11.13.2011

modular musings

Half of the S Scale Workshop crew are exhibiting at Milwaukee's TrainFest this weekend. The rest of us, being un-retired, are occupied with domestic chores and household tasks that are forcibly compressed (by dint of regular employment) into the weekends preceding the first major snowfall.

I am the group's primary nerd/geek. Knowing that I wouldn't be there to assist if the DCC system decided to throw a fit, I prepared some documentation for the guys to take with them to both simplify the setup and aid in troubleshooting. I also played a role in determining the electro-mechanical standards at the group's inception. After examining dozens of modular standards, we distilled what we considered (at the time) to be the best practises to follow in order to meet our needs. For the most part, we succeeded.

The absolute necessity of following proven methods for building a modular system cannot be overstated. Any flaw in a module will affect ALL of the others. "It ain't no fun if the trains don't run". Each module must meet (and preferably exceed) the minimum requirements in order for the whole system to work as intended.

No skimping on wiring or structure; no corner-cutting on fittings or fasteners. The pennies you save up front will be spent a hundred times over during the life of the project, and the aggravation caused will haunt operations to the bitter end. If you don't know how to do something that's been agreed to by the group, ask for help or have someone do that bit for you in exchange for you doing stuff they can't manage. Each person has a distinct skill set and no one can do everything perfectly. Share the load.

Things to consider to ensure consistency:
- settle on ONE coupler type, ONE turnout type, ONE turnout mechanism (Caboose Ind., Tortoise, Bullfrog, Bluepoint, etc), ONE wheelset; supplying spares is much easier if there aren't a mish-mash of choices
- buy components IN BULK and distribute as necessary; it saves money and time
- make JIGS to cut and drill components the same way each time; store these carefully between uses
- cut ALL of the module end plates at once; make a few extras for future expansion
- make ALL of the legs interchangeable; no "specials"
- use the PROPER crimping tool(s) for electrical connections; don't make do with generic pliers (or a hammer)*
- use ONE type of fastener for all of the legs, carrying cases, backdrops, section joints, etc; same head type and length**
- INSPECT & TEST each module as it is ready to put into service; don't simply assume it's been done right***

Things to consider to make life easier:
- DON'T design & build a module that you can't transport or erect safely
- make a CHECKLIST of everything you need to take; do not check off a box until you hold the item in your hand and put it in whatever carrying case is going to the venue
- TEST your power and DCC cables as part of preparing for a show
- bring SPARES of your fastener and cables
- TEST your module regularly; things get broken/come loose in transit

If you aren't having fun at the shows you attend with your modular group, you're doing something wrong. Figure out what it is and fix it. There's no sense in continuing the misery. If it's a systemic problem (like undersized wiring) schedule a group work session and get it ALL done at once. If it's a single bad turnout, a dip in the roadbed, a gauge problem, kinks in a curve or whatever - repair it before the next event or don't bring that section out to the show.

* Electrical problems, especially intermittent ones, are the MOST ANNOYING and time consuming problems to solve. You often can't see the fault because of insulation, backshells, or accessibility (under the deck or in the framing). Yes, some crimping tools are expensive, but it's a one-time cost that saves hours or days of future frustration. How much is your time worth? How much more do you value the enjoyment of your hobby time over that of the daily grind?

** Pierre Oliver, of Elgin Car Shops, is a Master Carpenter and theatrical set builder. If there is someone who knows more about constructing and moving robust sub-assemblies around, I haven't met them. This is his idea and I can find no fault with it. Hex head (Allen) furniture bolts are available (nearly) worldwide. Forget slot head and Phillips; too easy to slip or strip out. The Robertson head is superior, but isn't universally available.

*** Many people get bent out of shape when they are subjected to the indignity of a "quality check". TOUGH. Your components have to be "known good" in order to ensure a favourable experience for ALL of the participants. If you want to work with a group, put your primadonna attitude aside. You are not immune to errors, and you don't get to do something different (non-standard) just to show everyone how clever you are. It's a collective effort and you need to conform for the sake of consistency, reliability, ease of troubleshooting & repair, and the overall enjoyment of the group.

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