3D Printing & Model Railways
by Keith Pressley
10th May 2021
Having recently retired I decided it was time to revisit my youth and get back into model railways, but this time instead of playing with trains I wanted to build my own layout from scratch.
I bought myself a shed, insulated it and lined it, then I proceeded to construct my baseboard. This done I laid my track, fitted point motors, wired them all up.
At this point I was ready to start with the actual details that I wanted to include on my layout. Looking at all the available options I decided that I would like to design and build my own buildings, having spent my life as a mechanical designer this was quite easy for me but I thought I would go one step beyond, so I decided to invest in a 3D printer. This way anything I wanted to add to my layout would be bespoke and individual to me (and possibly a way of earning a little extra as a bonus).
To put it simply, 3D printing is a process that allows you to produce objects in almost any shape or size. They can be simple or complex. You have the ability to design these objects using modelling software.
If you understand how a normal printer for putting text on paper works, then it’s easy to understand how 3D printing works. With a normal printer, the letters are “built” up from the top to the bottom, or from the bottom to the top, one line or layer at a time. For example, if we were going to print the word “it,” the printer would start by printing the dot of the “i” and the top of the “t” and it would print the tops of those letters at the same time. It does not print a whole letter the way a typewriter does. It prints parts of all the letters in a line and then goes to the next line until a string of letters and words is finished.
A 3D printer is similar to this. Imagine a coffee cup. If you were to print this object, it would likely start with the circle of porcelain that touches the table and print the very bottom of it all at once. Then it would move to the bottom of the container part of the cup and print that all at once. So your 3D printed coffee cup would be made up of connected layers, each of which was printed as a phase of the total process.
Just like regular printers can use different types of ink, 3D printers use different types of material to build objects. One of the most common materials is called “filament” and is usually a form of plastic. There are different types of filament for different types of objects and different preferences. Some filaments are more expensive than others. In time you learn which you like best and which is best for the types of jobs you want to do.
"This is a photo of my Anet-A8 3D printer used to create the models shown later in this article".
The process starts with an idea, having decided on what you want you then have to visualise the design required, and proceed with your design. Once you have your piece designed then this is saved as a special file i.e. an .stl file this is then loaded into a slicing program which converts the design into a format that the printer can understand, which is basically a series of commands that tells the printer what to do to produce a 3D object. This is then loaded up to the printer and off you go. Depending on the size and complexity of your object this can take from a few minutes to several hours to print, but the results are certainly worth waiting for.
I have produced a few models this way and would like to show you what is possible.
All models shown are for a ‘00’ gauge layout, although the process can be adapted for all gauges.