A place to be, to convene and to see if outcomes tumble out. The Shoreditch Village Hall / Jun 7th 2013

I just spent a wonderful day in London, seeing friends old and new and having a series of fascinating conversations. I’m sure many more things will happen out of those conversations, someday, maybe, probably than out of a meeting with a large number of agenda points and a working lunch. 

When I first went freelance I met a lot of people. I’d invite them for coffee or lunch or meet them at their office. Some were people I’d wanted to meet, some I hadn’t seen for a while, some were people who I thought were doing interesting stuff. I’d often start a meeting with them or invite them using the phrase “I have no idea where things would go, I’d just like to chat about what you’re doing”. It became a mantra, but not a false one.

Lots of meetings happened. Sometimes work or projects would follow a long while later, sometimes those people became collaborators on things. Directionless things have outcomes which tumble out of them. Unforced wonderful outcomes. The best things take time to percolate in brains for a bit.

Village halls are wonderful places, full of promise but no preconceptions of use or functions. They’re focal points without a focus. One day they host the WI, the next a kids party, the next a barn dance: useage and outcomes tumble out of them being welcoming but neutral. 

This is why James Governor and the people of Shoreditch work are doing something amazing with the Shoreditch Village Hall. It’s why I backed it straight away even though I live a train journey away. Magical things, unexpected things will tumble out of it. It’s a place for everyone to meet, the community that we’re in, the community we’re amongst, the community of the future. It’s brilliant.

And if you haven’t backed it yet you really should. It’s got 10 hours to go on Kickstarter and every penny will result in a chance that the right people will be in there for no directed reason at all and something magical will happen. 

Here’s the link. Click it. And put some money in.

Joining the dots to here. Button badges from my youth, the Rev. W. Awdry and Cory Doctorow. / Feb 11th 2013

I’ve long been interested in the narrow gauge railways of Wales and in the Ffestiniog in particular. This interest was formed on wet “summer” holidays in Wales. They were wonderful and so is the railway. It is a deeply historical place. Engineering problems of great magnitude were solved there with great ingenuity and skill. It was an honour and a bit of a schoolboy’s dream to visit the famous Boston Lodge works and be allowed to walk around as people worked and to work there yourself for a couple of days.

A trawl through my old box of enamel and button badges that my parents had kept was like an archeological dig into my childhood interests and one which yielded these treasures. Badges of one of the engines that we scanned last week. It feels almost unfathomable in many ways.

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Prince and the other England locomotives were old favourites. They had that fascinating quality of looking both old and very industrial but also very modern for their age - you knew that when built they were right at the cutting edge - the old new modernity. At some point in time every piece of history flips over from being the future in its own timeline. 

I also liked them as one of my favourite characters in the Railway Stories, the original ones, was based on Prince. I always liked the stories about the small narrow gauge railways best. They were all based loosely on reality, mainly at the Talyllyn Railway. They also didn’t involve the tin pot dictatorship of the Fat Controller which is quite hard to read as an adult to children in this century.

This one, Duke the Lost Engine, was the favourite of my books from my childhood, this almost pristine copy is the one I bought for my boys. 

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One of my favourite books of my adulthood is Makers by Cory Doctorow. It had such a profound effect on me but I had no idea what to do with it for a long while. It instilled in me the idea that we could all become manufacturers of things. We didn’t need to own factories, we just had to invent things, to make products that others might want. To become, to use a wonderful word from my youth that Kevin Marks reminded me of recently, boffins. (When I was younger I always really wanted to be a boffin. Maybe that’s why I did a chemistry degree - the labcoat came with the course.)

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So fast forward a few years from Makers to seeing some 3D prints at a model show and being impressed by their existence but knowing in my heart that they weren’t accurate models of things, they were caricatures and blunt ones at that. Having made very accurate models for a long while I knew that there had to be a better way to do some of this, but also that the route to an accurate end result is accurate data at the start. 

The cover of Makers has always fascinated me, the sprues on which pieces of the real world sit have a profound nature to them. That’s what we’re setting out to do with The Flexiscale Company. To record physical things accurately in minute detail and to then split them up and put them on a sprue so that you can put them back together again. Then you can have a real miniature something that either sits on a shelf, or sits on a model railway or maybe you make run on a model railway. 

It feels entirely wonderful that, a few years after reading a book which showed me a future I didn’t quite know what to do with, that I’m doing something with its germ of a possibility. Furthermore what we’re now working out piece by piece is  allowing me to make the models I dreamed of in my youth. 

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Oh and we’re going to make some new button badges too. If you’d like them, they’re one of our Kickstarter rewards.

Making things that people want. / Feb 4th 2013

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For a little while now I’ve had a feeling of disquiet about the 20th century and the cycle of overconsumption fuelled by mass media and economies of scale of mass manufacturing, and I’ve been fascinated in what the alternatives are and how we explore them. I’ve also been rather obsessed by this image from John Willshire.

For many years now I’ve made model trains. I’ve made them by hand out of brass, plastic and wood, customising existing things where I can, making from scratch where I can’t. I’ve also more recently wanted to make them differently, in collaboration with my sons. My methods and the methods they could cope with are wildly different and I’ve thought a lot about Airfix kits. 

We also last year laser scanned a steam locomotive and 3D printed it. It’s all building up to something, and that something has been forming more over the last month or so. In January we opened a shop selling kits we’ve wanted to make and now have made using 3D printing, we’ve sold a few and that makes us very happy. We also launched a projects and proposals site where people could say what they wanted and get their friends to vote for it. Several new projects have emerged and there’s one which seems to have some critical mass. Today we can share another step, a Kickstarter campaign to make that project happen, the link is here.

We’re on a journey to test out this lovely phrase from John. We’re convinced that a combination of crowdsourcing/crowdfunding/micro manufacture through additive manufacture gives an interesting counterpoint to product development. We have no idea where it will all end up, and that feels good.

Things I loved from 2012 (better late than never). / Jan 6th 2013

Kenneth Grange “Making Britain Modern” technically from 2011 but I only read it last year. Wonderful. Made me think that no matter how much we pour ourselves into web user centricity and product thinking we have a hell of a way to go before anyone even comes close to product designers like Grange. Also we need to think about design debt as well as technical debt as a price to pay for shipping fast. I can see no design debt in the things in this book.

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Toca Train made me fall in love with playing with trains again. Brilliant. Well done TocaBoca and Björn and Emil. I would happily ask the boys if I could take a turn with this app. And any toy that includes virtual tea drinking as gameplay wins. Made me think we’ve make model railways too complicated. Hmmm.

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Makie LabSuch a triumph. Very complex stuff, beautiful design and packaging, fantastic emotional connection between a “thing” and it’s owner. Perfect proof of the deeper resonance of items we commission over the mass produced. And I loved seeing Dan's and Paul's Makies be with them.

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'Lympics was wonderful and made me so ashamed I’d been cynical. They had me at Nimrod and the Shipping Forecast. It made me want to personally be part of an industrial revolution and also to believe in anyone’s ability. Oh and that Heatherwick bloke did something incredible and told a story with metal and fire in his cauldron. 

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The Government Digital Service Design Principles. I’m proud to have helped write the GDS Digital Principles but I’m in awe of these. They’re quite brilliant and Ben and the team should see them as one of the most important set of design rules published. I don’t want to sound too fanboyish but I think they’re on a level with Ram’s 10 rules. I also think they’re universally applicable to any startup, not just government.

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Just outside the top 5, but definitely in the top 10:

Little Printer

This blog post from Dan Catt

Satellite Eyes

Stamen Watercolour Map tiles

Most of the things James did, especially the stuff around drones.

And of course the festive favourite of Radio Roundabout gets a special mention.

Printing stainless steel bits from the future to mend the past. / Nov 27th 2012

tl;dr We’ve printed a stainless steel part of the engine with Shapeways to test it’s strength and suitability and as a test for printing an important part.

This is part 5 of a series of blog posts. You can read part 1 where we talk about why we’re doing this and part 2 where we talk about laser scanning the steam engine and part 3 where we print out the locomotive and parts of it. Part 4 details the high resolution imagery we have captured of Winifred.

Winifred is, for many of us, a perfect example of make do and mend and engineering culture. To keep a utilitarian piece of equipment working for 80 years is an amazing achievement and as the restoration progresses we will find many examples of both ingenuity and also of the use of manufacturing practices contemporary to their use, but which would have seemed like the future when Winifred was originally built. 

One example of this is welding and her welded water tank. Welding was just being invented when Winifred was built in 1885 and her original water tank was riveted. During the First World War there was a major surge in innovation in welding technology and practise and when Winifred needed a replacement water tank in the 1950s a welded tank was made, probably in the Quarry’s works.

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One part of Winifred which is currently life expired is the smokebox door. As can be seen from the photograph below the door has some holes in it which will reduce the efficiency of drafting. The smokebox door is the face of a steam locomotive and to fit a brand new spun stainless steel one would have the same effect as a particularly harsh facelift. 

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We are investigating making a new smokebox door for Winifred using 3D printing in stainless steel. We’ll use the laser scanning data to reproduce or represent the pitting and scarring accumulated over 80 years of work and repairs. The smokebox door is reasonably large but quite thin and so should be fabricable by additive manufacture. 

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To start testing this premise, and to understand the properties of the prints, we have printed the door latch from Winifred in stainless steel at Shapeways. Having used the plastic print, shown above, to test that we had the correct functional geometry of the latch from the laser scan and reconstruction, a stainless steel part was ordered from Shapeways.

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The part arrived in a suitably futuristic cardboard box and I was helped to open it by my youngest son who was in the office that day. This felt somehow appropriate. Just as we are now surrounded the output, and almost oblivious to the mechanics, of the industrial revolution and of robotic manufacture, his generation will be comfortable withe the output of additive manufacture.

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The part feels incredibly strong and will now be handed over to the team at Bala to test it. Hopefully we can use it for a period of time on one of the other sister locomotives to see how it stands up to the wear and tear of use.

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The surface finish of the part is not uniform or high resolution enough for us to currently be able to print the smokebox door and categorically say that the surface finish comes from the data rather than the manufacturing process, however I am confident that during the time of the restoration that will change. 

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One consideration in all of this, raised by Tony Streeter (the former editor of Steam Railway and a respected journalist in the field of railway preservation) in discussions in Bala, is that the crafts involved in the restoration also have an originality as well as the parts themselves. He’s totally right. We need to take care not to lose the crafts which kept these engines working during their early life and replace them with new technology just because we can. However I am convinced that given the use of welding and other contemporary techniques in previous repairs, that were additive manufacture available during Winifred’s working life and if it had been a cost effective methodology that it too would have been used.  

Capturing rust and patina with lots of pixels. / Nov 26th 2012

tl;dr The geometry is only part of the record of the condition, in some ways the more important data is in the condition; the rust, the patina and the wear marks.

This is part 4 of a series of blog posts. You can read part 1 where we talk about why we’re doing this and part 2 where we talk about laser scanning the steam engine and part 3 where we print out the locomotive and parts of it.

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Unfortunately the Gigapan site only displays the images using Flash therefore this blog post will make little sense on mobile platforms.

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The shape of a historic artefact is only a very small part of it. With an object as original as Winifred the majority of information is in the patina and surface condition of the object; where the life of the object bleeds through. To attempt to record this before Winifred is dismantled we have taken a set of “gigapixel” images which show how the locomotive interacted with her drivers and the mountains she worked in. 

The high resolution views of the cab and fittings will be of great use during the restoration and reassembly and highlight the hand bent and possibly hand beaten nature of the pipework.

On the driver’s side the wear at the base of the cab side is a testament to how the driver stood and worked. Leaning against the back of the cab his foot would have rested against the base of the outside of the cab panel day in day out leading to the wear seen above.

The backhead and the instrumentation in particular reward close inspection with places where individual scratches on the brasswork can be seen and where some of the engravings have been worn almost smooth through an 80 year working life.

Above the nameplate you can see wear on the lining. A close analysis shows at least two sets of lining and probably a third and original set of different colour (orange and red/brown) and style lining from 1885.

We now have about 2000 images of Winifred at high resolution, most at 36 Megapixel, taken with low distortion lenses. Before the restoration starts we will take yet more of key parts. During the dismantling of the locomotive we will further photographically catalogue parts and the dismantling itself, focussing on places where the condition has a historical relevance and on the interiors of the cab and the frames and inside motion which we have not yet been able to photograph. 

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The Gigapans of either side of the locomotive are of sufficient resolution to allow printing at life size giving an accurate record of overall condition, allowing future generations to see Winifred as we do now and as the workers in the quarry did in 1965 when she left for America.

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Printing trains. / Nov 23rd 2012

tl;dr Now we’ve got the data from the laser, the obvious thing to do is to print the steam engine or parts of it at a scale of up to 1:1

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts. You can read part 1 where we talk about why we’re doing this and part 2 where we talk about laser scanning the steam engine.

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Taking the laser data as a starting point the next part of the journey was for Digital Surveys to produce an engineering model of Winifred.

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Above is the model they produced. The quality of the model is exceptional and will be of great use in the reassembly of Winifred during restoration.

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The ability to remove swathes of the model to see clearly certain details will also prove useful for those restoring the locomotive. We are now working at how we pull some of the more historical detailed data into the model, such as the damage to the dome.

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However clearly nowadays one of the things that you want to do with geometrical data the moment you have it is to print it.

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An order was made to Sculpteo for a copy of Winifred at 1:25 scale and there was then what felt like a very long week waiting for it to arrive.

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What emerged from the bubble wrap was something that felt very different to a model. It feels far more like data made physical, which is of course what it is.

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Even printed in the cheapest white plastic and with all of the inherent faults of the medium and process it is an exquisite model and so much more. It is an artefact of digital reproduction and the industrial revolution; both the old one powered by humans and the new one which has more computers and robots.

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Even though it lost a few of the more fragile parts in the process and in transit and it is full of the striation of its manufacture if unequivocally is Winifred with the bent brake handle and hand bent pipework.

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Obviously we took the model to Wales on the latest trip to compare it to the real thing.

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The other thing we took to Wales was a part of the model at 1:1 scale which the lovely people at MakieLab had very kindly printed out for us on their MakerBot. We did this in part to see how the latch compared to the real thing to test the dimensionality of the model and we did it in part just because we could.

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What it showed us clearly was that we were, at the macroscopic level, dimensionally accurate. What it also showed was that if we did want to print out individual items from the locomotive at 1:1 scale we should probably do it with far closer reference to the mesh data from the laser scan, since that provides the more complex geometry which has occurred through wear and use to an item such at the latch, the model of which is held by Julian Birley (Winifred’s keeper) in the photo above.

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The printed latch would function perfectly, but if we were creating an exhibit or a real part for the loco based on the data, clearly we’d want to make it match the scanned data far closer.

Many thanks for this part of the project go to Peter Setterfield from Digital Surveys who has worked wonders with the 3D modelling from the data, to Alice Taylor, Ed Sludden and Sulka Haro from MakieLab and to Bre Pettis from MakerBot for being so overenthusiastic about what we were up to when I told him at the 3D Printshow in London (always useful when you are embarking on seemingly insane side projects).

There are more photos of the 3D scans, the 3D model and the prints here.

Scanning a steam train with fricking laser beams. / Nov 22nd 2012

tl;dr We scanned a real steam train with fricking laser beams and what emerged was better than we could have expected.

This is part 2 of a series of blog posts. You can read part 1 here, where we talk a bit about why we’re doing this project to record a steam locomotive called Winifred and the historical context.

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As part of a generation who grew up with Tron and the digitisation scene I’ve had a feeling of awe and almost overblown expectation of scanning real things with lasers to make digital objects. This was only heightened by recent “cultural objects” such as the Radiohead “House of Cards” video. It currently feels as if any 3D object is digital shape and mesh data waiting to exist. The speed, quality and price of white light and laser scanners appear to be adhering to something akin to Moore’s law if not an accelerated version. 

Still from Radiohead "House of Cards" by Aaron Koblin

Still from Radiohead “House of Cards” by Aaron Koblin.

Having started to think about creating model kits through 3D printing, one of the next considerations was how to get complex collections of geometries into the kit production pipeline. Laser scanning is a clear and obvious route for this, however the price and ease of acquisition of the data was an unknown. Given Winifred’s historical importance there was now a clear test case for this where the data had an intrinsic value to the railway preservation scene as a historical record and as artefact in its own right.

Researching laser scanning firms shows an industry emerging strongly, with the usual strata of quality and attention to detail at one end and buzzword chasing charlatans at the other. In my research one firm stuck out as very suitable for the project of scanning Winifred. That was a firm, Digital Surveys, who had a specialism in measuring and surveying “as built” installations such as ones in the petrochemical and offshore oil and gas sectors. These would have similarly complex challenges in terms of pipework and occluded areas. In addition they had the in house skill to interpret complicated point cloud data into complicated 3D models of engineering prototypes.

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After almost 2 months of intermittent planning, Ben from Digital Surveys came to Bala with his Faro laser scanner and collection of white reference spheres.

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He took a test scan and seeing Winifred in three dimensions emerge out of the workshop on the screen felt like the digitisation moment. It was the precise moment that Winifred became a digital object; a shape which could be “reproduced” if not in function, hitstory, totality, and at a lower resolution, but at will. 

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Throughout the day and in sometimes cramped conditions Ben took a total of 15 scans.

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A couple of weeks later we were sent this video of the point cloud. I can’t even begin to describe how it makes me feel. It’s so much better than we could have ever expected and expectations were already fairly high due to the cultural reference points described above. 

Winifred Point Cloud Animation from Digital Surveys on Vimeo.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the next phase of the journey deeper into the geometry.

We’d like to thank Ben and the team at Digital Surveys for all their work and also Dan Crow for all the company and help he gave on the day of recording, helping to document what was done. Thanks as ever to Julian Birley, Winifred’s keeper and the ever helpful team at the Bala Lake Railway.

Preserving the past with the near future. / Nov 21st 2012

tl;dr For the past few months we’ve been exploring how we can use emerging/partly emerged technology to help in the preservation/recording of a very special steam locomotive.

This is Winifred. She is in many ways a very ordinary steam locomotive, however through a quirk of fate she is quite extraordinary.

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She was built in 1885 for the Penrhyn Slate Quarry. For most of her 80 year working life, she worked at Port Penrhyn helping in the transfer of finished slates to be transported around the world. Later she was moved to the bleak conditions of the levels where men and dynamite relieved the mountain of its slate. Britain built much of the industrial revolution; the Welsh slate industry put a roof over it. 

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Image shown by kind permission from Ted McAvoy

Nowadays an 80 year working lifespan for a utilitarian object such as Winifred would seem amazing. She is effectively a Victorian era tractor. The culture of engineering and make do and mend is largely to thank for her existence. She started working in the age of Queen Victoria and, thanks to regular repairs, finished working in during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. She has worked through two world wars.

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In 1965 the Penrhyn Quarry decided to sell its steam locomotives and the BBC showed a short piece by Fife Robertson on the sale and at this point Winifred’s journey from humble to celebrity began. An American antiquities dealer saw the piece and bought six of the locomotives and had them shipped to the USA. There, an American businessman called Tony Hulman, who ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bought Winifred and two other locomotives for a museum which sadly, but fortunately for us, never really happened. Winifred after 2 years on display, during which no restoration was performed, was then placed in perfectly dry storage in the shadow of the grandstands and a short distance from the famous Indy 500 yard of bricks. There she sat for over 40 years, sleeping through the advent of the personal computer, digital photography, the commercial applications of lasers, the internet, the mobile phone and all the technology which we now see as normality and all of that which soon will be.

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In 2012 thanks to the efforts of Julian Birley, and a promise to the Hulman estate that she will be restored sensitively, she has returned as a time capsule contained in a shipping container. We are now introducing her to all of the technology that she missed out on seeing arrive with the aim of getting the most accurate record possible of her extraordinary condition.

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She is almost exactly as she was in 1965. Time has stood still for her. When you see her condition you realise you are in a room with the past. It is quite extraordinary and very moving. The remains of the final fire of her working life is in the firebox.

There is still a mixture of slate dust, ash and coal on the footplate.

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Her paintwork shows where she has interacted with people in their every day work and the Welsh countryside during the course of her working life.

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Her brass displays the patina caused by the hands of her drivers and the harsh weather conditions.

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The driver’s side of her cab shows where the driver rested his foot as he went about his day’s work.

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The seal of the capsule has been broken and now the only thing to do is to try and create a record which will act as a time capsule for future generations to enjoy. They will probably scoff at the crudeness of the recording, but hopefully will be pleased that we captured as much data as we could.

The first parts of the recording are now almost complete. We have used a laser scanner and gigapixel photography to get as accurate a record of her geometry and condition as possible. The next part of the recording which we’ll do over the next year to 18 months will be to photograph all of the parts as they come off the locomotive and scan many of them. This will enable us to create a full catalogue of the locomotive and to have a complete record to use when she is put her back together again, just as she is now, with a few extra surprises about how life expired parts will be replaced along the way.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the laser scanning part of this process.

(Also see part 3 where we print the train)

The Best Desk in the World Ever. / Nov 19th 2012

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A couple of times in the past few months this has been my desk. Tomorrow I’ll be starting to tell the story of how and why and discussing how it will carry on being “the best desk ever” every now and then for the next couple of years.

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