I have been a big proponent of 3D printing/manufacturing since 2012. After reading a few articles over the last couple of years in the Economist, and have seen 3D printers in use at the Maker Faire locally, I am convinced of this technology's bright future. I think it's a bit like the personal computer in the 1970s, just getting rolling, and the implications (which many pundits are quick to expound upon) are nearly boundless.
There are still plenty of hurdles, and it's very early days yet, but I've started to take the plunge. Ideally, the technology gets to the point where a few random photos are converted to CAD drawings from which items can be printed. Can you imagine going onto www.rrpicturearchives.net, finding a photo of a piece of equipment, downloading it and printing it? Talk about revolutionary. We still have some ways to go yet.
Some hurdles are being eased already. CAD programs used to be a bear to learn (still are, sort of), but programs like Google Sketchup are making that part of the process easier. I've played around with that a little bit, and have been pleased with the results. The printing technology varies tremendously. Machines like MakerBot, a desktop "home" version of a rapid prototype machine, are relatively affordable but produce low-resolution models. In the meantime we have ever-improving services like ShapeWays which can produce nice models.
In short, I think this is the most exciting development in manufacturing in my lifetime (though an affordable personal laser cutter would be pretty interesting too). What it will do to the hobby remains to be seen, but I think we have a lot to look forward to. And if it means that will never again make a part to try to make molds out of rubber, that's a future I can believe in!
This area seems to work best economically to me. I have developed a few items for my own use, which I make available for general purchase (see the links to Shapeways for each item). I generally print in white-strong-flexible plastic, and then paint with inexpensive craft-store acrylic paints.
Electrical cabinet for lineside or industry here; a slightly larger version of the electrical cabinet here.
Garbage dumpsters of various cubic yardage sizes here,
I have printed several of these in white-strong-flexible plastic. See my dumpsters page for more on my dumpster project.
Commercial freezer locker for bagged ice, as at gas station or convenience store here. I have printed this in white-strong-flexible plastic.
Stand-up payphone booth here. I have printed this in white-strong-flexible plastic.
Upright Coke machine / soda machine here. I have printed this in white-strong-flexible plastic.
Pair of electric transformers for utility pole here. I have printed this in white-strong-flexible plastic.
Set of four trash cans typically found in urban or park settings here. I have printed this in white-strong-flexible plastic.
I wanted to create some details for my urban or industrial scenes, so I started with a couple of rooftop air conditioning units. My first style can be purchased here. Add a pad or support beams and some piping, and it really looks good.
My rolling stock experiments are limited to car sides at the moment, for a few reasons: a) my CAD skills are pretty rudimentary; b) the economics of car sides are much better than whole cars; c) I have some comfort assembling these- because of my experience with products from the Cannon and Company kits (formerly Modelers Choice), which include styrene laser cut car sides and cast end parts from manufacturers for the underframe and ends. So I have created a few projects which allow for some unique models.
I generally have stayed pretty orthodox, trying to create printable, usable pieces whose cost to manufacture is reasonable; while I love some of what others have created, I can't/won't spend $100 on a freight car body which still needs wire grabs, trucks, couplers and pockets, etc. That said, as that technology gets better and cheaper, I can certainly see a world in which those prices come down to the point where it's economic, even for the craftsman-style builder.
Single-piece sideframes to replace the shallow relief on the old LBF cars here. Keep those razor blades and sandpaper handy, but it has made adding the relief a little easier than using strip styrene for the lattice.
I had long wanted to create a single plug-door version of the PC&F boxcar so common out west (like this one here). Intermountain's model is beautiful, and a good starting point. Rather than pull out a bunch of styrene, I created a shortcut for myself which is available here. Some carpentry is required to cut out Intermountain's door, and you then can slide this in and add the rods and lock bars.
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