The 3D Printing Scene
I think that everyone in the hobbyist scene – whether it’s trains, cars, boats, planes – has been hyped about the potential of 3D printers for their hobby at some point. “I can create anything, no need to buy any more stuff!“, yet reality has proven to be very different. The 3D printing scene has progressed a lot in the past years, and its potential is very clear today, yet the same applies to its limitations. With the 3D printing scene gaining this maturity, it’s much easier these days to judge what would be a good use case for 3D printing, and when it’s better to use any other type of manufacturing (laser cut, mould injection, …).
For readers new to 3D printing, a quick explanation of two majorly different types of 3D printing: 3D printers for home use, and 3D printing for industrial purposes. For home use, you’ll hear the terms “FDM” and “FFF” being used interchangeably. For more advanced home use and in the industrial scene, printers are typically of types “SLA” or “DLP”. Examples of professional 3D printing services are companies like Shapeways or Materialise.
If you want to learn more about the different types of printers, this is a really informative video:
So, if you want to get started at home, a FDM printer is the way to go. Of course, there are many brands available, in different price ranges, offering different build volumes (the maximum dimensions of the object you can print), and other quality-of-life features.
About six years ago, I was kind of fed up with the G scale scene, and I wanted to move towards more accurate 1:22,5 scale narrow gauge modeling. Besides buying generally available models, I also wanted to try out scratch building to fill the gaps in the manufacturers’ offerings, and in general to just learn a new skill (or two, or three, …).
I had no knowledge about 3D printing at all, and actually about scratch building in general, so after limited research, I picked a 3D printer kit that was supposedly a good one (at the time). So the printer kit I bought was a Velleman Vertex K8400, for about 400 Euros if I recall correctly. Assembling the printer was not too bad, but I remember being anxious about making sure everything was tightened properly, making sure I didn’t forget any screws or bolts, etc. And hooray, it was alive, and everything seemed to work properly. To learn about the printer, I mostly printed some objects of which the designs were publicly available. I didn’t even print trains, just other random stuff. The results seemed to be nice, so I then had to learn how design my own stuff.
At the time, I had a review sample of an LGB Feldbahn style diesel locomotive for my G Scale News website (now Large Scale Train News), so I wanted to print a freight car to go along with that. I based the design on a freight car from LGB to match the dimensions as closely as possible. I just wanted to learn how to draw first, and worry about making my own designs later. I used Sketchup, which was easy to learn, but harder to draw more complex shapes in. It did the job, so I ended up printing some freight cars indeed. That was really a “Aha!” moment to see the magic happening right under your nose. Going from a roll of plastic, to a ready-to-run item on your railway. Absolute magic.
Then, reality sets in. Overall, I was happy with the print quality, but the printer was kind of inconsistent. Sometimes the first layer was good, sometimes it wasn’t. Most of the time edges were nicely flat, sometimes with irregularities. I know this sounds a bit vague, there’s a 3D printing lingo describing all these things, but I’ll keep it as simple as possible here, ha!
Wanting to do more complex designs (e.g. a locomotive) with reasonable detail, I figured this printer (or FDM printing in general) wasn’t meant to be. Combined with other interests outside the hobby (career, buying a house, having a kid), I actually quit the hobby entirely.
A Next Chapter
However… a few months ago, I was itching to get back into the hobby. Among other things, the 3D printer was dusted off, and… I was still disappointed :-). With the progress in the 3D printing scene, I figured I would give it another shot. I didn’t want to bother with a printer kit again, so only pre-assembled printers were on my short list. Having a bit more money to spend these days, I really wanted to do it right this time, and I opted for the highly regarded “Prusa” brand. I ordered their “i3 MK3S+” printer, which arrived after about a month. Wow, what a world of difference. More on that in a next post.
[Update] Part 2 is now available: 3D Printing for Large Scale Trains – #2 The Prusa Experience.