Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Build or Buy?

I work as a software engineer for a major pharmaceutical company; our group develops applications for chemists and research scientists of many disciplines. When we are approached by a research team or department to address a potential new challenge, one of the first questions we ask ourselves before lifting a finger is, do we build it, or buy it?

It's hard to know the right answer, because there is usually a long list of pros and cons for either approach. Generally speaking, buying has the potential of bringing a project to completion in weeks instead of months, but it requires a substantial capital outlay, and the project may still get bogged down with customizations required to get the application into a form suitable for the users. Building has the potential of providing an application that precisely suits the users' needs, but it might come at an expense of effort measured in man-years; we might also lack the internal talent required to deliver certain highly specialized solutions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, model railroaders face the same issues when it comes to creating our layouts. Do we build our models, or buy them?

Building a model is naturally very satisfying. And it results in something unique, something that will not be found on any other layout. Even before construction begins, though, a substantial time investment is necessary in order to research both the actual object as well as the model construction materials and techniques. It may also require skills that not everyone possesses, so it may not be an option for some of us.

Buying a model provides instant gratification and accelerates layout-building, allowing us to reach a satisfying level of completion earlier, leaving us more time to operate and enjoy our layouts. Also, being less emotionally attached to our models frees us to experiment more, to move or replace them in order to try different approaches.

Most modelers strike a balance and do both: it's impractical (or impossible) for many to scratchbuild locomotives and rolling stock. Indeed, it's safe to say that the vast majority of modelers buy their rolling stock: there would otherwise not be so much discussion (sometimes rather heated) at online forums over the accuracy of commercial locomotives and such.

Just as it is in the business world, though, time is every bit a commodity as materials. Scratchbuilding is of course more economical than buying kits or built-ups from a materials standpoint, but one must also factor in the time involved. These days, with time being a key factor in both my work and hobby budgets, I'm inclined to look at my modeling effort as an investment. That $20 kit might only represent $5 of materials if scratchbuilt, but it might take $100 of my time to scratchbuild it. Another business parallel is the Return on Investment (ROI) angle: will it be worth the effort to scratchbuild certain mundane detail items when perfectly adequate kits exist?

Lately, as I attempt to squeeze in a few precious minutes of modeling here and there in my crazy-busy schedule, I face the build or buy question almost continuously. As is the case for my work, I much prefer to build because it is far more satisfying, and I get exactly what I want (more or less, depending on skill and a bit of luck). But when my modeling progress can be measured in inches per year instead of feet, I must stop and think hard about striking a compromise in order to achieve my goals in a more realistic timeline. Yes, I realize that others will recognize nearly every building in my model town, and this will not accurately reflect my true desires or skills as a modeler. But at least I have a town, which would not be the case if I built everything from scratch.

For the time being, buying rather than building is a stop-gap measure, a means to cut to the chase and get up and running more quickly. I know that when I retire, all of the business-like time/cost factors will go away; I will be able to kick back and spend large blocks of time modeling at a leisurely pace, and I will almost always build before I buy, no question.

But I'd still like to be able to run a train through a landscape populated by buildings and scenery before I retire! So, out comes the plastic, and to the web stores I go a-shopping. (I like to further justify this approach by thinking that my relatively tiny contribution helps to support the growth of the industry...)

Thankfully, those of us who choose to buy—whatever our reasons—know that we are perhaps enjoying the "golden years" of model railroading right now. Never before has there been such a bountiful crop of quality goods. For some, it's the only way they will be able to enjoy a layout right now; for others, it's the only way to enjoy a layout at all.