Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: January 24, 2017
One of the risks of building a model railroad (in particular a portable or modular layout) is the risk of damage. For the most part, model railroads are a one off creation - meaning once it's damaged or destroyed, it is lost forever. However, what if there was a way to create a digital backup of a layout?
Part of the reason I've created this website was to provide a way to create a digital archive of the hobby work I've created in my life. For example, many of the track plans presented under Jim's Track Plans were started as drawings on paper decades ago. Over time, I've been creating digital renderings and writing out my thoughts on each plan through articles in a shareable format here on the web. These files are now backed up in several places which will, hopefully, allow them to live on for as long as anyone has an interest in maintaining the files. The plans are now also organized and searchable as well as open for re-mixing by other layout builders. Compared to paper sitting on a shelf, the information is now in a more useful format.
As I have been working on my current project layout - a Tribute to Springfield - I have begun to think about the concept of a digital backup of a model railroad. More and more of the projects for this layout started on the computer and then were converted into physical form. For example, numerous detail parts were developed in CAD and then 3D printed in order to more accurately capture the prototype I was interested in modeling. In addition, a number of the signs and decals used on buildings and rolling stock also started life as files on my computer. These files are still saved and backed up. If any of these items were to be damaged, the part could be quickly reprinted, repainted, and reinstalled - with only a minimal loss of time (and expense) to replace. In essence, portions of the layout now have a digital backup.
Digital Model Railroad Components
What is interesting is how many components of a model railroad layout can be constructed digitally with today's technology. The photo at the beginning of the article shows all the digital components used on just one small section of my current Tribute to Springfield layout. Of course, some assembly and painting was still required to bring these digital files to life but much of the work is still backed up. Let's take a look at some components of a model railroad which can be created and saved in a digital format for use in the future.
A fairly obvious place to start is the base of the railroad - the benchwork. CNC machines are a fairly mature technology and the costs to create parts using a CNC machine are now in the range where it is an option for a hobbyist. All of the parts can be created in CAD and then sent off to a company who will cut the parts on a CNC machine. Most likely, this service will be cheaper than having a shop full of professional grade woodworking tools to create high quality benchwork. The nice part of these services - especially for the apartment dwelling model railroader - is that the messy, noisy process of cutting and shaping benchwork material can be minimized. The final parts can just be shipped and assembled fairly easily with minimal dust and noise.
Custom designed and printed backdrops are becoming ever easier to produce. With relatively inexpensive and easy to use photo editing software - combined with ubiquitous high resolution digital photography - creating a custom backdrop is an option within reach for most layout builders. There are lots of companies which will create physical prints from these digital files at a relatively reasonable cost. Once again, these files can be saved and replicated very easily.
A lot of the methods for building structures for model railroads are already starting life in a digital form. For example, paper/cardstock buildings are generally just image files or PDFs that are printed on cardstock. Most craftsman kits are just laser cut components - which again starts as a digital file with instructions on how a laser cutter is to cut a specified piece of raw material. In addition, 3D printed parts are also becoming a more common way to detail structures if not print entire structures (especially in smaller scales).
Most commercial and industrial structures need signs. These are easy to create in a digital form. In addition, the artwork for custom decals can also be created and backed up so that files can be printed over and over again into the future.
I'm a big proponent that the best use of 3D printing today is the creation of detail parts for model railroads. 3D printed files are created in a CAD program and outputted as a .STL (stereolithographic) file. Once these files are created - these details are also forever backed up in digital form.
Arduinos and Raspberry Pi's are proving to be a great gift to the animation side of layout building. All the programs which are used to drive animation features - like lighting and motors - obviously are a digital file and can be easily saved and shared.
Have you ever wanted to create a figure of friends, family, or even yourself and place it on your layout? With cheap 3D scanning and 3D printing, it is now possible to add this feature to your layout. Plus, the figures - whether "prototype" based or freelanced - are in a digital form which can be saved and printed over and over again - even potentially resized to the scale of choice.
Rolling Stock and Equipment
Rolling stock and locomotives tend to require a variety of different tools and processes to create. However, there are examples of small pieces of equipment being 3D printed and as well as laser cut (for wooden models).
Plans, Instructions, and Material Lists
While maybe not quite as quick to help recreate a layout as some of the other files listed above, digital plans, instructions, and material lists provide a backup of what went into building a layout. For example, what materials and techniques were used to create a particular item on a layout provides a quick reference guide if repairs need to be made.
In addition, with a detailed set of instructions, combined with the digital files created from the list above, a competent modeler could create a reasonable copy of a "master" layout fairly quickly. In some ways, adding these digital components is just the next evolution from the many project railroads created by model railroad magazines for the last 80 years. These project layouts generally included an article and photos with instructions on how to build the layout along with a material list. The key addition is that the material list can now include the digital files used to create the "master" layout. These files are already in a machine readable form so an identical part can be cut or printed to match the part which was used on the "master" layout. No worries about whether a commercial model is out of stock or hard to find as long as the modeler has access to the same types of tools to output the files.
Skills and Knowledge for Constructing Digital Model Railroads
As I mentioned earlier, many of the projects I've been building recently have been starting life on a computer and require some different skills than most traditional layout construction techniques. For those who are interested, here are some ideas of where to start:
- 3D Modeling and CAD - Programs like SketchUp, AutoCAD, Solidworks among other programs are useful for creating 3D models which can be sent to files for either 3D printing, laser cutting, or CNC machining.
- Photo Editing and Illustration - Signs, decals, paper buildings, and backdrops are all examples of items which can be created in photo editing and illustration programs. Some examples of useful software include Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.
- Computer Programming - Arduinos and Raspberry Pi's operate on fairly common programming languages. Both of these products are open source meaning there is a wealth of example code all over the web. A Google search will get you started.
Model Railroad Digitization in the Future
As you can see, a lot of model railroad components can live digitally - stored in the cloud to be pulled down and transformed into a three dimensional model when needed. Could we reach a point where all the plans needed to create a layout could be uploaded to the web and shared around the globe - with physical copies created anywhere? I think we are closer than most people would realize. The tools needed to create parts - 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, and printers - are becoming more affordable (and accessible) by the day. As mentioned earlier, many online services can print or cut items for a fee - meaning model railroaders don't even need to purchase or find space for these tools - yet still can derive the benefits they have to offer.
Having the ability to save our layouts digitally is an exciting development for the hobby. With these backups, layout builders can be provided peace of mind that damage to their layout can quickly be fixed. In addition, our layouts can now live on as digital layout components into the future. Even if the physical edition of the layout is gone, the digital files can simply be found and used to re-create the physical layout once again with just the click of a button. Welcome to the future...
For Track Plan Tuesday's, I am digitizing all of my old track planning notebooks and sharing the designs here on the website. To see all the plans, visit the track plan home page at: jimspavins.com/jimstrackplans.