If you're interested in the technology behind the models and service, you might like our engineering blog.
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The tell-tale lines of 3D printing on prototype Quick Build kits on the Airfix stand at Toy Show 2014 in London.

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A design pattern for simple assembly? The LEGO-ification of things.

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I spent a bit of time over coffee this morning playing/making an Airfix kit. I haven’t made an Airfix Spitfire for over 30 years. In this particular case I was making the Quick Build Spitfire. I’ll test it on our panel of young makers later in the week. 

It’s really fun, a very interesting experience. Is it a kit? Yes, absolutely. Not necessarily in the format we’re all used to but definitely a kit. It’s a bit more than that. This particular one also feels a bit like a combination of LEGO and a 3D jigsaw puzzle. 

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The blocks are totally compatible with LEGO bricks. An exact fit and match. Some may fear that there may be consequences but the LEGO patent expired a few years ago and at a similar point in time they lost a trademark battle in which the judge ruled that a technical shape could not be a trademark.

What is fascinating to me about this kit is how Airfix is using a pattern present in the cultural psyche of children about how things fit together. The LEGO studs and sockets are almost a shorthand to children about making physical things and, increasingly through games such as LEGO Star Wars, making digital facsimiles of physical construction and deconstruction. The digital games are product marketing for the physical products which then extend the gameplay from screen. Ever increasingly LEGO kits are using specialist parts to create complex geometries making it a less mutable toy, the Airfix kits carry this on to logical extension with parts which are so specialised they can never be used for anything else but which together form a near accurate model.

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One thing which saddened me was that the historical information about the item you’re making has been replaced by an infographic panel about the statistics of the item which is probably in some ways less readable for the target audience of 5+. 

It’s a lovely kit though and very fascinating, I hear they’re selling very well and hopefully this will result in children progressing into being teenage and adult kit makers. 

Coincidentally this morning my attention was drawn to an article in Wired about LEGO’s rise since it has been licensing existing characters and IP. Although the Airfix kits are not connected to LEGO the extension of the physical pattern of the studs into model kits just keeps on with the trend of LEGO-fication of content. 

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Airfix Quick Build Spitfire kit.

A very interesting development. The Quick Build kits in case you haven’t come across them are aimed at the 5+ age kit builders as an introductory range. The plastics have been carefully colour matched and the finish is very high. The use of a “LEGO style” stud system is really interesting. 

More on these kits and LEGO in the next post.

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Iterating on the subframes of the England locomotives

The Englands in real life are quite unusually built. Much of the structure of the locomotive is the boiler itself. The frames are bolted to the front of the firebox and the drawbar to the rear meaning that the firebox is taking much of the drawbar load. The saddle tank sits onto a subframe supported on a frame, with valances to either side hung off of the subframe. 

When modelling the Englands, since many of the different scale kits are without chassis to provide support during fabrication/transit, the majority of the structural integrity is taken up by these subframes with a small component being provided by the attachments between assemblies (smokebox/saddle tank/cab). 

The subframes need to appear delicate from the outside as they do on the real thing, yet have strong structural integrity.

Initial efforts surrounded strengthening the valances, thickening them inwards with additional supports and cross members. However in all attempts they were simply too fragile. 

A novel approach has now been taken which is to model them afresh and afix high resolution prints for the valances to them. This part of the development has been incredibly iterative through the use of 3D printing with over 20 iterations leading to the final result.

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Revised strengthened water tank for Palmerston. Just the locating pins to add now.

Revised strengthened water tank for Palmerston. Just the locating pins to add now.

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New tank showing space through into the smoke box. For Palmerston.

New tank showing space through into the smoke box. For Palmerston.

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Frame iterations

Frame iterations

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New tank showing space through into the smoke box. For Palmerston.

New tank showing space through into the smoke box. For Palmerston.

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Tank and frame test fit for Palmerston.

Tank and frame test fit for Palmerston.

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Iterations in plastic. Palmerston’s tank.

Iterations in plastic. Palmerston’s tank.