Issue #67 of O Scale Trains Magazine contains a fine editorial by Joe Giannovario.* In his “Observations” column, he outlines the situation brewing around the current and likely future of various O scale freight and passenger car trucks.

It seems that Chinese manufacturers are no longer interested in doing short-run, marginally profitable products. This includes many hobby items we take for granted, like trucks. As the Chinese market for consumer goods grows, Chinese factories can run at capacity in satisfying demand for their own population. In the global supply chain we now have, this has numerous consequences, which I won’t go into here.

After reading Joe’s thoughts, I had two reactions. First, was disgust due to the entirely predictable reaction of doom and gloom that is certain to come from the O scale community. There will be cries, moaning and groaning, along with wailing and gnashing of teeth, all over the end of the hobby as we’ve  known it and God intended it. There will also probably be a run on trucks at the March Meet.

My second thought was: here’s a golden opportunity.

Trucks are us
Frankly I’m surprised no one has ever formed a company to produce trucks and only trucks, all manner of trucks. You want a Dalman two level truck in P48? Done. Some obscure PRR design from October 1903? Done. Symmington or National B-1? Done. Need them in five-foot gauge, On3, On2, O-Whatever; want 40, 50, 70, 100, 125 ton? Done, done and done. Fox trucks? How many do you want? With current digital capabilities, this is completely feasible now and the possibilities will only get better in the future.

I’ve heard all the criticism about 3D printing technology, mainly from people deeply invested in steel molds and styrene injection machines. Most of it is centered on the thought that it isn’t ready in terms of quality. Maybe, but do people honestly think this technology is going to remain static? I don’t think so. It’s improving daily and in a very short span of time, it will have the quality we expect. Maybe I’m just a damned fool who doesn’t know squat about manufacturing (true on both counts); but if I had hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in old technology, I’d be critical too, and worried.

It’s time to move forward.
For better or worse, O scale is mired in the past: in terms of mindset, technology, outdated legacy standards, and the sense that the scale has no idea what it wants to be when it grows up. The opportunity I see around O scale and P48 trucks centers on CAD technology for the design, 3D printing, and lean manufacturing practices that can embrace much smaller inventories at profitable margins. In short, moving the scale into the 21st Century and leaving the hobby of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s where it belongs – to the historians. Crying foul are you? Okay. Thanks for sharing.

The P48 community, which has been long ignored and underserved by manufacturers, should be cheering and welcoming this digital revolution with open arms. My guess is they are more terrified than anybody about the loss of Chinese manufacturing resources because they will feel it the quickest and the most severely. This is why I keep advocating for modelers to develop their own skill sets. We’ve very likely reached the end of the line for cheap imported products, from China or anywhere else.

It’s time to take responsibility for your own hobby.
There are a growing number of modelers who are taking these things into their own hands using modern digital tools. People are designing and fabricating their own track details like tieplates and joint bars. People are fabricating parts to replace cheesy three-rail designed body bolsters and non-existent draft gear extensions on commercial rolling stock. People are fabricating their own sideframes and truck bolsters for unique prototypes that no commercial producer will ever touch. Further, more and more modelers are producing their own cars using digital technology that allows them to have multiple pieces of rolling stock that would have required scratchbuilding individually ten years ago.

I thought you were a hardliner for craftsmanship?
Somebody will take me to task over how this squares with my rabid emphasis on craftsman skills. Sorry, I don’t see a conflict here. Such skills will become more important. The advent of resin casting didn’t eliminate the need for such skills and neither will the new forms I’m discussing here. 3D printing is nothing more than a natural progression beyond the casting techniques that have been part of the scratchbuilder’s tool box for decades.

You can’t grow by remaining static.
A proverb from the Good Book says that without vision, the people perish. If you want to see what a lack of vision has done to the hobby, look no farther than O scale. The three-rail toy train segment rules this scale, dictating the products and their design, for the two and three rail markets alike. P48 only thinks of itself as a tiny subset of O scale rather than the separate discipline that it actually is. The stagnant five-foot legacy gauge just limps along like nothing is wrong with the world. Okay, fine, to each their own. I get it, and I still maintain that this is a hobby of individual choice. So go do your own thing however you want to do it. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with all of the choices out there, anymore than I expect everyone to agree with my views.

There’s a closed, protectionist mentality to O scale that does not serve anyone well. I’m no longer convinced that the entrenched interests of this scale really want meaningful growth as much as the maintenance of the status quo. Genuine growth for this scale requires a clearly articulated vision of what true quarter-inch scale modeling could be, along with a vision of how modern technology could revolutionize the products it needs and their availability. The pieces are beginning to come together. What image do we want to see once the jigsaw puzzle is complete?


*Full disclosure: Joe and I are partners in OST Publications Inc.


  1. Dunks

    Interesting points, Mike.
    There are a lot of similarities also with S gauge in the USA: lots of tinplate, some production of RTR in China (generally being brought back to the USA) and at the moment, some worries over supplies.

    It is interesting to compare and contrast this with the UK. Over here, 0 gauge (modelled to 7mm scale, with 32mm gauge (slightly underscale) but with a “Scale 7” using 33mm gauge and prototype derived wheel and track standards) has for long been primarily supported by a thriving kit manufacturing industry. Many of these manufacturers have come into being because the models they wanted were not available, so they started to produce kits for themselves, on what we call a “cottage industry” basis. These kits often involve a multi-media approach, with etched brass, cast metal, cast resin and moulded plastic being used – sometimes all in one kit!

    Producing artwork for etching is a design process and requires nothing more than a reasonable drafting program and application in the use and understanding thereof, as applied to the particular needs of etching. Patterns for casting via low-melt metal alloys and lost-wax brass is essentially a techniques borrowed from the jewelry trade. 3D printing simply provides an extra method for producing patterns, or very short runs of components. I am sure we will see the day when 3D printing is being used to produce moulds for plastic injection purposes – I suspect this is already happening, but currently rather costly.

    What this demonstrates is that there really is nothing to worry about: all that is required is a bit of entrepreneurial spirit on the part of a few individuals and a change in mind-set. The next hurdle is ensuring consistency of supply, so that when a manufacturer retires, the business passes on seamlessly, and the product remains available.

    In S scale, the situation is slightly different. With just over 100 members, of whom maybe 30% are actively modelling in the scale, the S Scale Model Railway Society acts as a co-operative venture for the production of parts to support what is essentially a scratchbuilder’s scale. The resources of the Society have been, and will be, used to fund the production of key components, supplemented by other items (e.g. resin freight car bodies)produced in batches by individual members.

    For example, a member requiring half a dozen of essentially the same vehicle may have a production run of 50 castings produced commercially, selling the remaining 40 at a price to cover his total investment with commercial caster.

    Because of the skills available within the membership base, the quality of components is generally very high, and more importantly can be controlled by the Society, and continuity of supply is maintained to match demand.

    S Scale in the UK, at least for the UK outline modeller, is a minority interest for the dedicated and determined builder, but impressive accomplishments are achieved – see for plenty of examples.

  2. mike

    Hi Simon,

    Yes, the two scales share similar situations in terms of population, approach and product mix. In the US, 1:48 may have a slight edge over S.

    The cottage industry is alive and well here. P48 wouldn’t exist without the may mom and pop operations that produce some critical products.

    Your SMRS sounds like the driving force behind the ongoing health of the scale. Things aren’t that organized here for P48. It’s a small tight-knit community yes, but no one group or society doing what you described.

    The lack of vision and entrenched mindset seen here in the states keeps many aspects of the hobby in the dark ages. HO and N modelers wonder what I’m talking about, since they have such a large and thriving market. When they make the move to a minority scale like S or O, they’re often incredulous over how backward it seems compared to what they left. They don’t understand why certain car types or other basic products aren’t readily available. It’s quite a learning curve and culture shock.


  3. Dunks

    I have noticed that H0, and to a slightly lesser extent N, are very well served by NMRA and the major manufacturers. Moving to Proto:87 is relatively straightforward, but does involve more work even with Andy Reichert’s stalwart support.

    I find it fascination, from a sociological point of view, to see how differently the hobby has evolved either side of the Atlantic. In Europe, there has been a lot of national and local pride, with manufacturers going their own way for a long time. In the USA, of course, you have had waves of migrants from Europe who wanted to get away from this mindset, and were determined to become “American”. Hence organisations such as the NMRA. The idea of anything so over-arching and “national” in the UK is frankly alien to most, and abhorent to many. This makes it easier for “specialist gauge/scale” societies to form, for example, and in roughly historical order, the S Scale MRS, the G1MRA, the Gauge 0 Guild and EM Gauge Society, and latterly the P4/Scalefour societies, plus others to support 3mm scale, 2mm scale and so on.

    Ironically, these self-help groupings – which is what they really started as – then define standards which are used nationally. They also work to create finer, and prototype-derived, standards.

    The problem with standards is that once defined, they can become not just set in stone, but ossified and prevent progress. This is where the various Proto societies and groups have an advantage. Start with a scale, hopefully a sensible one like 1:32, 1:48, 1:64, and divide the real thing’s dimensions, taking into account tolerances and the impact of rounding up or down (which is ultimately why in the UK S scale standard gauge is 0.884″ and not 0.883″).

    If I may offer an outside perspective, the NMRA has achieved a wonderful consistency in H0 and N gauge modelling, but of necessity cannot move at a radical pace, and whilst it can promote and harbour more specialist interests, the promotion of those is best done outside of the NMRA. As a democratic organisation, it can do little more than safe-guard the interests of minority groups. This is important, but it will always spend most of its efforts on the needs of the majority. Nothing wrong with any of that.

    The downside, though, is that it can lead to inertia amongst individual modellers, and an expectation in the membership to buy what is made, rather than make what is bought.

    But to return to my true love, S Scale, there are individuals such as Earl Tuson at, who produces alternative parts for box car ends, doors, etc to add variety to the modeller’s freight fleet, or Jim King at Smokey Mountain Model Works ( who produces exquisite batches of kits, as well as many others. This shows what is possible using 3D CAD, Rapid Prototyping, and batch production of resin kits.

    It might be a learning curve, it might be a culture shock, but for the dedicated modeller the opportunities to create something that little bit different, that little bit personal, are immense.

    There is also the possibility of doing something about the status quo, and adding to the cottage industries which support the finescale end of the hobby.


  4. mike

    Hi Simon,

    I have noticed that H0, and to a slightly lesser extent N, are very well served by NMRA and the major manufacturers.

    They make up the lion’s share of the hobby market here. For manufacturers, it’s where the money is.

    The idea of anything so over-arching and “national” in the UK is frankly alien to most, and abhorent to many.

    That surprises me. I would have thought that our well known desire for individualism would produce just the opposite effect. Now that I think on it though, we are a nation of copy-cats. We copy whatever the idea du-jour of the month is as served up by the magazines and pundits.

    The problem with standards is that once defined, they can become not just set in stone, but ossified and prevent progress.

    We obviously standards. What I think becomes ossified is a mindset around them, as you suggest has happened in the NMRA. I’m not a member of that group, so I can’t really comment. I suspect that every group eventually becomes more about preservation than innovation.

    It might be a learning curve, it might be a culture shock, but for the dedicated modeller the opportunities to create something that little bit different, that little bit personal, are immense.

    Yes. Exactly my point.