Friday, June 26, 2015

Showing off the 3d Models

I’ve obviously been writing lots about the 3d printed freight cars over the last several months. Apart from showing them to the local model railroad lunch group, I’ve had few chances to show them off in person, show off what 3d printing can do, and share models of otherwise unavailable freight cars.

Last weekend, I went off to the Bay Area Prototype Modelers meet. BAPM is a yearly get-together for sharing models and discussing techniques. BAPM is arranged as show-and-tell; they provide tables, you put down models. Unlike NMRA meets, there’s no contests or judging, no explicit demands for lengthy write-ups describing the prototype - just modelers coming together to share what they’ve been doing. BAPM isn’t unique; there are prototype meets like this elsewhere in the U.S., giving modelers a chance to share. The meets also tend to attract folks interested in specific prototypes, and in modern (1980 and later) models. (See BAPM’s photos from the meet, or read Tony Thompson’s review of the event.)

This sounded like a great crowd to see the freight cars - even if my models aren’t perfect, I suspected folks would be interested in using 3d printing for making specific prototypes. So I hauled a bunch of my freight cars off to Richmond, spread the cars out with a bit of information on how they were made, and had some good conversations.

I went in with a bit of an agenda - the same one I’ve shared here often enough. I wanted to show that a home 3d printer (ok, a pricey home 3d printer) could make models that were approaching the quality of injection molded kits. I wanted to highlight that the technology worked really well for making lots of cars, both because printing a new car was easy, and because I’d end up with lots of “good enough” test prints as I was working on my design. I wanted to show that designing the 3d model was tedious, but possible for folks who were novices at making CAD drawings. I wanted to stress the race between having enough models, and finally getting the design with all the detail I want.

Folks heard that message loud and clear. Harry Wong, one of the organizers, walked up early in the day, and asked “which of the cars was 3d printed”? I waved at all twenty cars laid out on the table. “All of them.” (Pro tip: when showing off 3d printed models, always bring a whole bunch of models to stress that you can make these at will.) Tony Thompson, who wrote the SP freight cars books I used for source material, loved seeing SP prototypes that weren’t available commercially.

I also shared how the 3d printer made it easy to make all the little parts for set dressing - lug boxes, drying flats, piles of sacked prunes. Those parts might not be cheaper than the commercial ones, but it’s nice to be able to make new ones whenever I’m in a set dressing mood.

I also broke one of the prime directives of BAPM. In violation of all the “don’t touch the models” signs, I brought a handful of 3d printed parts for people to touch and examine so folks could get a real feel for 3d printing. (I explicitly had an area on my display to hold the “ok to touch models”, and marked them all so it was obvious what was touchable.) A couple folks noticed the slight warp I’ll get in some of the flat cars (sometimes fixable with careful drying in the sun, sometimes not). Others could feel that the 3d printed cars could be robust enough for operations, or get a sense for the level of details on the models.

Several others asked about what it took to make a 3d model, and whether their particular model could be printed easily, either at Shapeways or on the Form One. One modeler scratchbuilding wind turbine blade loads for flatcars asked about 3d printing some of the odd-shaped mounting hardware that the real railroads use to hold the windmill blades. His particular pieces were perfect for 3d printing - small, slightly odd shapes, with enough bolts and other details to make for an interesting model. Some folks were asking about boxcars; I mentioned my one try at a boxcar and that the 3d printer didn’t do perfectly flat surfaces as well as styrene sheet.

Meanwhile, I also got to see some great models. Along with lots of traditional modeling, I saw three or four other folks building with Shapeways. Jason Hill of Owl Mountain Models had a Shapeways master for the Southern Pacific F-50-4 flat car he intends to make as an injection molded kit. (I spent a good ten minutes comparing my model and his to see what detail I left off; Jason's crawled all over the similar Union Pacific flat car at the Orange Empire Railroad Museum, so he's matched the prototype much better than me.) Other folks were using Shapeways to make specific boxcar doors that weren’t available on production models. There were also a ton of great, traditional models; Jesus Pena showed off the huge fleet of UPS trailers he’s been building for his Free-mo Richmond intermodal yard - at least forty trailers, with plans to double that number for realism.

BAPM is definitely a great meet, and worth attending; it also got me fired up to do the next set of refinements on my models. Next year, BAPM will again be in Richmond on Saturday, June 18, 2016. I’m hoping I’ll have some new models to show off there!

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