Friday, November 06, 2009

2001, a Space Odyssey : Hi-tech modelling

DB says, in a most verbose way (one should always be sober while blogging (or texting if you haven't seen this)): I saw 2001 yesterday for the first time and despite being made in 1968 it hasn't really aged. Not like, say Prince's Purple Rain did - Martin Malloy in Australia famously said "that film was dated by the time people left the cinema". I enjoyed 2001, although I think Stan and Arthur may have hit the whacky backy cookies a little hard over lunch just before they wrote the third act.

But that, my friends, has no relevance to today's story, and neither does this: I've struggled for ten years to describe what I do at work. It's not illegal, its just vague. But one part of employment that I often do get to enjoy is solving business problems with technology.

A required attribute for such work is a healthy skepticism toward anything labeled 'new and amazing' that people dribble a lot while in the presence of. Being a Male from New Zealand, it's pretty easy to to keep emotion out of such things and determine in a Spocklike manner if it's really going to be 'new and amazing' in an outcome-beneficial and cost-effective way, or merely 'lucrative' for those selling it to us, and 'fun' for the dribbling people who get to put it on their CV's and dick around with it for six months as an escape from their real jobs until it collapses in a disastrous heap.

Despite this dogmatic pragmatism and clagmatic astigmatism, I am, finally, prepared to move 'laser cutting' out of the "I'll believe it when I see it" pile into the "I believe it" receptacle.

I almost believe it

Experiments in Failure

I found a laser etcher near me a year and a half ago in the hope of etching brass or aluminium with long hood diesel door details. Alas it would appear you need planet-pulverising laser strength to do this in metal. But wood and acrylic would be ok. For reasons now unclear I passed on this dangling thread of inspiration and came home to my frustrating home brass etching experiments.

Do it yourself brass etching isn't hard, but it's hard to do well. And even harder to do well consistently. I well remember the look on Andrew Wells' face after asking him how many iterations it had taken to produce the impressive fret of DA parts in his hand. It takes quite the investment in time and equipment to get right. Or you can outsource the work, which is what everyone ends up doing anyway, but then you lose the instant feedback. If you've tried to modify these kits (a part doesn't quite fit), accidentally crushed a model, suddenly had the layout stop because the body shorted on the chassis or track, or can't solder for peanuts, you'll also know that brass has its limitations.

DIY NZ120 DG etch

More recently I've contacted CNC controlled rotary sign engravers (a Dremel attached to a computer), but they don't seem to be able to do consistently straight, constant-depth, fine lines.

When Evan and Mark started talking about lasering styrene, I almost started dribbling. Styrene is quick and easy to modify, doesn't conduct electricity and can be stuck together without a Black Belt in the Dark Arts. But can you laser styrene? Isn't styrene allergic to heat? You know, heat from soldering irons, heat from the sun, heat from a styrene melting laser ...

Well, to make an unnecessarily long story even longer, after their initial success, I downloaded the IA plan, cranked up my AutoCAD and shortly thereafter headed off to the laser dudes for some samples. And so far I've been impressed. Definitely a useful technique.

DX Parts. Right idea, wrong size

Lasering should also be getting cheaper, as outfits with lasers crop up in more towns. Look for people offering custom engraved picture frames, trophies and corporate giveaways. You don't need Death Star power to cut styrene, their little desktop jobs will do fine.

Taking one more tentative step out over the technological abyss, I've also drawn up a DX bogie frame in 3D for Mark Gasson to RP in NZ120 just for the heck of it. Don't knock it till you've tried it I guess. If the experiment works out, I may do some other parts: if it makes sense.

Teach yourself AutoCAD in three frustrating weeks.

A New Era?

So how do us luddites feel about these young kids and their fancy computer stuff? Is this the end for those of us who like to handcraft things out of plastic and paper and things we find in rubbish bins?

No, of course it isn't. Etching and RP are tools, just like your knife and ruler are. Sometimes it will make sense to use them, sometimes it won't. It is easy (and expensive) to forget you are in NZ120-land and spend weeks techying up something that you could have knocked out in an hour on the workbench for near-zero cost, albeit perhaps not in such an exacting way. Horses for courses.

And don't think for a minute that many years ago, the first small scale modeler to turn up at the 9mil model railway clubrooms - filled with smelly old tobacco-chewing fellows gathered around lathes and drill presses - with his X-acto knife, didn't get a few sneers and under-the-breath comments. "Look at that tosser - that fancy knife and plastic shite will never take off. It's crazy-talk and the work of the Devil. Pass me my hammer and the big chisel."


Ben Scaro said...

Is Mark4Design getting involved in the NZ120 thing? It seems a natural fit, given his prodigous abilities and location, but I had thought it was not to be.

Maybe we can start bugging him for trucks? ;-)

Darryl said...

Mark Gasson is Mark4 and as with most folks, he will do anything in any scale that you pay him to.

One of the nice things about all this CAD stuff is that once it's done, it can be tweaked for almost any scale and parts can be recycled into similar models.

ECMT said...

The title is quite appropriate as we come up to 2010. I never did see the sequel (2010 ASO).
Yes I believe doing stuff in CAD is the way of the future of modelling, but you are right - it's only 1 of many tools.
What does concern me is the material seems a little light, and not just in weight. Didn't Amfet do his IA in 1mm styrene ?
The other thing that worries me is the "mercenaries" out there with the info/data that will only be given in exchange for some serious dosh. There right I suppose. Goes to show how generous it's been of Mark (Cabbage) to release the IA in the way he has.
Roll on the product launch of 47 1/2 ft wood side passenger cars !