Web expert Chris Thorpe goes full steam ahead with 3D print company dedicated to old rail engines

Posted on October 8, 2013

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Chris Thorpe is a wily old campaigner. On his Thinking Digital 2013 speaker profile he described himself as a ‘coder, craftsman and creative explorer’. Decide for yourself: he has a PhD in structural and molecular biology, was there coding at the beginning of the world wide web and has been responsible for projects as diverse as the first open access scientific journal, Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, the UK government’s digital service and the website for a James Bond Premiere.

‘Been there done that’ could be his CV. Not content with whipping out innovative web services he has now moved on to the much hyped world of 3D print and additive manufacturing (AM). Chris established The Flexiscale Company to fulfil his dream to build things people want. In Flexiscale’s case it is kit form, scale 3D reproductions of Victorian and early twentieth century rail engines, actually reproduced at the scale that people want to buy them. That means in theory you could get a full-sized slate quarry engine in kit form. Imagine the postage.

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Chris is a clever and thorough person with some interesting views on digital and manufacturing businesses in the UK. He believes for instance, as you will see in my interview with him at Thinking Digital (above), that we need to pressure government into kickstarting the 3D/AM industry by funding 3D hubs in traditional heavy industry and skilled manufacturing areas like the north east of England. We need to start making things again.

You can only have so many web businesses, says Chris, only so much virtual product. He has tried his hand at digital construction so he knows what he is talking about. Chris’ grandfather was an architect who instilled in him a fascination with making. It is time we looked at motivating a new wave of makers, he says, industrial designers and engineering hackers capable of creating innovative prototypes and products.

Makers Cory Doctorow

Movements like ‘Maker Faire’ pull in elements like Arduino boards, amateur electronics, robotics, 3D print, computing, crafts, synthetic biology and biobricks, to create one big maelstrom of what can loosely be called ‘hacker culture’. Look at images for the Maker Faire 2013 in Newcastle, or check out the Youtube videos.

It is people taking bits of science, art, technology and design to experiment with small scale manufacturing. Some of those things will become useful ‘products’ with a mass market. Most won’t. That hardly matters because making is also about having fun. Check out the work of young designers like Luke Emmerson, Amy Nelson, James Dalton, Dustin Roxborough and Ryan Coupe: they are all taking current technologies and putting them together in creative and fun ways.

Chris Thorpe is having fun using ultra-expensive industrial scanners to produce his kits of steam engines. Train spotters and other rail buffs can have fun collecting them. Make no mistake, 3D and AM are serious technologies – there is a potentially worrying trend of US defence funding for hackerspaces – but we do need to get more people playing with them.

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