be responsible for a piece that isn’t their strength. I believe that in this collaborative approach we not only bring models to a version of the market that didn’t exist before we do so with greater strength that the old way could acheive. Is it the way forward? Yup.

      Thanks Mike


  3. The 3mm Society are looking at 3D printing for a variety of things ranging from kits to loco castings especially when the supply change for the specialist scales like ours is shrinking. Steve

    • Another great example. Thanks for sharing it. I’m a long time admirer of the relationship that these societies have with their respective scales. In many ways, this collaborative approach to production is reflected in the popularity of scales, like 3mm, that aren’t strongly supported by traditional manufacturing as perhaps OO is.

      The 2mm Scale Association is making use of similar rapid prototyping technology too either as a means of producing masters to cast copies of or in direct production.



  4. Not that the timing matters, but I can see a “Blockbuster to Netflix” paradigm shift in 3D printing, where the printers will be on modellers’ workbenches. Small tools will still be present, but the printer will be paramount in the paradigm. Exciting times indeed, and it’s cool to know some people who are not only active but sharing their experiences on this, the bleeding edge of the leading edge of model production.

    • Hi Eric

      I think it might be more of a cable (e.g. CBS or CTV) to Trainmaster TV, PBS, Netflix, or Youtube shift. Instead of waiting for network TV to finally make a program we’re interested in we’re sponsoring an alternative that directly connects the people making TV to the people watching TV. It’s a paradigm that public broadcasters like PBS have thrived on in the past and I’m grateful that enough things changed in media to fuel growth in this segment. I was never unwilling to pay for TV or movies but prefer the model that allows me to sponsor programming that I’m interested in instead of adjusting my preferences to fit their vision and schedule.

      3D printing is only one aspect of rapid prototyping but it’s the one we in model railways feel the most connected to right now. For the next short while I don’t think that the shift is observed in finding more workbenches with 3D printers just to make model trains. I think those printers will appear in the homes of people who just make things and see an application beyond just making trains. I think that it might work like the appearance of televisions in homes across the country in the mid-20th century. So you’re absolutely correct with your example. We’re working through hardware deployment right now but with the spread of the hardware. Just as we were once excited to watch TV regardless of what was on TV we’ve now evolved to demand a place in the creation of what’s on TV.

      In my own work I see the short-sightedness of my experience in that the place I saw RP technologies in the hobby was to make it easier to model a favourite prototype in a conventional scale. That does little more than fuel the old attitude of “I model in HO because there’s so much available compared to the other scales” when the question could have shifted to “I find it easier to hang trolley wire in 1/32 scale and thanks to how much easier it is to make models with tools like a 3D printer choosing 1/32 is easier since I’m not limited by what’s in this years Walthers catalogue.”

      Not that you or I do this but the greater hobby media seems to perpetuate an opinion of today’s hobbyist and laments that he doesn’t make models, only buys RTR ones (the chequebook modeler), than this is a chance to reverse that trend.

      Peering into the future of the hobby we couldn’t ask for a better view or anything more exciting to look at. Pretty cool eh?


  5. Very cool indeed, Chris. I really like that term “Chequebook modeller”. Paying for convenience and shortening the timeline. Keurig-like!

  6. To build on my earlier comment, I see small dedicated groups of people come together for a project, then go their way after it’s over. What’s exciting is that these folks don’t have to be railroad enthusiasts per se. As you suggest Chris, one may have the photos and dimensional info, another, the CAD skills looking for an interesting design challenge. The third might know etching technology or laser cutting. The P48 community has been doing this for years. But, being a small niche, we’ve grown dependent on a handful of sources for supplies. Sources that can be hit or miss, according to the whims of the owners.

    Once we understand that it’s all invented and that we can do whatever we want instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us, the sky is the limit. I hasten to add that the technology isn’t a cure-all. My limited knowledge suggests that designing a CAD file isn’t as easy as we’d like to believe. Craft, skill and expertise still have a role to play.


    • Good morning Mike. I’m sorry that I didn’t see your comment earlier.

      In the example you cited, I think what makes it so powerful is that it blends folk from very different interests. The railfan doesn’t have to care about model trains at all, he just knows what he likes and he’s happy to share it. That same level of focused passion cascades down and the work can only benefit – I’d even wager that the work is better when not corrupted by the fact that the person is passionate in more than one of the arenas.

      You’re correct in that this collaborative approach isn’t a result of any modern production method (like 3D printing). So, while not a direct attribute of changes in rapid prototyping, I think the other change that benefits the work here is how much easier it is to collaborate over distance in almost real time.

      Where I hope to see these advancements appear are in places where they extend the craft but not simply as a means of replacing processes. Absolutely no modeler should stop learning to scratchbuild just because they could have 3D printed the whole thing in the first place – quite the opposite, I believe that the 3D printed piece is a better piece when it was designed by someone with an understanding of how models of things are made.

      Thank you for the thoughts. I’ve quite enjoyed the reaction.


    • Mike has brought up a tremendously important point that most people overlook. Chris knows it of course, as his printed parts amply demonstrate.

      CAD work isn’t nearly as easy as generally thought, and even if a person learns to manipulate the software there is no guarantee they will successfully design anything. It takes tons of practice, and a huge degree of mechanical aptitude.

      3D printing is not a Star Trek Replicator.

      I spent over thirty years working professionally with CAD, a quarter century in high end 3D CAD and using various 3D printing technologies as they developed (along with machining, casting, injection moulding, stamping, and most other usual manufacturing processes in a huge variety of materials).

      I still learn something new with many of my models, and with some unusual shapes I spend considerable time playing around to come up with the best approach.

      I strongly suspect the percentage of modellers who actively design models for printing will remain quite small forever- just as the percentage of modellers who are skilled machinists with their own tools is still very small. Yes, the skills can be picked up, and quite easily by some with great aptitude, but few will have the patience or opportunity to learn. Many will dabble and give up.

      Instead, you’re most likely to see a greater awareness of the possibilities of 3D printing, a greater willingness to try the current (and future) high quality printed models, and a growing dependence on the skilled designers among us.

      A huge hindrance to the growth of 3D printed models is due to the many poorly designed, poorly printed models out there… inappropriate materials for the part being printed, and a lack of understanding on the part of both the designer and customer of the strengths and limitations of the technology, and parts being printed that really should be made by other processes.

      Never be afraid to ask a designer about his training, experience, and the software he uses to create models! If he is competent, his answers and approach to a project will tell you all you need to know.

      Will 3D printing become a very important part of the hobby? Definitely!

      Will collaboration be a big part of this? Yes, as it always has been… much easier than in the past, thanks to e-mail and the Internet. I am forever grateful to the many modellers, railfans, and railroaders who so willingly share their knowledge, photographs, and drawings to help make new models a reality.

      Will 3D design and printing ever become a common DIY skill among modellers? Probably not.

      That’s my opinion after being a professional designer for three decades, and now designing my own line of kits and parts… it will be fun to look back at this thread in ten or fifteen years to see how close I am to the mark- or how far off it- I am!

      • Excellent comment. Thank you for taking the time to compose it and share your thoughts.

        I agree that 3D printing represents at least two different conversations. When I first worked on this post my thoughts were on the democratization of manufacturing model trains and a shift away from Brand XYZ to a more cooperative approach to making the models. As we’ve discussed earlier and even in this thread, 3D printing is only the latest example of this but the attitude is growing in terms of public acceptance. With these powerful tools, in terms of scaling for short production runs and also ease of access to these we’re approaching a time where we can fix that right at the source.

        Where the conversation tends to focus on growth in traditional modelling scales I also see enormous potential for promoting alternative scales and leveraging tech to do so. If we can make the trains in any size is there a place for HO scale and why should there be?

        The other conversation though focusses on the skills required to design for 3D printing, setting up metal for etching, or designing a plan for laser cutting. I believe that anyone can learn these skills and that the more time one invests in them the more the work benefits in terms of complexity (I’ve been at this for just about twenty years now but am still learning and each drawing provides a new learning experience and each next one is better for it). In terms of 3D printing I’m attracted to those projects where we can use the printer to reproduce a shape that would be difficult to reproduce using other means (such as my clerestory roof example) or where we might need a couple more of that complicated shape. For simply forms there are superior methods and 3D printing is just an expensive and time consuming way to make a box-like structure llke a shipping container or woodchip hopper.

        Where it isn’t any different from traditional manufacturing methods is how the modeller is faced with deciding how he needs to invest his time. It takes a serious investment of time to design a part for 3D printing exactly as it would to machine the part on your lathe or mill. For me, it boils down to a balance of time spent making models on the dining room table or on the computer screen and which I feel like more. It’s easy to overlook the time commitment to produce that first 3D CAD model and in this way designing for 3D printing parts for your model railway feels a lot like those who have become miniature machinists as a result of their interest in live steam locomotives – a hobby within a hobby.



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