Imagine you are browsing an online library for freight and passenger cars. This library consists of detailed CAD files for each car type. You can access the files individually for a fee or pay an annual subscription that allows for multiple or unlimited access. Finding the car you want, you choose the various options such as door style or building phase and modeling scale. Since your account info is already on file and secure, instead of hitting print or download, you click on a button that says “Make locally.”  Arriving home from work a few hours later, you head down stairs and pull a model of the car out of your 3D desktop printer and take it over to the workbench for final detailing and mounting of trucks and couplers. The car is already painted and lettered since you chose that option. Don’t have a 3D printer? Select the “ship it” option and a FedEx truck arrives the next day with your model. This is the simple way to do it now. Of course, if you like being more involved in the process, you could also design the project from the ground up using the CAD software that’s standard on your computer these days. You know, rock it old school.

Think I’m nuts don’t you?
I’m currently reading Chris Anderson’s new book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Mr. Anderson is the editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine and also wrote The Long Tail and Free: The Future of a Radical Price. His books dive into the impact digital technology is having on goods and services in the marketplace.

In Makers, he covers the rise of the Makers Movement, or the increased ability for individuals to design and then produce tangible products using digital tools that are becoming less expensive, easier to use and more widely available every year. He calls this desktop manufacturing and likens this movement to the first industrial revolution (or the second depending on where you fix the dates) from the mid 1800s into the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike that industrial revolution, which was characterized by images of smoke belching factories, production on a massive scale and titans of industry like Henry Ford, this new digital revolution is much more accessible to all because the tools of production driving it are becoming so obtainable. Basic 3D printers, CNC mills and laser cutters can now be purchased by the average schmo like me and they will get less expensive and produce better quality outcomes over time as with every other digital technology.

We’ve seen these tools in action for years now. Laser cut kits for structures and rolling stock are well known. Mullet River Modelworks is one such maker of laser cut kits among a growing number of companies. While to my knowledge no one is making commercially printed 3D railroad models, at least one modeler has a line of tieplates for quarter-inch scale 3D printed by Shapeways. Individual modelers are experimenting with the technology for their own use and continue to develop the processes and techniques to move things forward. It’s just a matter of time before somebody takes it mainstream in the hobby.

To boldly go…
A couple of weeks ago, I introduced the work of Robert Stears, who designed and via laser etching and cutting, had the parts made for a series of Colorado Midland reefer cars he wanted. Robert designed the components in Corel Draw and worked with a British company, York Modelmaking Ltd. to produce them from his CAD files. I believe this process represents a significant way forward for the hobby.

In my post from last week, I referenced the most recent episode of The Model Railway Show that features a discussion about the state of manufacturing for the hobby. One of the hotly debated questions currently is whether said manufacturing could be brought back to America from China. Suffice it to say, there are no simple answers to such questions. Among the many sectors of the hobby, mass manufacturing is feeling the impact of the changes in technology and global economics that are coming from everywhere. The central focus of the debate is often on the labor cost differences between the US and China, but this is just one factor among many that influence the decision of where things are produced. If hobby manufacturing is in for a big shakeup (I believe it is), it will likely mean fewer products at much higher prices overall. We are witnessing this now. This being the case, what are the options for the average hobbyist? I believe there are many If we can employ some different thinking.

Suppose that like Robert, you, in essence, became your own manufacturer?

Give me the tools.
I concede that not everyone is comfortable with CAD or other design software. Want some obscure prototype piece of rolling stock? Provide the reference material and have the files made and/or the items printed for you. Many companies offer this service now. Want seven different versions of a car like Robert did for his CM reefers? No problem. CAD files are easy to change and a 3D printer or laser doesn’t care what it is printing or cutting. In other words, there are no molds to produce and set up, all the relevant information is in the software file.

Things like this are happening in the hobby now and are likely to become more common as we get used to the technology involved. I can envision groups of modelers with the requisite skills, coming together on a project by project basis to design and produce the items they want. This is nothing new, it’s how a lot of short run products come into being now. The difference will be in the materials and processes used and perhaps the quantity of items produced.

What this technology does is open doors of possibilities unimagined before. That’s what revolutions of technology do. Whoever owns or has access to the tools of production names the game. This very blog is as good an example as any. I can publish at will to the world, an impossible feat just two decades ago.

We saw what happened years ago when resin kits came on the scene. The resin casting process opened the door to short run models of unique and obscure prototypes that the major manufacturers couldn’t touch economically. In the not-too-distant-future, resin casting may find itself being replaced by this new printing technology.

What modelers of today have to understand is that the hobby we’ve grown up with is changing and those changes will continue. Will 3D printing on a home device replace companies like Atlas or Athearn? I think not. As I said many people simply want things done for them. I do suspect that the offerings from companies like these and others will be fewer in number and more expensive to produce, unless said companies embrace the new manufacturing technologies coming on the scene now.

I’m no prophet or visionary. I really have no idea where it’s all going. I do feel that if we are going to continue to enjoy this hobby in the future, modelers will have to become more self-reliant on a level beyond writing a check. I do think that craftsmanship will continue to play an important role, perhaps in a different capacity than we’re accustomed to now. My fictional opening scenario may or may not ever come true, but I am convinced that what we make for ourselves, both by choice and by whatever process technology affords, will be easier to do and of much better quality. Any hobby that can’t embrace the future eventually stagnates from the weight of its past. These are good times folks, let’s rejoice in the all options now available to us.


Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.  (I have no affiliation with Mr. Anderson, his book or Amazon.) MC

Mullet River Modelworks


Naperville RPM Meet 2012