Disruptive thinking in narrow gauge printing

I’ve recently spent some time talking to a guy called Chris Thorpe, who like me and many others came back to narrow gauge railway modelling as a hobby after some time “having a life”. Also like me Chris is a geek; working with the web, interested in design and science and… well, anything interesting. Probably also orders of magnitude cleverer than me but let’s not go there.

Anyway, Chris found that as an adult returning to the hobby he was dis-satisfied with the experience he was getting as a narrow gauge modeller, and realised that the reason was caught up in the most important bit to him (and I dare say all of us) – making stuff.

Ready-to-run Austrian HOe is great quality, but for someone in the UK its hard to go there and measure that part of a station you missed out. UK prototypes are therefore more practical but you’re then in the realm of kits and scratchbuilding. And while many kits are very good quality (and let’s face it, some also aren’t) what grated was the experience around them. When you compare unclear instructions and parts that maybe don’t fit quite right or are just unidentifiable, with the classic, straightforward and familiar visual approach of Airfix kit instructions you start to realise there are things that could be done better.

This is not to suggest that kits are undesirable, or that those in the business of designing kits should just pack up. In fact the complete opposite because making a kit is part of telling a story and making your hobby personal. Making a kit means you’ve achieved something more than just opening a box. But what seems to be missing, or at least rare, is an approach to kit design from the point of view of the user – aka the customer. Coming from a digital background where “user-centred design” is how successful web projects are run this seems like a natural way to go about things.

What it boils down to is that you’re much more likely to be proud of something that has been a pleasure to build than something you had to fight into shape. You can read more about all this in his own thoughts on his blog.

Chris is also a great advocate of 3D printing and has already put a lot of effort into gathering data to be able to start putting these ideas into practice with kits that should be simple and satisfying to build and reproducible in many scales. This process has also led, indirectly, to a wider project on data and cutting-edge technology in railway preservation but that’s a story which will be told in its own time.

While the right moment to fully embrace 3D printing is not (quite) here yet it does feel as if Chris’s way of approaching kit design is absolutely spot on and has given me a lot to think about. It will be hard work to get right, but worth doing right. I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.

This entry was posted in ideas, model railways, narrow gauge. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Disruptive thinking in narrow gauge printing

  1. Phil Parker says:

    I’d have left this comment on his blog, but it doesn’t accept them.

    This reads like someone who has found a “solution” and now is trying to define the world to fit. In the review of kits there is no mention of injection moulded plastic, despite the author mentioning Airfix. I suspect this is because it fits into the same market secgment as he envisages 3D print. Also, the comment on whitemetal “always needs bending back to shape and a lot of sanding” might have been true years ago but generally , current kits go together without all this fuss. Instructions are admittedly a different matter but that’s mostly because they take a long time to do well, time=money, and in the UK market, people value low prices over quality.

    What he seems to be suggesting is that all the skills people like me have gathered with hand tools SHOULD be replaced with those of operating a CAD package. Personally, I don’t see it has to be either/or. Learning to get the best from CAD isn’t easy. I’ve tried and even though I’m very computer literate, I struggled and never got very far. The langauge is arcane, the tools complex and learning curve steep – exactly the same charge levelled at traditional scratch building and kit building.

    Where I do agree with the piece is the bit about people not feeling a connection to the model they own if it’s just pulled out of a box. That said, there are plenty of people trying to help others make that connection – read all of the mainstream modelling press and you’ll find it full of “how to” articles. In truth these probably occupy a larger section of the press than the amount of people who bother doing anything more than opening a box, but all the editors know that box-opening requires no more than the relevant manufacturers catalogue.

    To sumarise, Chris seems to be saying “I can’t build kits and I can do CAD. Therefore kits=Bad and CAD=Good”. He’s wrong. There is space for both. Any building is good and I (personally) don’t care how you do it.

Comments are closed.