3D Printing & Model Railroading – No it’s not Voodoo (Part 3)

So, I previously made some introductory posts about 3D printing and Model Railroading as Part 1 and Part 2.  This is Part 3, written while I am sitting at the Digital Innovation Hub at the Fort York Branch of the Toronto Public Library.  I am here on a Saturday morning with the Makerbot 3D printer churning out a couple of test prints of things that will eventually be printed by Shapeways when they are completed.  Today’s post touches on the ability to “rapid prototype” parts using a 3D printer.

The Digital Innovation Hub has three printers, all of which are “PLA” or Polylactic acid printers, which lay down layers of the plastic material using a coil of the plastic material squeezed through a heated print head.  It doesn’t produce the clean and ready to use for a display model that a commercial service like Shapeways produces, but it is cheap, relatively fast, and an affordable way to make sure that your designs are going to work right when you spend a lot of money on a commercial print, or if you are going to put it up for sale to others.  They have two Makerbot Replicator 2 machines, and a Lulzbot Taz printer.  There are slight differences between them, but they all function basically the same.  These are also printers that are in a price range that conceivably you could afford to have at home, but you’d want to be making a lot of use of them for that to be worthwhile.

The two Makerbot Replicator 2 printers (left) and the Lulzbot Taz5 printer (right) at the Fort York branch of the Toronto Public Library

The last time I was here in May, I tested the underframe for the 3D printed model of the coach Nova Scotia.  I was looking to see if the bolsters for the trucks to be mounted to worked, if they fouled the trucks turning, and if the car would sit at the right height based on what I designed.  It turned out, the car rode high, and the trucks wouldn’t negotiate turns theway I’d designed the bolster.  Finding this out for 2 hours of my time and $6.00 beat waiting weeks and $30-40+ with Shapeways.  It also meant I could adjust the 3D model on the computer and have a much higher confidence level that the final print would work when I ordered it.  As you can see from the post linked above the car did print right and function when ordered from Shapeways.

img_2606Underframe for HO Scale coach Nova Scotia test printing at the Toronto Public Library.

3D printing was developed as a means of “rapid prototyping”, where companies could quickly produce samples of products to look for obvious flaws before expensive tooling or factories were set up.  I use the public library as my rapid prototyping plant, I don’t normally print full models, but I print parts of them where I am learning new things in design, or just as a general proof of concept.  This allows me to find obvious flaws in my designs or thought processes before spending a lot of money on ordering complete parts from Shapeways.  I’d much rather find a problem and fix it on a cheap PLA print at the library, than an expensive print from Shapeways.

Today, I am printing a template jig for constructing a part out of strip wood, and a test of a small static locomotive detail.  Both are part of the same project, and I don’t want to get too far into them today until I get to the point of being ready to talk about this project.

img_3115Construction jig for a project being printed on the Makerbot Replicator 2 printer at the Fort York branch of the Toronto Public Library.
Video of the Makerbot Replicator printing my part.  30 Seconds of the machine running if you are really bored (the one downside to the library is sitting around watching your print slowly grow!!)

If you have any interest at all in 3D printing, I highly recommend you check out your public library and see if they have started to offer 3D printing.  You don’t necessarily have to start with Model Railroad stuff, start with whatever and see what you can do.

2 thoughts on “3D Printing & Model Railroading – No it’s not Voodoo (Part 3)

  1. Great post as always, Stephen. Thanks for sharing.
    You wrote, in part:
    “These are also printers that are in a price range that conceivably you could afford to have at home, but you’d want to be making a lot of use of them for that to be worthwhile.”
    I’d argue that if one has a 3D printer at home, one will quickly find additional uses for it. In fact, another friend – Jeff Pinchbeck – took the plunge on one and he’s now using it for everything from testing designs (as you have here), to printing assembly fixtures for traditional model-building techniques, to creating components to enhance the mechanisms in his HO scale brass steam locomotives.
    FYI – Jeff and I have taped a four-part series on 3D printing for TrainMasters TV (www.trainmasters.tv) that focuses on the uses in our hobby for one of these more affordable, consumer-grade printers. The series will start airing this fall.
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

  2. Thanks Trevor,

    Yes, i agree, having one would likely lead to more use. It would be more of an opportunity to run tests and see what happens, along with finding real uses for it. One of the biggest drawbacks to the public library printers is the 2 hour booking time limit. It does restrict how much you can achieve in a print, which is why i use it for testing “parts”.

    Sounds like an interesting series for Trainmasters. I may have to check it out.


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