Making the perfect model

Rapid prototyping has enabled models to be made that far exceed previous levels of detail and accuracy


FIGURE 1. A ship model created with rapid prototyping (below) and its CAD design (above).
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For over a year Gwylan Models (www.gwylanmodels.co.uk) has been manufacturing collectable model ships in 1/1250 scale. Some time ago they switched to rapid prototyping to design their master models for casting, as it seemed to be the best way to make superior quality models. This has definitely been the case, and they have enjoyed great success with the models they have designed and prototyped.

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Will Jayne (founder and owner) designs all the digital masters using Rhinoceros 3D 4.0 from McNeel North America (Seattle, WA; www.rhino3d.com), as this is a program he is familiar with from his model design background and it has immediate application to rapid prototyping. Gwylan does not own any machines yet so all their models have been printed by Best Cast Inc. (River Edge, NJ; www.best-cast.com). Smaller models are made on an EnvisionTEC (Gladbeck, Germany; www.envisiontec.com) Perfactory machine, and larger models are made on a ProJet HD 3000 from 3D Systems (Rock Hill, SC; www.3dsystems.com). The results have been excellent from both machines and it will definitely remain their main method of model design in the future.

The roots of the 1/1200 and 1/1250 scale model ship collecting hobby goes back to their use as recognition models in the First and Second World Wars. They were relatively simple models designed to replicate a particular vessel seen at a distance, and they proved to be an effective training aide and thus were widely employed. Most of the “founding fathers” of the industry won government contracts during the wars to produce the models, and after the Second World War they became popular as collectable items. Now the hobby has large communities of hobbyists and collectors all across the world. Things have moved a lot since then but the spirit of these early models is still present even in the most modern examples of miniatures in the scales. The first enterprises in the U.K. such as Wiking and Basset-Lowke paved the way for other companies and the models made by these early leaders are now much sought after items with a high value.

Gwylan, located in Powys, Wales, entered the industry at a time when it was in a state of great change and uncertainty with the economy causing the industry to shrink. The community of producers and collectors is slowly putting more effort into attracting new hobbyists, which will pay off in the near future. And a number of younger producers, like Gwylan, have recently entered the scene trying to bring in new people to keep the hobby going strong. There is a very strong sense of loyalty to the manufacturers, and the customers are doing all they can to support them.

Another area where the industry is in a transitional state is the manufacturing process itself. The first models were made of balsa and metal and then mass-produced in white metal—still the most common manufacturing process in the industry today. However, a growing number of British manufacturers favor resin production, and it is taking time for attitudes towards this once limited method to shift. Today's resin models are far superior to the resin models of 20 years ago, and it has come to the point where the only significant difference between a resin and a metal model is its weight.

The design of the master model itself is also a major area of change. Until recently, polystyrene and metal were the master maker's media of choice; however, modern technology is very rapidly changing all that. The first major models cast from rapid prototyped (RP) masters started coming onto the market around four years ago. A small number of producers have accepted the technology now that it has proven its application to the model design process. However, there is a lack of skills with less than a half dozen digital designers working in the entire industry.

This has meant that their skills are in huge demand, as more and more manufacturers now want to start using RP to design superior masters. Today pioneering freelancers have been contracted to larger companies, leaving the smaller businesses without the means to move into the new technological era and compete on the same level. For most of the smaller businesses retraining is all but impossible. Many are one-man operations and cannot afford to employ an in-house designer, and most are simply too busy to invest the time in training themselves. However, the early manufacturers who were quick enough and had the resources for rapid prototyping are now enjoying success.

Recent advances in stereolithography (SLA) machines have meant that prototypes can now be printed at a fine enough resolution for use in the master design process. These machines can go into greater detail than the hand of even the most skilled physical modeler, and the structure of the design is far easier to control making it possible to create more modular masters, which cuts down material use during casting. The process has set a new standard by which all models are now judged, and any model made from an RP master is hotly anticipated. The technology has meant that great leaps have been made in specific areas of the model's design and quality such as crisper edges and smoother curved surfaces. In particular the level of surface detail achieved using the process can give a model a greater depth of visual appeal and character.

Quite simply, rapid prototyping has enabled models to be made that far exceed previous levels of detail and accuracy and most of the larger producers have now adopted it as their main master creation process.

However, there are those who worry about the impact the technology is having on the models themselves. The models are very small—a model of the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) in 1/1250 scale is roughly five inches in length. The small sizes of the models make it very difficult to capture the “spirit” of the original. A good model designer has to make decisions of representation when designing a model. The designer must choose which features to represent, which to emphasize, which to exaggerate, and which to omit. The result of these considerations determines how effective the miniature is in evoking the original subject. The model is, after all, a representation, not a replication.

Potential problems with the combination of RP masters and sophisticated modern casting methods arise when the model designers do not make as many decisions of representation because they have far greater freedom with regards to material limitations. They are able to represent details that would never have been present on models before RP was used to design masters. The problem is that details that perhaps should have been omitted or represented differently are not, and thus the model's qualities of character suffer.

Many collectors prefer the older style of making models because they feel more able to connect with the models that are not overly detailed and more abstract in their representation of the original subject. Most see highly detailed models as lacking character when compared to older ones, though they do still marvel at the quality and detail achieved. Therefore, this is not an inherent problem with rapid prototyping itself but with the designers of the models. When the digital designers begin to find and refine their own styles of representation, just as the early balsa and metal designers did, it is likely that they will produce models with great character and of the highest quality ever seen in the industry.

The editors thank Will Jayne for his cooperation in preparing this article.

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