As loyal readers of this blog, you deserve a better post than to hear about the whine and cheese party with my computer. So here’s a bonus for this week.

Managing Expectations
I listened to The Model Railway Show podcast this morning featuring well known modeler Marty McGuirk and my former boss and current business partner in OST Pubs Inc., Joe Giannovario.

The theme of the show was bringing model railroad product manufacturing back to the United States. In spite of the wide range of opinion and quasi-knowledge expressed online in forums and chat rooms, let’s just say the subject is more complicated than the average modeler realizes. I’m going to leave it there. I have no manufacturing experience or knowledge and my opinions about the feasibility of bringing said models back into domestic production are worthless.

What I did take away from the discussion was something I have seen: The hobby is changing. Of that there is little doubt in my mind.

Of course, this is nothing new. As Marty pointed out in his segment, the hobby of ten years ago was different from the hobby of today and of what it was twenty years ago. In sum, the hobby has always changed with the times. What hasn’t changed as easily, it seems, are the expectations hobbyists have regarding what they can accomplish in terms of a layout. If they have changed at all it has been in the direction of wanting more.

Among the many impacts the deluge of ready-to-run products has had on the hobby, the most significant one is that modelers are now able to build more ambitious layouts than ever; and build them faster because of the time savings from ready-to-run cars and locos, prefab flextrack and turnouts and, even as Marty points out, prebuilt structures. This is not a bad thing for the most part in that it allows more people to enter the hobby on a deeper level than previously. More participants mean a larger market overall, which can lead greater stability and growth for companies. The downside is that as standards of living increase across the globe to match those of the Western nations, something will have to give at some point. This brings us back to the situation hobby manufacturers find themselves in. Wages and other costs in China are rising. Domestic wages, regulatory and other start-up costs to outfit a factory in the US are considerably higher (think in the millions). All this means one thing: prices for products are going up probably a lot no matter where they are made. Modelers are already feeling this impact.

What this means is that at one extreme some will likely be priced out of the hobby completely, given current economic woes worldwide. Let’s just say this out loud and get it over with: money is tight for a lot of folks. Living costs are rising for everyone and incomes are stagnant for many. My wife and I know this firsthand. My modeling purchases have been greatly reduced as a result. I’m fortunate in that my layout is finished and the urge to accumulate more stuff just for the sake of having it is largely gone for me. (I know, I’m speaking heresy. Too bad.) I’m also fortunate to have finally developed a very clear understanding of my interests at this stage. Knowing this eliminates a lot of pressure to throw money at shiny baubles. Modelers are often surprised at the cost differences between the scales. HO and N enjoy an economy of scale that allows prices to remain low or stable. S and O scales do not simply because their market share is much smaller. This limits the number of products offered and reduces the size of production runs, with both factors adding to the overall retail price of an item. So where and how does an individual’s expectation about the hobby come in play?

For starters, I think we’re going to have to be more realistic about what we can accomplish given our individual resources of time, money, space and being part of an increasingly mobile population. A basement sized layout is a huge undertaking however you want to define it. It isn’t something to dive into lightly, yet most do, sometimes regretting that decision years into the project. Large layouts are expensive by every metric used to evaluate such a project. For many, the associated costs are getting harder to justify.

For those who are younger and just seriously starting in the hobby, it’s tough. Making choices and establishing priorities is all well and good if you know what you want. Many simply can’t (more likely won’t) make the choice or haven’t been in the hobby long enough to know where their genuine interests lie. Yes, it all looks enticing. Yes, many forms of real railroading are equally interesting at first glance. Yes, it’s tempting to think you can do it all. The real world is different though and the longer you delay in establishing priorities, the more resources you’re going to squander by going down paths that don’t provide the satisfaction you hoped for. I’ve been down too many of these dead end paths in the hobby, which is why I hammer away at this subject so often. In my view, knowing your real interests is that important.

Let me sum this up. The hobby is definitely changing, perhaps in some very fundamental ways that we haven’t seen before. Manufacturing costs will drive the selection and number of products we see for the long term future. If the market isn’t there, we simply aren’t going to see the product anymore. From my perch I feel that a return to a more interactive hobby is what we’re looking at in the near future. By interactive I mean that modelers will have to give more of themselves to learning some new skills in order to get what they want in terms of products. For all the criticism against the current quality of 3D printing and other cutting edge technologies, they are here to stay and will impact the future of model railroad manufacturing in ways not yet imagined. As modelers we can wring our hands in fear or roll up our shirtsleeves, dive in and get the job done. Lead, follow or get out of the way as someone said. Opportunities are all around us.