How did we get here?

by Chris Thorpe

tl;dr As a lifelong model railway person I’ve always wanted kits of specific things I couldn’t find. Now thanks to 3D scanning and 3D printing I can have them, Now that we’re investigating and using crowdsourcing and crowdfunding others can have that experience too with kits they’ve always wanted.

For many years now I’ve been fascinated by trains and model railways. I’m not quite sure where and when it started, but a trawl through boxes in my parents loft the other week yielded my collection of badges of locomotives from the "Great Little Trains of Wales" from the mid-1970s. Some of my earliest holiday memories are of the narrow gauge trains which inhabit the top left corner of Wales.

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I made Airfix kits throughout my youth and also I didn’t just buy ready to run models from Hornby, Airfix and Mainline (now Bachmann Branchline), I modified, repainted and improved them, adding brass details and wire handrails. I developed my craft over the years, made mistakes, hopefully improved, many others did the same I’m sure. Plastic was always a material I felt comfortable with and nowadays when I scratch build things it’s always the first material which I choose.

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A few years ago Cory Doctorow published a fiction book called Makers. It had a really profound effect on me. That effect was the feeling that we could all become manufacturers of things, that barriers were constantly being lowered. At the time of having this feeling, though, I had no idea what things I wanted to become a manufacturer of. 

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Last year John Willshire drew a very powerful image which resonated. The text - ‘Make Things People Want’ beats ‘Make People Want Things’ - felt very poignant. The 20th century was a time of making bets on what product to produce, making an enormous number of them and then making people want them through mass media advertising. This current century feels different. Through digital means we can efficiently ask people what they want. Moveover, if we’re open to the possibilities, they can tell us - the end users can suggest the products they want and become the commissioners. After thinking for a while I realised the things I’d always wanted was plastic kits of the trains of Wales I’d loved so much.

Fred Wilson also made a comment which inspired some thinking last year. He said that Kickstarter was a “Futures Market for Products”. Having spent some time looking at Shapeways and other 3D printing bureaux, and looking at domestic printers such as the Makerbot, it felt like you could become a manufacturer of things whilst minimising the conventional risks of being one. Print on demand means not having to hold stock. Only running projects that people want reduces the risk of lost research and development spend and pre-production costs. Kickstarter could clearly be used as a funding mechanism, but also for market research and as a filter of interest - if the campaign didn’t get funded then that told you something, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The risk with this strategy is that people don’t always know what they want until they see it, so we’ll still design the things we want - a blend of crowdsourcing and benign dictatorship. 

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Last summer we started experimenting. Vijay Paul of DotSan made us a prototype kit of a Dinorwic Quarry Slate Wagon. You can buy the evolution of that kit now along with the sister wagon types in our online shop. I’d always wanted a plastic kit of one. The feeling when I made the first one was amazing. When we sold the first one a day after the shop launched in January it was incredible. When we shipped the first set of orders it felt wonderful and when we got a repeat order it was even more so. 

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We realised though that some things that you want to model were too complex even for incredibly talented CAD model makers like Vijay to create perfectly just from photographs, or at least that the time taken to produce the model would be too long and the process of checking the model’s fidelity would be too involved and too risky. We looked into 3D scanning and found a firm, Digital Surveys, who normally scan petrochemical plants and oil rigs and who specialise in “as built” surveys.

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They worked with us to scan Winifred, a steam locomotive that had just returned from the USA in an almost identical condition to that she left the quarry in Wales in 1965. The survey, 3D model and 3D printed model that ensued showed us that we were on the right track. 

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A trip to a model show in November where I would normally have spent a fair amount on kits, which would almost be consolation prizes for the kits I’d really wanted, showed me something interesting; once you can commission and can make the things you really want you don’t want suboptimal things quite so much or at all. It was at this point that I realised we should open up the process that we were going through for other people. Between Christmas and New Year, when we planned to launch Flexiscale, we built a site where people could propose new kit projects and could cast votes of support. In two months over 70 users have proposed over 20 kits and have cast hundreds of votes and the pace is picking up. Niches are where passions lay. 

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It was clear by mid-late January that one proposal was gathering a lot more support than the others so we decided to take it further. We approached the Festiniog Railway in Wales whose engines were the subject of the proposal. We asked them if we could laser scan them, they agreed and actually then got very firmly behind the campaign. We had a small window of opportunity in which the four locomotives would be in the same place and at the same time to be scanned, Digital Surveys were booked again, they’d managed to hire the new hotness of 3D scanners - the Surphaser - and travel plans were made to scan the locomotives in the early part of February.

We launched the Kickstarter campaign on the first day of scanning the locomotives, by the time we returned from Wales we’d raised about a third of the money.

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The locomotives are wonderful and important, the oldest one of the four, Princess, is 150 years old this year and is the oldest surviving narrow gauge locomotive in the world. The Festiniog and that locomotive are the origin of the small industrial railways of the world which enabled efficiency in mining, road building and almost every part of the industrial revolution. The slate quarries served by narrow gauge railways in Wales such as the Festiniog literally put a roof on the buildings of the industrial revolution.

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The data is now in for the four locomotives and we’re starting the work of modelling from it. At the unveiling of Princess at Paddington Station on yesterday we gave the invited VIPs and guests copies of a newspaper printed by Newspaper Club about the project. The Kickstarter project is over 100% funded and we feel heartened that at least for this first case our theory is proven.

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People have said what they want, backed it with their time and money and we’re going to make it in return. We’re becoming a micro/mini manufacturer and a platform for “kits as a service”. Everyone touts the advantage of 3D printing for creating unique and customised objects. For us and for model makers it’s about creating the niche objects and at a wide variety of scales - the economy of scale is in the creation of the 3D file once and reusing it for a variety of scales, something impossible with physical tooling.

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We’re preparing our next round of Kickstarter projects. We spoke to the keepers of the locomotives on Friday and they very happily gave their permission. The users of the service are creating new project proposals almost every other day at the moment. We hope this is the beginning of something big and yet small. More importantly it’s made up of the needs and desires of a community who will, over time, all get the lovely feeling I had last year, when for the first time I held in my hands something I’d wanted for a long while.

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p.s. this data is too precious to lock it up, so we’re working on opening up the original data and the CAD files of individual parts with other manufacturers (of wheels and parts) and railway societies who are keeping the real things going!