tl;dr Some thoughts which have been percolating for a few months part written and now hurriedly rushed out in a Brighton cafe so that people don’t think I just stole it all from Tom Armitage’s dConstruct talk.
My current fascination with 3D printing model railway items stems from what I now realise is years of dissatisfaction with my hobby; making a model railway. I’m currently “working” in understanding manufacturing and supply chains, but I am also interested in seeing if I can through whatever “entity”/”objects” that comes out of this that I fix a personal piece of repeated behaviour as a part of this process and to understand what that means.
For many years now I have had a wide collection of part finished and fully finished models that I have lost interest in in many ways. Some of them are excellent in terms of quality and they’ve all included a lot of effort. I’ve always put it down to a lack of time due to family and work pressures, but I’ve come to realise that it’s because of other factors. What I’ve done in the meanwhile is make really good things but in many ways emotionally unsatisfactory models of things other than what I really want to make.
Recently I saw a quote which summed up in a different direction some of what I’ve been thinking:
“We should own less but with more value – Things we own need to perform better for us”– Assa Ashuach
For me, the twentieth century and mass production has created a large number of objects which we are taught we want or need. Mass production and economies of scale have meant that products are designed to fit the needs of a purchasing audience rather than a “user”. In a pre-industrial revolution era you would either commission to a greater or lesser extent, or make yourself. What this has meant is that we end up “settling” for things, which through not being quite what our heart desires, are close enough,and end up not being a terribly long term purchase often leading to other things we settle for.
3D printing has a potential to a greater or lesser extent to fix this. Yes, objects may be more expensive, but they can in theory be the exact thing we’d like and will have greater longeivity. At some point our phones will probably include quite good 3D scanners and our homes will probably include something that is akin to a multifunction 3D printer. Manufacture will once again be local and more bespoke, more personal, hopefully less resources will be consumed and we’ll have less but better.
There are currently two almost polar opposite branches of the model railway hobby which relate to this and I fear will lead to a demise. The toy/model train market and the high end kit/scratch building market. What is lacking in my opinion is a middle ground.
What has tended to happen in the “toy” side of model railways is that the manufacturers have competed in advertising terms on accuracy, which has in my opinion has had a quite damaging effect. One part of this is that there models appear more slowly from the manufacturer and they may not make what you want, so you settle for what is there. The other part is to do with a missing social interaction; the story of *your* personal one of the object.
When I was growing up, the models were significantly less accurate and detailed, and as a result you would spend a lot of time modifying them to a greater or lesser extent and greater or lesser success. They took on a life of their own. You had invested more than just your money in them and could tell friends a story about them, about what you had done. You could inspire each other and provide tips. The raw material was readily available, more reasonable and less finished, and thus felt readily malleable; there was a good chance that through your efforts you could improve it. The same is true of the stories which permeate the making/painting of Airfix kits or Warhammer models.
The only story with today’s highly detailed and pre-painted and weathered models is that of purchasing and unboxing. There is little emotional connection. Someone could swap your model for an identical one and you’d not notice the difference or have a sense of loss. You also have no opportunity to improve and to get a deeper skill, and hobbies as well as being about an enjoyable way to pass the time are often about deepening a skill or thinking about different non-crucial problems. There’s only so far you can go in improving your abilities to purchase something online and to remove it from its box. The story is much shorter and far less personal.
On the other hand, the highly skilled people, who probably developed their skill through modding the less detailed trains, have very long and very complicated stories to tell with arcane and complex tools (e.g. piercing saws) which if you don’t have the vocabulary can be confusing. It’s hard to get into socially.
They make very difficult kits or scratch build models. The kits are often either low run high quality resin prints (costly and easy to break), low-medium run medium-low quality white metal (always needs bending back to shape and a lot of sanding) or my personal nemesis the etched brass kit which first of all demand that you imagine an array of two dimensional objects into a three dimensional object through a set of origami moves augmented with solder and burnt fingers.
The stories that anyone apart from an experienced practitioner could tell are only ones of failure and disappointment, not a way to encourage more people into the hobby. I have recently vowed to no longer buy etched brass kits as I am only contributing to a point of peak brass and boxes that my children will find full of shiny sheets of metal that I have never done anything with.
There seem to be a group of people missing currently in the world of making kits for hobbies; the “user”. All too often the kits I encounter are designed for the manufacturer not the customer. We’d like through the project we’re starting to fix that.
The other thing we’re going to try and fix is designing for more than one. I want to build kits which are designed all around the experience of the customer and for them to tell a friend/peers/others what they’ve done. It is all about, to use a phrase from Matt Locke, about designing for at least two.