A 3D printer in your workshop?

10 Nov 2016


Model railway enthusiasts are generally open to embracing new technologies. We’re early adopters, and this is generally a good thing. Sometimes, however, our enthusiasm for technologies that are still in beta-testing means we assess – and reject – tools and techniques early in their life cycle. Our first impression then informs our opinion of the technology, even as it matures and gets better.

Such is the case with 3D Printing.

3D printed cattle guards

When companies like Dremel (already well-known in our hobby) announced a home 3D printer, many hobbyists quickly dismissed it as being inadequate for our needs. Dremel is just one manufacturer of these home models: home 3D Printers are also offered by Formlabs, Makerbot, XYZprinting, and others. (An Internet search on the term “home 3D printer” will turn up a long list of choices.)

But regardless of the brand, hobbyists looked at the print resolution and declared “This is too coarse to print models” – and that was that.

The hobby is certainly taking advantage of 3D Printing for everything from masters for casting to ready-to-paint models and detail parts. But for such items, the typical process is for a hobbyist to design the item, then send the files to a company such as Shapeways for creation on an industrial-grade 3D Printer. These printers are vastly superior to consumer-level models – but come with hefty price tags. (I found examples online in the US$200,000-US$800,000 range.) From price to space to power requirements, these are simply not an option for our home workshops. And yet, the consumer models aren’t of any use to us.

3D printed loco frame
3D printed Tortoise mount

Or are they?

Modeler Jeff Pinchbeck thought they might be. So he took the plunge and purchased a 3D printer. And what he’s found is that he uses it in ways that he didn’t expect.

Jeff is a serious prototype enthusiast, who models a Canadian Pacific subdivision near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada) in the steam era in HO scale. He’s active with the CPR Historical Society and he sets high standards for his own work. He’s also an accomplished modeler, with the skills and confidence to scratch-build those items for his layout that he can’t find commercially. But several attempts to build CPR standard cattle guards using traditional methods ended in failure. These are a simple yet delicate detail, and several are needed for his layout. Frustration with the project led Jeff to consider 3D printing the parts he needed, and his curiosity about the technology encouraged him to buy his own 3D printer.

Trevor and Jeff discuss the nuances of 3D printing at home

Since acquiring the printer, Jeff has not only solved his cattle guard problem: he’s also discovered many, many ways in which his 3D printer can enhance his hobby – from creating fixtures to aid with model-building, to printing custom parts to improve drive trains as he re-motors a collection of brass steam locomotives.

These home 3D printers are even useful for testing print files for projects that will eventually be sent to a company like Shapeways for printing at a higher resolution.

If you’ve never considered 3D printing, this series may change your mind. And if you’ve dismissed the consumer-grade models as being not ready for prime time, this series may be a real eye-opener for you. It was for me: I’m already considering how I could incorporate such a useful tool into my workshop.

--Trevor Marshall

Do you have a consumer-grade 3D printer in your workshop? What are your experiences? What do you use it for? Let us know via the comments section to this post!