I have a saying that I like to use, somewhat sarcastically, that "good fabricators are lazy fabricators." The idea here is that if you can buy it at a reasonable price, or, if the pay off is that you have more time to do other things, then use something you can buy. Especially if the part is nicer, or if you need a gazillion of the item. In watching the Prairie Works videos on Super Detailing the Walthers Blast Furnace, I kept thinking about the 55' of steel mill I was dedicated to build. And the coke works. And all those gate valves I'd need to build. 15 for each set of ovens for the blast furnaces, for four blast furnaces. And the dozens more for all over the plant. As a professional fabricator, I could watch the video, look at all the components, and make a pretty good guess that each valve was likely about 45 minutes to an hour to make. Multiplied by 15. Multiplied by 4. Not fun. And a ton of lost time. And it made me wonder if I wasn't alone. If there were other modelers who were perhaps stalled on there builds because of this daunting thought of 15 hours lost just making enough valves to do one set of stoves. And then you have to make the burners. And the hot blast valves. And the cold blast valves.
So that made me start to look at ways to mass produce these items. And how much detail could I get. James had built one item, and then made a mold and cast the rest. But the detail was limited to how far you wanted to go with the original, and how much the mold would copy. I landed on a Formlabs Form2 SLA printer. Before I purchased it, I asked around on the board and got an idea if people would buy parts at a reasonable price. And what I could do for a reasonable price. There are tons of companies who will 3d SLA print something for you. But it's always at a premium. Why? I set out to investigate. I wanted people to be able to afford the parts, but for me to not break even or take a loss. If I could make a small profit that would let me constantly improve my product and production methods, as well as the number of products I could offer, then it was a risk I was willing to take. So I did my research, and some math, and found I could sell the parts and meet my parameters for producing them. And in the end, perhaps help out fellow modelers. Especially the ones that had all but abandoned their projects because of the reasons listed above.
I've been asked why print every item and not make a master and then mold it for casting. Frankly, because the print time is not that great, and the level of detail I can achieve is very high. Rather than the compromises I'd have to make to cast them. If I am going to product parts, people need reasons to buy them. And in a sea of detail part companies, one easy method for ensuring sales is detail. If my detail is great or as best as it can be given the size of the part, my parts will stand out and be desireable. Another is the range of parts. You can't offer 5 items and expect to stay in business. Am I giving away secrets to how or why I make my products the way I do. Not at all. Almost anyone can do the research and make the investment. I'm not reinventing the wheel. But I like to think even if someone did read this and copy what I'm doing, they'd do like I do, and try not to copy another persons products. When I set out on this path, I told myself if one of the other guys with a Steel Mill modeling cottage industry was making something, I wouldn't make that product. It would be easy to do that, and I'd likely make some money. But in the end, model railroading has always been a hobby filled with cottage industries to supply the masses. And there are plenty of customers to go around. And if a person does something like, especially in such a niche section of the hobby like steel mill modeling, coping another guys products, well, that's just unethical in my book.
You can view my products on FB at Steel Mill Modelers Supply or at Donald Dunns The Mill catalog at Steel Mill Catalog. Check back often, as both are updated with new products regularly. The FB page almost weekly. Donalds catalog once a month.