Airfix: Modelling the Iconic British Spitfire with Incredible Accuracy

Airfix is a much-loved brand well known for bringing hours of entertainment to would-be modellers, by putting immensely detailed model planes, cars and ships in their hands. But how do they achieve such life-like accuracy? And in the age of computer-aided design, how have their models evolved over the years?


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Transcript

Introduction

From Spitfires to Concords, when I say the name Airfix many of you will be flooded with nostalgic memories of working on model kits as a child. Airfix is a much-loved brand, well known for bringing hours of entertainment to would-be modellers by putting immensely detailed model planes, cars, and ships in their hands. But how do they achieve such lifelike accuracy? And in the age of computer-aided design, how have their models evolved over the years? Hornby is the parent company of Airfix and other household names like Scalextric – and is also known for its model trains. The design and development of new kits at Airfix is supported by PTC partner PDS vision.

The Airfix Range

In the Airfix showroom, you’ll find a range of supercars from older stuff to modern stuff like a Jaguar E-Type, an Aston Martin DB5, and a Bugatti Chiron. You’ll also see classic jets like the Spitfire and modern jets like the new F-35, as well as tanks, and even the old Mary Rose warship. “It's a privilege to be able to work here,” says senior designer Chris Parker Joy. “I have memories as a kid of making Airfix kits – it’s one of the things that fuelled my love for design as well as making and creating, which I now enjoy in all sorts of different areas of life. Building is the thing that gives me the most satisfaction, and Airfix was absolutely a part of that in my childhood. I think for a lot of people, Airfix has nostalgic memories. Some of them may remember doing them as a kid, but actually could still do the same thing now and hopefully carry on that legacy if they have kids and keep making these things and passing the skills down through the generations.”

QUICKBUILD

Airfix’s new range of products is called QUICKBUILD. Airfix is a product that a lot of people probably have some experience with, but maybe the last time they bought it was some time ago. “There’s a fantastic, really dedicated community of people in the hobby who are encouraging, and love the stuff that we do, and we love interacting with them. But it is a product that we need to get back into the hands of kids. Something that’s physical, it’s not digital, and engages – something different than just sitting on a screen,” added Chris. With that in mind, QUICKBUILD, is a quick clip-together type kit but you end up with something that is a real representation of an actual product.

Learning the craft

There’s a range of skill levels in the Airfix product range. For the experienced modeller who’s been doing it for most of their life, they have some super high-detail kits, with some released over this last year. But you can’t start there. It is a craft to learn, to be able to build these things well and to paint them up as something that looks realistic. It’s a miniature version of the real thing that’s weathered and beaten and been thrown around. There’s an artistry to it. When people do it well, you see a photo and you’d be hard-pressed to say it’s a model. Chris said, “I’ve been doing this job for 10 years and I can still get tricked. But that takes a long time to learn, so we have simpler kits as well.” QUICKBUILD is a separate range that clips together, you can undo it again and rebuild it as many times as you’d like. But they also have simpler versions of classic Airfix kits with glues and paint.

The Airfix name

The classic kits are for people maybe who have come along a little bit and are at 1:72 scale. it’s a small scale, ideal if you’ve not got loads of room in your house – which many of us don’t – to be able to display the things that you make. Among the range is a lot of World War 2 fighter planes like the Hawker Tempest, Messerschmitt 109, and more Spitfires, along with some of the Cold War jets like the English Electric Lightning and the Douglas Skyhawk. It's mostly aircraft. Surprisingly, the brand name Airfix has nothing to do with planes, even though they do mostly do planes. it comes from when the founder of the company started developing plastic products and was making inflatable chairs. He also really wanted the product, the company name, to be at the start of the phone directory so needed to make sure that it began with an A. “But it seems to fit very well with the core of our product range now, so that’s good luck really,” said Chris.

Working with history

Airfix has been creating products for a long time, and some stuff that they made in the 70s can still be sold today, although the quality isn’t quite the same; molding techniques have improved and CAD software didn’t exist, so they can get the detail better. When comparing models, you’ve got details like the cannon bay hatches are open so you can see through them, the cowlings around the engines come off, and you can see the engines. But with the new kits you can see an improvement. When choosing what subjects to go with, it must be based in history. The tried and tested kits are World War 2 and Cold War stuff, as well as V-Bombers, which are the UK’s, the RAF’s, answer for what could carry a nuclear bomb if that was necessary. These three aircraft have a mysticism to them because they were really cutting edge for the time but have thankfully never participated in that sort of warfare. Airfix has recently redone all these models.

Perks of the job

Something that’s attractive with these models is just the sheer scale of them, says Chris. “I was lucky enough to be involved with the design of the Vulcan, and for all these kits we try to go and see at least one example in real life to get measurements and photographs. I was fortunate to get to stand on top of the wing and climb around it. And it is just enormous on the outside, but when you get into the cockpit, it’s still incredibly tight and cramped. I just feel for the pilots who had to spend hours in these things.”

What makes aircraft models unique

Part of the joy of this product is that it comes half-finished, and you’ve got to put it together and paint it and make it yours. No two will ever actually finish identical to each other as it’s always got a little bit of the modeller. “How do they picture it? How do they see it? How much weathering do they want to add to it? It’s wonderful to see,” says Chris. “I love seeing these kits painted. I might spend a year or two working on it, and knowing it in absolute detail, but it’s always grey. On the computer it’s grey, and in the plastic that I build these test shots, it’s still grey. Seeing it after a skilled modeller has painted it and weathered it and put their attention to the detail it suddenly comes alive and looks like a whole different thing.”

The Hornby brands

One of the wonderful things about Hornby as a company is the range of brands that they have. Apart from Airfix, they also have Scalextric, Hornby Railways and Corgi die cast. At the Hornby visitor’s center, which opened 15 years ago, there’s a visual history of each of the brands and how each different brand started off. “There’s always a lovely, warm story about these types of products,” said head of strategic delivery Jamie Buchanan. “Lots of people come in here and say: ‘I remember this!’ ‘I’ve got one of these still up in my loft in its box!’ ‘I used to have this as a child!’ ‘My grandfather bought this for me!’ I think that’s why people are drawn to our products. It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling that you had to play with this as a child, and then later in life you then start to get back into the hobby, and then it becomes a hobby and a passion, and you start building some really complex layouts.”

The world of trains

Some of the different layouts include fiddling yards. A fiddling yard is a long, thin layout. The one in the museum is three meters long by about a meter deep. Unlike traditional layouts where locos go round and round in circles, all these can do is just go backwards and forwards. This type of track is more about the logistics of running a railway layout. To move a loco from one side of the fiddling yard to the other involves a complex system of points, moving the right things at the right time, and making sure that you’re not leaving wagons, locos, or coaches in the wrong place to try and achieve the end goal. Equally, layouts aren’t all about driving trains; some people are really, passionate about building their model layout. It’s not all about driving your loco on the layout either – it’s about the passion of modelling and losing yourself in your own small-scale model world for a few hours.

Fun for all the family

Also in the museum are some traditional layouts. There might be a bustling village, or an industrial area which leads off into the countryside. Windmills, lights, sound, freight. Or prototypical Mark III coaches and Orient coaches being pulled by steam locomotives. One has two ovals and two locos pulling a rolling stock of wagons. There’s a small siding that goes into a goods yard, and then in the middle, there’s a small scene of a town with a backdrop of some Swiss mountains. There’s a foam mountain at the end with a tunnel going into it, and the locos go through the mountain and back out the other side. “This is that piece where, if you look at it as an adult and then look at it as a child it is very different,” Jamie explained. “When a child is squatting down here and the loco comes out of that tunnel, their excitement is really fantastic to see.”

Making locos come to life

When choosing sounds for a locomotive, it’s important to get it right. Hornby has a team of sound recordists who go out with microphones and recording equipment and record the loco. Those recordings are then sent to some guys that have got some studio software, and they’re able to clean out all the ambient sound – generally it’s out in the outside world, and there’s birds chirping and people shouting and stuff. They then slice it up to get the whistle and the chuffing sound. They break the chuffing up so and sync it with the speed and the movement of the pistons on the locomotive so everything’s in line. It’s a complex process.

The Hornby family

We’re quite a blended group of young and old, male and female across our departments, and I think that’s what really keeps us vibrant, buoyant, and interested. Jamie says, “I would say we don’t have a massive turnover of staff here, because to be truthful, you’re designing toys for adults, so it’s good fun. It’s escapism. You’re giving people something to go and do in their free time that lets them escape from a world that can be tough sometimes.”

Hornby uses Creo

Airfix’s product design engineers follow the top-down methodology supported by Creo. The top-down design methodology is typically used in CAD to simplify the development of products that have complex interdependencies and relationships between components. They might be driven by different team members, or different groups. So it’s really helpful with structuring complex work where there are a lot of groups working across different products on different timelines. But in the case of Hornby or Airfix, they have a vast number of products in the company’s portfolio with a lot of similarities and differences that they’re trying to develop and manage much more effectively, and the complex interdependencies are more about product portfolio complexity than anything else. And that is really, powerful for them to be able to use the same technology for complex projects to manage complex interdependencies across their product portfolio. It’s really, really cool.

How Creo helps Hornby to keep track

For the geometry that Hornby is developing, it refers often to more than one part that will be developed into a single skeleton model across multiple versions of a product line. That’s referenced down into individual part files that might vary, and as they change something on the top-level model, that will filter down into the child model. You can manage significant complexity with this technique, even with variations in the design of a particular product family. It’s valuable when they re-release a design because they can re-implement the design very easily with all the history still there, and the design intent available. It’s a powerful way of handling this multi-dimensional product portfolio that they have with a very, very structured approach.

Credits

Thanks to Brian and to Chris and Jamie for showing us around Hornby’s headquarters.

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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou. Recording by Hannah Dean. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode Guests

Christopher Joy, Product Designer at Hornby Hobbies Ltd

More About Hornby

Jamie Buchanan, Head of Strategic Delivery, Hornby Hobbies Ltd

Brian Thompson, Divisional GM, CAD Segment, PTC

More About Creo