Monday, November 10, 2014

3D Printing's Killer App: Printing Tons of Human Figures?

Human figures are a big problem for model railroads. There's few sources for the figures, they're often drawn to resemble 1970's European figures (because of the primary vendor). There's few figures available for the uncommon modeling scales. But we need those human figures to keep our scenes look like we're modeling a live, active world, and not some post-neutron-bomb apocalyptic scene. (Kids, if you don't know what a neutron bomb is, ask your parents. Or ask Google.)

One of my big surprises for the Form One is how beautifully it does tiny figures. showed some examples soon after I got the printer. This latest photo shows the results from letting the printer do lots of multiple figures over a couple evenings last week - about forty figures in four different poses.

The figures are all from the Great Fredini, who has scanned attendees at the 2013 World MakerFaire New York and other events on the East Coast. Here, I'm printing four models: MichaelZ, Sir Makealot, Kathy C., and Joe and his kids.

After making do with 1970's German figures from Preiser or random injection molded figures from unknown manufacturers, there's two things very special about these figures. First, they're very detailed - you can see some of the details of the person's face and hair. That's detail you usually don't see in injection molded figures. Second, these figures look like real Americans, because, well, they are. If you're not modeling a world filled with wasp-waisted women in tea dresses and conservatively dressed men from the Preiser line, these figures look much more suited for a modern American layout: people who are normal sized for America, or potentially wearing football jerseys, or t-shirts, or shorts and flip-flops. These models aren't perfect for me and my 1930's layout, but I appreciate that they look *right* for a modern layout.

These 3d models don't fully replace the injection molded people. It takes time and an expensive printer to make the figures. These models are skewed towards modern-day figures, so you're not going to be able to get a full set of 1940's figures any time soon. Still, it's going to make filling a scene with realistic people much easier for our modern modelers.

Technical details: I could easily print about 9 figures in HO scale in an hour and a half, printing at 0.050 mm (0.002 inch) layer resolution. The print time was driven mostly by the time to raise the platform; I probably could have printed 16 or 25 figures with little increase in print time. My only constraint was just getting the software to handle more figures; these models are very detailed, so just trying to do the slicing match on 25 figures brought my old laptop to its knees. Cutting the details on these models would have made printing 25 - or 75 - quite feasible. And the great thing, of course, is that none of this is HO specific. If you wanted S scale figures, or TT scale figures, or 1:43.5 figures to match your true O scale models, you can print all the human figures you need for your layout. So with a long weekend, I'd have the figures for a pretty big mob.

Fredini's models were scanned using a Microsoft Kinect sensor, a home-made scanning rig, and some off-the-shelf software for converting the Kinect's data into a three-dee model. He's continuing to scan folks at various events, and his collection of 3d models of visitors to his booth at Coney Island is another great source of figures for your model layout. I'm waiting to see a similar scanning booth at model railroad shows.


  1. I could use a bunch of modern industrial workers. There are only a few sets and those guys are all over my layout. I'm also planning a scene with workers around a "Roach Coach" and I need people eating greasy food.

  2. Want to poke through the Great Fredini's models, and pick out the ones that look like construction workers? (Guess we'd need hard hats for them, but we'll at least find the right body types).

    Putting together a full "food truck and diners" set would be fun! Let me see if I can find a food truck model on SketchUp's 3D warehouse for a starting point.

  3. Not really any "roach coaches" yet in my era, but I do have a hot-dog stand on the layout. If you ever did anything with the people casually eating, I'd be interested.
    Tony Thompson

  4. I didn't see any scans of folks eating, but you can check out the full list of the Great Fredini's scans here: