Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farewell to drawers full of bits ?

Yesterday I quickly reviewed some Scalescenes card kits for ISO shipping containers. These are interesting models but it's the delivery mechanism that is revolutionary and I wonder if it is the shape of things to come.

The principle of the kits is that the modeller buys the file along with the rights to produce as many copies for personal use as he or she wants. Production of the model is completely down to the purchaser. In this case that means you print off the kit parts yourself and lamitnate them on to cardboard to produce the components. In a couple of years if I want another kit, I just fire up the computer and printer to make it.

But can we go further ?

3D printing is much discussed on many modelling forums. At present the results aren't high enough quality for those of us in the smaller scales. Each layer of plastic laid down is arount 1/3rd of a millimetre high and to get acceptable results that has to be reduced by a factor of 10. On the other hand, people are experimenting like crazy with the technology:


As you can see from the comparison above, the injection moulded model (Top) has nice smooth curves wheras the 3D printed version shows how the material is applied in layers. This will change though one day. The technology will improve, at which point will we all own our own printers and run off components ?

The machine at the top of the page is from Makerbot industries. It's a 3D printer you can buy off the shelf for around £1500 - less if you are prepared to do some of the assembly yourself. Obviously you then need to feed the machine a CAD file but it's a start.

Logically once you have the device then a Scalescenes style service where you buy the data for the part and run it off yourself is then a real possibility. The files themselves are readily available already and should you want the finished models then these can be bought on-line. Searching the Shapeways web site for the word "Train brings back 18 pages of results. I had a dig through and found a nice looking K6 phone box and a loco body that looks suspiciously like the one for the Hellingly Hospital Railway. Out of curiosity I've ordered these and will let you know how they turn out.

This is the future though. One day we won't store drawers full of components, we'll run them off as we need them. Except that we probably won't even do that, we'll buy in the data and make the model in CAD an then print it out. I'm not sure this sounds nearly as much fun but I suppose you can't stop progress.


Dodgy Geezer said...

The Music and Film industries have already come up against this model. There, traditionally, the artists get paid a small amount and the middle-men who advertise and distribute the films take the lions share.

Direct distribution enables the artist to cut out the middlemen and service the customer directly. This obviously is a great threat to the distribution side, so they are fighting it tooth and nail....

Of more concern is a fundamental economic law which states that, in a perfect market, goods will drop in price down to their unit cost of production. For 'information goods' this cost is essentially zero. So the purveyors cannot allow a perfect market to develop, and the draconian 'copy protection' and copyright legislation which is being enacted around the world is an example of this 'battle against the customer'.

Technically, I think the attempts at copy protection are fighting a losing battle. But they are still trying....

Phil Parker said...

The problem with the perfect market theory is that if the value of "information goods" is zero, no one will produce them. You can't go to Tesco and buy food with good ideas. Therefore the only people who will be able to make these things (books, films, music, models) are those with sufficient income from other sources to subsidise the production.

In the end, no one will produce anything because the "customer" beleives it all should be free. This will be a great day for the world.

Alternativly, someone will work out that the cost is not nill, you have to pay for peoples time even if they aren't using any physical material. Even the middlemen will get paid because you need someone to sift through all the dross and promote the good stuff.

To use a relevant example, my magazine output is much better quality than my blog stuff because I give the later away for free and there is no editor, sub-editor, designer, production expert between you and me. You can have any amount of free waffle on toy trains from the interweb and a small percentage will be good but most won't. Maybe that's what people want but I suspect not. If nothing else, I notice a lot of iPads showing the Times when I'm on a train and all that content comes from behind a paywall so there are people out there who place value on information.

Matt Dawson said...

I actually believe the 3d printer version looks better, unless it's just the lighting.

Having seen a 3d printer in action, I can only say they are quite an amazing piece of kit.

However, the issue is not 'when' but 'why'?

I, personally, would prefer buying an item rather than making it myself, especially when we're talking about model (mechanical) parts.

Add to the fact you also need a CAD program which itself is normally faily expensive and not intuitive....

Dodgy Geezer said...

"The problem with the perfect market theory is that if the value of "information goods" is zero, no one will produce them.....In the end, no one will produce anything because the "customer" beleives it all should be free. This will be a great day for the world..."

This is the (mistaken) argument often adduced by the RIAA and other middlemen in the distribution network. To see where it is wrong, simply look at history.

Information goods have been around for a long time - long before there were organised distributors. What you find is that creative types are driven to create. Medieval singers and actors wandered between towns, making a small living - artists either starved or found a patron - but they all still created. There will never be a time when ALL humans stop creating.

The Music and Film industries would have you believe that they can only produce if they have large numbers of workers costing vast sums of money (from which they pay themselves liberally). This is nonsense. Very few people are needed to produce an initial idea, and they can easily be employed in spin-off jobs. Read Richard Stallman for the alternative business models which costless reproduction will create. Look at the free 'open-source' films appearing on the net.

I think your example of the 'Times' on the train is not an ideal one. It is generally considered that the paywall is the last gasp of the dinosaur, and not a burgeoning new cash stream. Few other newspapers are following them.

Phil Parker said...

I'm sure creative types will always create but if your writing (for example) is deemed to have no value, you are going to have to earn money another way to eat, which leaves a lot less time to be creative.

That said, there is a mass of middle men who the world could probably live without. The web does make a difference here as the creatives can connect more directly with the audience. Thus they can still charge for work but charge less because there isn't so much supply chain to support as well.

On the paywall thing - few other newspapers may be following the Times but that is because they are happy to burn money. The Guardian has increased its cover price this week from £1 to £1.20 because the on-line side is losing money so fast. This isn't sustainable in the long term and no-one has come up with a model that is, apart from the paywall.