Woohoo! I’m on the Long Tail!

I’ve blogged elsewhere about the way that I see manufacturing changing from huge production to small runs. Obviously in a hobby like model trains, the ability to efficiently create a small run is even more important because there are so many things you could possibly make a model of and comparatively few modelers. Indeed, the economics for today’s short runs of injection-molded wonder-models are truly astonishing and probably only work because we offload pollution and worker safety to other countries. Enough said about that, because I believe that the future of the hobby lies with rapid prototyping anyway, and the passenger car that has been going on for almost two years is my first proof.

Today I got word from Shapeways that someone actually forked over the dough to buy my model. This is my first proof that the long tail of the hobby exists as I think it does.

I’m thrilled that someone else is going to join me in making this model. If you are that person, please contact me either through the comments or through email. I’d love to hear how your print comes out, and I’d love to see how your model progresses as you put it together. If you’re the type who blogs about it, let me know, and I’ll link over to you.

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.

Time to Refocus

It’s certainly been a while since my last post. Why?

When I saw him in Chilliwack this summer, Andrew Hutchinson noted that I seem to be doing more painting than modeling these days. That’s certainly part of it. In 2007 I resolved to make a painting a week, and this pushed the model trains even further into stolen minutes instead of dedicated hours. Painting, I find, doesn’t lend itself to those stolen moments. Progress on the caboose, while it continued, got painfully slow.

But progress did continue, and the caboose has come a long way since I posted the shot of the steps in (gulp) January. One change that happened is the photo studio went away when my modelling desk had to move to make way for the new baby. At about the same time, we got a digital SLR, which really wants a macro lens to take good photos up close, and so, photography became much more complicated, and posts even regarding painfully slow progress, have evaporated.

“Painfully slow” doesn’t sound like much fun, now that I reflect on it. “Slow” seems, to be a hallmark of my modelling: everything takes much longer than I hope. Because I’m modeling the Canada Atlantic, everything is scratchbuilt, starting from the trucks on up. Now, I like as much instant gratification as the next guy, and this is not instant by any stretch of the imagination. I would truly love to be able to shake the box and have a finely detailed model pop out at the other end.

To be honest, I’ve thought about changing hobbies in the past months. But I’ve finally decided that it is not this hobby that’s the problem, but the duel between hobbies. Which one should I choose? The painting gets loads of recognition among my non-rail friends, but really, I’m never going to be a great painter, and I may as well admit that now. The trains on the other hand, are appreciated by nobody, but I really enjoy the problem-solving aspects of building them.

So, I’ve put away the paints for now. There will be a day when I can afford time to spend on two past-times, but for today, with two young children at home, I should stick to one — one that fits into stolen minutes.

To combat the scratchbuilding blues, I’ve shaken a couple of boxes recently to run on a friend’s layout. I’m doing these in strict contravention to my usual rule to focus on one model at a time. I’ve got to admit, it’s loads of fun to make such quick progress on a model for once; they’re not Proto:87, but I’ll post a couple of photos here when they’re done all the same. They’ve successfully broken me out of my funk, and I’m more jazzed about the hobby than I have been in ages.

The caboose should be finished in a few weeks, and I’ll post some updated photos soon. Look for more in the weeks and months ahead. I’m back!