The Story:

Early in 2008, my wife suggested I take up a hobby - building a model train layout. I had just been introduced to Z scale (1:220) and I was extremely intrigued at the level of detail, the quality of workmanship, and the fact that I could put a large amount of track in a very small space.

I began building a layout and collecting my raillroad empire, but I quickly ran into a problem.. I was finding very little in the way of buildings. I am trying to setup a quaint little town of sorts, but all I could find was military barracks or etched-brass kits that are quite complicated to assemble. I was dabbling with paper models and had contacted a couple of laser-cut wood vendors, but I wasn't making a lot of headway.

Late in 2009, I stumbled across a Hackaday article about a new program - OpenSCAD, and how well it worked with Shapeways. I had been watching Shapeways for a couple of years, but my previous attempts at uploading STL files had failed.  With OpenSCAD, I was finally able to make the breakthru and successfully upload my first model - the CBR Section Foreman House (modeled after a railroad building about 3 miles from where I live).

I also had been participating in a social website for Z scale - ZCentralStation, and I showed the house to a couple of friends there. Each of them managed to say "That is cool.. but, Can you build one of THESE?"

Then, Karin Snyder of asked me if she could take some of my raw vehicles and paint them for resale. It didn't offend me in the least.. I'm incapable of applying paint without making a total mess. You can say "the rest is history". I've gotten very little done on the railroad layout in the months since... because I've been very busy building models to have printed by Shapeways.

Her work is just incredible:

The business model that Shapeways uses works very well for me. For one, their costs are approximately 10 times cheaper than the other companies that I have checked. The CBR Section Foreman House costs me $22 from Shapeways, where as with every US-based company I've talked to, they quoted me $180 and up.

Yes, I know.. $22 is "expensive" for a two inch square house. But.. the etched brass models of the same size can easily run $45, and the laser-cut wood ones tend to run $30 or more. The other advantage for me is there is none of the assembly time involved.. it's ready to start painting when I receive it.

The "shop" idea at Shapeways is wonderful. I design something, upload it, set my markup, and instantly, other people can order the models. Other people order the items, pay with their credit card, it's shipped directly to them, and I just collect the markup fees. It is faster for the customer, and there's no "inventory" that I must deal with, so I don't have thousands of dollars of models sitting on the shelf waiting to be sold.

The ability to "draw" something with the mouse, rotate it in 3 dimensions on the computer and then be able to hold the item in my hand gives me a very real, visceral, sense of fulfillment.  It's just incredible that this stuff even is possible, much less that other people seem to like what I've been designing.

What is Rapid Prototyping?