Wednesday, August 30, 2017

5 reasons why model kits are inaccurate

The newest release from Trumpihawk Boss just arrived at your doorstep and you’re excited to build it. But wait! The rivet counters on your favorite forum are lambasting the kit for its many inaccuracies. The nose is misshaped, the intakes are too high, the canopy shape resembles that of the prototype not the production variant, there are panel lines that shouldn’t be there. “It’s a caricature of the actual aircraft,” says one observer with an annoying affinity for hyperbole.

Whether you’ve learned to love rivet counters or not, you stare at the model wondering how the designers could make such obvious mistakes.

We'll I can tell you. In fact I'll give you five reasons.

Inaccurate plans

The designers may have used inaccurate plans. The manufacturers don’t always have access to the plans and schematics from the original manufacturer, so they use what they can find. For many of the aircraft, armor, ships, and cars we build there are two, three, or more sets of plans floating around out there in books, magazines, or online. The designers choose one, believing (or hoping) they’re correct. Clearly, when they’re not, mistakes in the plans are reflected in the model.

Inaccurate prototypes

The designers may have studied an inaccurate prototype. This is what happened with Eduard’s initial release of their 1/48 Bf-109G. If you followed the endless chatter online last year you may recall the model featured a bump on the wing root, which the designer dutifully included based on their analysis of a Bf-109G in a museum. It turned out that the bump was a a post-war modification. How were the designers to know that? In Eduard’s case, they didn’t find out until the kit was in our hands and modelers more knowledgable about the 109 pointed out the error. (To their credit, Eduard corrected this, and other mistakes, by re-tooling the molds and releasing a new kit.)

Lack of subject matter expertise

From the conversations I’ve had with insiders familiar with the model design process, the designers employed by the manufacturers are often design generalists. They’re not necessarily aviation or military enthusiasts like you and me. They might be designing parts for a refrigerator on Monday and designing the canopy of the upcoming Su-35 on Tuesday. They’re not familiar with the subtleties of your favorite subjects. It’s not surprising that they don’t “see” that gentle shape of the rear fuselage of the F-4 Phantom or notice the different angle of a Sherman glacis plate between the early and late variants.

When a subject matter expert is involved in a project (and we’ve recently seen a number of kits that are reviewed by modelers during the design process), there can be communication challenges. With many kits being designed in Asia or Europe there’s no guarantee the designers will be fluent in English, so when the expert sees an error in an early design image, communicating the nuance of the recommended change can be a challenge. For example, I have a basic understanding of Spanish; I know common words and phrases (and can certainly look up words I don’t know), but I’d be hard-pressed to assemble a clear, coherent explanation in Spanish of why the nose of the Trumpeter 1/72 Su-34 is wrong. And a Spanish designer might have a hard timely clearly understanding precise instructions I give him.

And I should point out that even when a third-party expert is consulted it doesn’t mean that the manufacturer will follow their guidance or that the expert is provided anything other than the CAD images.

No quality assurance

I don’t have any evidence to back up this theory, so I’d be eager to hear from anyone who can set me straight, but I have a feeling there’s no quality assurance check of the basic design of a new model prior to its going to production. The manufacturers hire designers, whether full-time or freelance, and give them the responsibility to design a model. But who checks their designs? I suspect it’s a product manager, but who’s to say that he's familiar enough with the subject to determine whether the designs are correct or not? He could look over the CAD drawings and declare, “Well, it looks like the photos of the Fruitbat Mk IIc that I’ve seen,” but would he notice that the exhausts are incorrect or the wheel hubs feature five bolt heads rather than six? Probably not. So the manufacturers release kits based on the best efforts of their designers.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

Finally, this leads me to the most likely reason your favorite model is inaccurate, the Dunning-Kruger effect. This concept suggests that we mistakenly consider ourselves to be more intelligent or to possess higher skills than we actually have. The guy who designed that inaccurate kit you bought thought it was accurate. He did the very best he could given his experience, skill, and resources available. But it turns out he wasn’t quite good enough to get everything right.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why you feel slighted when your model doesn't win at a contest...even though the wings weren’t aligned or you missed a seam on the stabilizer. Or why a chef at a restaurant featured on Kitchen Nightmares believes he's serving amazing food even though the restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy because no one eats there. If Tamiya is producing the most accurate kits in the hobby, it's due in large part to their hiring the best talent.

You can read more about the Dunning-Kruger effect on Wikipedia.

In Summary...

Being aware of these factors should give you a clear understanding of just how difficult it is to produce a perfectly accurate kit.

1. Ideally the designers work from the manufacturer’s plans, and

2. They have to have access to an accurately restored prototype, and

3. They consult with subject matter experts with whom they can clearly communicate, and

4. There’s someone in the company who’s familiar with the aircraft or vehicle prototype to double-check the designers’ work, and

5. The designers are the very best in the industry and — ideally — aviation, military, naval, or automotive enthusiasts themselves.

That’s a tall order by any measure!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Your stash when you die

Like most of you, I have a lot of models in my stash. I have great affection for them, and I have a good idea of the paint scheme and markings I intend to apply to each one. In my mind’s eye I can envision how they’ll look when complete.

Then reality sets in when I do the math and realize that I have more kits than I can build in my lifetime, at least at my current rate. Some evenings I’ll sit and look over the models and come to the harsh realization that that Hasegawa 1/72 EF-111A or the Tamiya 1/48 F-16C may be sitting in that exact same spot when I die. It’s downright depressing. All that inspiration and ambition is pointless when I face reality.

To be sure, there are ways we can increase our output. A couple of years ago I suggested painting your cockpits black, and I offered five ideas to speed up your builds. But even doubling or tripling my rate of completion may not be enough, especially considering all the great kits that will inevitably be released over the next 20 years. Heck, just today I received the new AMK 1/72 Kfir, another kit I may never build!

I’ve been thinking about this dilemma a lot recently. The ripe old age of 50 is clearly on my radar. Reading on Hyperscale of the passing of several modelers. A friend who's been selling a collection of die cast models for the widow of a friend who died. And my fiancee, who casually asked me what she should do with my models if something were to happen to me.

I can hear many of you already. “I’ll be dead. I don’t care what happens to my models.” We can laugh at a flip, apathetic response like that, but I’ve come to believe that leaving behind an enormous collection of models to your heirs to deal with is a burden. It’s inconsiderate and unloving.

The prospect that one of your friends might leave you 500 models, for example, has an element of opportunity to it — once you get past the grief. But then the reality of the situation would set in. How are you going to get the models from their home to yours? Where will you store them? How will you sell them? Are they complete? Are they even desirable?

Clearly, there’s potential for a collection of models to have significant value…if they’re sold individually. But if you’ve every sold models on eBay, on Facebook, or via the forums you know what I know, that being a seller is a total pain in the ass. Determining a viable price for each model, the logistics of posting them, responding to email, acquiring shipping material, packing the models, printing postage, mailing the items, tracking the packages, responding to follow-up communication…it can be a full-time job. Yes, the money is nice, but I’d rather be building a models than packing them en masse.

“My wife can call one of the second-hand model dealers and sell them in bulk,” you say. True, but she's likely to get pennies on the dollar. Those twenty WingNut Wings models in your stash might earn your wife $100 amid all the other models she’d offer to the buyer. That doesn’t seem fair to her.

So what’s a guy to do? Here are a few suggestions.

With each passing year after 50 take a hard assessment of the kits in your stash, and those that don’t excite you should go to a sale pile. Sell them online or buy a table at a local contest and sell them there. The goal is to have a reasonable number of unbuilt models in your stash, knowing that nearly anything can be found on the secondary market if you “accidentally” sell a model that you decide you want to build 10 years from now.

Give some of your kits away. There are organizations that will gladly send models to our troops overseas. If you’re a member of a club, give some to new members or to a junior member. Or to your friends; having been the recipient of many kind offers over the years, I can assure you it’s greatly appreciated.

Slow your purchases. For example, the next time you're at a contest and see an enticing kit at a bargain price, be strong. Ask yourself if you really need another Hasegawa P-51D when you already have 10 of them at home, even if the price tag says only $5.

Make arrangements for the disposal of your unbuilt kits upon your passing. If you’re going to bequeath them to a modeler-friend, first, make sure he's up for the task, and if he is, be sure to designate him in your will and communicate that to your family, and let them know whether you're giving the models to your friend outright or whether you expect him to sell them on behalf of your family. If you’re content for your family to sell them in bulk to one of the second-hand retailers, make sure they have contact information for two or three of those retailers. (And it wouldn’t hurt to call out any models that are of particularly high value.)

Look, the goal isn’t to have zero kits in your stash when you die, just not to have hundreds that someone has to deal with amid all the other estate issues they’ll be managing at the time. As we get older, protecting our friends and loved ones is incredibly important, and it extends to the assets of our hobby as much as anything else.

Live long and prosper. And downsize.