Response to Peter Ross on 3D Printing

A response to Peter Ross, regarding his comment in the June New Zealand Model Railway Journal:

About a decade ago, the Journal noted an ongoing and seemingly unstoppable decline in new adherents of the model railway hobby. Club memberships are in decline, magazine sales falling and anyway, kids these days are more interested in video games.

About the same time, I noticed an increase in newbies to the hobby who were playing around with Microsoft's Train Simulator and Auran's Railworks. They started making 3D models for use in the game, and "skins" for them based on whatever the current liveries were  (just look at all the 3D models submitted to - the breadth of models available is very impressive). I thought at the time this was a huge loss to the hobby, as most people playing train simulators were, obviously, already interested in railways and willing to spend hours making up routes (effectively digital versions of our physical layouts) and drawing models.

While 3D printing has been around since the 80s, it has only really taken off in recent years due to the trifecta of increasing low-cost electronics, freely available CAD software and the internet. It's now possible for someone with fairly basic CAD skills and an internet connection to manufacturer plastic components as they desire. The technology is having a major impact on everything from jewellery to (more worryingly) gun manufacture. Even NASA is sending a 3D printer into space to produce otherwise bulky and heavy tools and equipment as its required, rather than having to send up entire tool kits. The technology has massive implications for manufacturing which I won't go into here - but one prediction has stated it could be as important to human progress as the invention of the printing press.

I'm certainly a fan of the technology, and have made use of it myself. My view is that it's pretty good for making awkward parts that aren't easy to replicate in styrene, at least in 1:64. But I'm not so sure such glowing predictions will prove to be accurate. Like Peter in his June comment in the Journal, I do think 3D printing can be seen as something like a tool for all purposes. It's also absolutely true that the quality of some of the models isn't nearly as good as other traditional methods. I suspect this is because many of the models being printed are coming out in the cheaper materials (which tend to show up the "layered" nature of 3D printing) rather than the ultra-detail materials which look far better, if not better detailed than traditional methods allow. At the moment I would say such models look best in NZ120 scale, rather the larger scales.

Regardless of quality though, the critical point is that 3D printing is opening up New Zealand model railways as a hobby to many more people. In particular those born since the internet became a feature of our lives. I have to take my hat off to Peter Bryant's exceptional work in this area. Peter has produced many models that would otherwise never have been made. The economic realities of making models for New Zealand's unusual gauge for our small market. To my mind the combination of train simulators' and their CAD designs and 3D printing will ensure that modeling New Zealand's railways will prosper in the long term, rather than go into decline. While I accept that 3D printing doesn't yet have the quality of, say, laser-cut that isn't the issue.