3D printed railroad engine model kits made from insanely hi-rez scans

Chris sez, "The oft-touted promise of 3D printing is of personalisation and customisation. There is an alternative use though which is that of mini and micro-manufacture, where production runs of things numbering hundreds and thousands are suddenly made possible and in some cases commercially viable.

"We're investigating this space as a new way of manufacturing model kits, using laser scanning to get the data for the prototypes to make the kits very accurate. The financial advantage of 3D printing in producing kits at whatever scale people want to model in, often from the same file, is huge and makes the creation of very niche items viable. We're experimenting with crowd sourcing what potential kits to explore and using crowd funding to decide what to focus on and make."

Chris and co are scanning full-sized railroad engines at insane resolution.

We realised though that some things that you want to model were too complex even for incredibly talented CAD model makers like Vijay to create perfectly just from photographs, or at least that the time taken to produce the model would be too long and the process of checking the model’s fidelity would be too involved and too risky. We looked into 3D scanning and found a firm, Digital Surveys, who normally scan petrochemical plants and oil rigs and who specialise in “as built” surveys.

They worked with us to scan Winifred, a steam locomotive that had just returned from the USA in an almost identical condition to that she left the quarry in Wales in 1965. The survey, 3D model and 3D printed model that ensued showed us that we were on the right track...

...p.s. this data is too precious to lock it up, so we’re working on opening up the original data and the CAD files of individual parts with other manufacturers (of wheels and parts) and railway societies who are keeping the real things going!

How did we get here? (Thanks, Chris!)


  1. It’s a neat process, but has some real limitations when it comes to actually scaling down to a physical model. The biggest one is what to do with features that interact with the resolution limits of the printer.

    Say you have a railing that, once scaled down, is smaller than the smallest printable feature. Do you just scale up that one railing? Do you scale up similar features to maintain a sense of proportion over absolute accuracy? Just delete it? Create a framework for it and turn a freestanding feature into an embossed detail on a purely aesthetic addition?

    And all of the above can be a lot of work, even once you decide on what ‘accurate’ means to your particular a scale model. And the decisions you make can often not work well with different scales. The solutions to fix a 1:50 scale model might look silly and inaccurate if scaled to 1:30 and completely fail when scaled to 1:60.

    1. (Grr, my last comment got eaten by the Disqus grue.)

      3D-printed kits could accommodate fine detail the same way regular kits do, for example with cast metal parts, or folded photo-etch metal. It’s pretty much SOP for advanced modelers, and most kits have some aftermarket PE/metal/resin add-ons available.

      1. Sure they could. But modifying the model to accommodate those, as well as making the aftermarket additions themselves, is hardly less work than modifying the model itself to make them unnecessary.

        I’m not saying this isn’t cool. Or useful. Just not a magic bullet that suddenly makes the actual labor disappear.

  2. The ten-year-old inside me who was into Airfix kits and the like forty years ago has just woken from his deep slumber and is squee-ing like a, well, ten-year-old.

  3. Just the other day I was thinking I’d like an HO scale version of Giger’s nightmare train from _Species_. Maybe someday they’ll scan that movie prop!

  4. This is pretty cool but the era of 3D printing will not be fully here until mid-west moms can easily and discreetly print sex toys.  

  5. There is actually a large group of people who are printing train and other hobby related parts in various materials – not to the detail of actually scanning an actual item but many use plans to create their parts.  In modelling a real life item concessions must be made because not everything scales down, and sometimes things like rivits need to be enlarged in order for it to “look” better even though it is not correct in size.

    Just take a look at http://www.shapeways.com/gallery/miniatures/model-trains for an example of whats being done – from complete car bodies to stand alone details.

    1. I was just going to post this. The model train community was one of the first to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon. Their stuff is all over shapeways.

  6. not really a new thing… SO & I have been visiting the Warley Model Rail exhibtion in the UK for 4 or 5 years now, and there’s always been one or two sellers offering v. nice 3D printed HO locomotive parts (much to the disdain of “traditional” modellers)

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