Waxing philosophical on the arrival of my models

Well, after three tries, my models were finally fit to print. They arrived about two weeks ago, and I’m delighted. The passenger car came out just about exactly as expected, and the truck, while not as detailed as the design, is completely functional and looks pretty good.

We’re at the dawn of a new era in model railroads. Just as the old kingdom is at its zenith – who would have believed we would have so many choices in injection molded models – we can see what will replace that when the market is no longer around to support the increasing costs of production. After all, we will not be able to count on cheap production in China forever: those people will demand increasingly high wages, and when they do, you will not be able to afford the same quality in injection molding and hand-assembly. As your ability to pay for the next amazing offering dries up, the quantity of new products on this technology has got to diminish, and we’ll have a much smaller hobby.

So many model railroaders realize this, or they are looking around at their graying peers, and are already predicting the end of the hobby. Nonsense. The hobby will always be here, but it will not always be the same as it is in 2009. Perhaps in 25 years, the market for the wonderful products we have today may be smaller, and the injection-molded, hand-assembled freight cars themselves might be priced out of reach, but that’s today’s technology.

In 25 years, the high quality models will not be hand-assembled, injection-molded, but built one at a time on high-throughput custom-manufacturing machines much like the ones at Shapeways that have produced this truck and passenger car (only better). Today, Shapeways is able to produce a cylinder 1 mm thick, which is really too thick for our purposes; however, we’ve seen a continuing improvement in resolution over the past twenty years, and I expect in a few years we’ll be able to have a car printed complete with grab irons and brake gear.

When that happens, say goodbye to your resin molders. Oh, they’ll hang around for a few years, but really, who wants to spend an evening drilling 40 holes in a piece of grey plastic, when you can snap your fingers and have the part pre-assembled for you? Sure, the resin parts will be less expensive than the rendered parts, but if I can casually go and create a computer model, then open a store on Shapeways and start selling it without even thinking about starting a business, well, who would get into the messy, nasty business of casting if you had that option.

Truck detail

At the very least, we will see an explosion in availability of interesting prototype-specific cars. Heck, there is no need to have two cars alike! As a modeler, you could easily dent each specific hopper as you know it should be for a particular day in its history; you could get a coach with two windows open, while your friend gets the same car with three windows open.

The truck is an example of this. I need this type of truck, which has not been manufactured before; I flirted briefly with the idea of spending $10,000 to get them injection molded, but never believed there would be much of a market. But getting them printed is actually competitive with retail prices for injection-molded trucks! So, while the detail level is not quite what I would like, it is acceptable and on par with the cast metal trucks that many modelers are still using. Once I’ve finished adding some parts like the spring beam and brake beams, I’ll make them available to other modelers to buy.

If there were a metal version of this truck, you would not buy it any more, because this printed version is equal, probably cheaper, and doesn’t require assembly. Goodbye cottage industries, hello den industries!

These den industries will require even less commitment than the cottage industries of today. A modeler will need something, they’ll design it, have it printed, and offer it to the community at perhaps a small margin.

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