What a model train project can teach us about the future of 3D scanning and printing

When people discuss the “next industrial revolution”, there’s a legitimate focus on the wild possibilities offered by 3D printing. But, in some cases, that’s only half the story: the flipside is 3D scanning, and an excellent demonstration of the interplay between these two emerging technologies can be found in the recent activities of some British model train enthusiasts.
The hobbyists have established a startup called The Flexiscale Company, which launched a Kickstarter project on Monday that aims to fund the production of model kits for several old and very obscure locomotives, the Ffestiniog Englands. If recently-announced plans to 3D-print a moon base are all about creating futuristic designs, The Flexiscale Company is trying to recreate designs of the past.

Copying trains with lasers

What’s fascinating is the accuracy with which they can achieve this. Last year Chris Thorpe, the man behind the project, approached a firm called Digital Surveys that was more used to modelling for the energy sector. He got someone from the company to come over with his equipment and laser-scan Winifred, an 1885 steam engine that had recently returned to the UK for restoration after a 40-year stint lying in storage under the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This was the result:
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/50820967 w=500&h=281]
With that data in hand, Thorpe was able to do two things. First, he sent it off to the French 3D-printing firm Sculpteo to make a 1:25-scale model of Winifred. As he put it in a blog post:

“Even printed in the cheapest white plastic and with all of the inherent faults of the medium and process it is an exquisite model and so much more. It is an artifact of digital reproduction and the industrial revolution; both the old one powered by humans and the new one which has more computers and robots.”

However, the other thing Thorpe wanted was to recreate part of Winifred in 1:1 scale, namely her smokebox door. To test whether this would work, he sent the data for the door latch to Shapeways, which returned a copy in stainless steel: effectively a spare part for vehicle that’s more than 120 years old, complete with the patina gained by the original part over the years, with 1mm accuracy.
To make that finish even more authentic, though, The Flexiscale Company needs more accuracy in its scanning, so the four Ffestiniog Englands are being scanned with a system called Surphaser, which offers 0.2mm accuracy. That means around 10GB of data per train, since you ask.
Those who donate to the Kickstarter campaign can get the resulting model at varying sizes – in the old days scaling a model meant hard, manual work, but with this sort of data it’s becoming easy to automate. Those who donate £1,000 ($1,572) or more will also get to have themselves scanned, so a mini-me version can be the train’s driver.
The Flexiscale Company itself is unlikely to become large-scale though, Thorpe said:

“I’m doing this because I’ve always wanted these kits. I’m interested in a space where you can have the things you really want. A lot of the time you tend to buy things that aren’t optimal and you don’t tend to have a long-lasting relationship with them. I’m interested in the sustainability aspect of it as well.”

What can we learn from this?

The model train scene is about as niche as you can get, but the work being done by The Flexiscale Company will allow those with even more specialized interests to be catered for. The big model manufacturers such as Hornby are themselves testing out 3D scanning, but even there they will stick to relatively well-known engines. The Ffestiniog Englands will only be of interest to a small subset of people but, once they’ve been scanned, the trains can be made to order on demand and in a variety of sizes — economy of scale is not an issue.

Chris Thorpe presenting at the Monki Gras scaling conference in London

Chris Thorpe presenting at the Monki Gras scaling conference in London

That makes scanning the variable here, but those who own these vintage locomotives have a strong interest in seeing that scanning take place: restoration. There are ways to reproduce these parts by other means, but they’re much harder work.
As for the cost of the scanning, well, that depends on what you’re scanning. The equipment being used to record locomotives costs in excess of £15,000, but it can be rented with an experienced technician for a lot less — the Surphaser scans only cost £900 per train.
The resulting product cost is pretty eye-opening. According to Thorpe, a model of a certain mass and detail may cost £160 from Hornby and around £200 from The Flexiscale Company – more, but not nearly as much more as you might suspect. For something so niche, this is remarkable.
And what about smaller objects? After all, that’s where the scanning itself can become something for the home hobbyist.

“You can use Kinect and a cheap USB-powered turntable,” Thorpe said. “There are different bits of software – the one that works the best is Artec Studio. The Artec guys make really good laser scanners, so you’re using all their knowledge.”

This stuff is being done now, and it can be achieved incredibly cheaply, so it’s probably worth starting to chew over the implications. Here are just a few of questions I have running through my mind:

  • Are we going to see more heritage preservation operations go technical, with objects being scanned in the same way Google(s goog) is trying to scan and record the world’s book catalog?
  • Will there be any way to enforce design rights when anyone can not only disseminate schematics online, but create those schematics themselves through 3D scanning?
  • How might these advances affect the servicing and repair industries, particularly in terms of after-sales support?

I don’t expect to see answers anytime soon. But in the meanwhile, if you’re interested in supporting an innovative model train startup, here’s the Kickstarter pitch:
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