Trade focus: Producing exacting farm machinery…on a ‘smaller’ scale

“Most of the people on the course didn’t even know what a tractor was,” explained Ciaran Dunne, as he reflects on the sequence of events that brought about ‘Perfect-32‘ – a business he started soon after completing his degree.

The course in question was in model making – at Bournemouth College, Dorset, UK, where he had intended to start a career in creating architectural models.

However, he soon turned his attention to farm machinery; he has not looked back since.

One of his final exam projects was a McConnell hedge-cutter (pictured below) – built in 1/32 scale. The company had provided him with a good deal of help, so – by way of thanks – he gave them a model on his way home to Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

It lay around the office for the summer until it was noticed by a dealer, who set in motion a chain of events that culminated in an order for 100 to be delivered in time for Agritechnica 2011.

After two months, 1,300 man-hours and help from several friends, the miniature machines were delivered on time and at a price that would be considered “a little more carefully the next time round”.

Those first models were made in a spare room in the house.

Now, Ciaran has moved into a redundant poultry shed on the family farm. Here, he sets about the exacting task of designing, planning and assembling a plethora of models – items which have earned him an enviable reputation in the scale-model world.

Model-making – whether farm machinery or architecture – is a serious craft, despite its association with the toy industry.

Ciaran may well create an attractive product that has all the appearance of a play-thing to the untrained eye, but – behind the delightful miniatures – there is a well thought out design and manufacturing process, along with an astute sense of business.

Stages involved

The first stage of creating a model is to decide upon a subject. There are many factors to consider when pondering the choice; the major one being the potential to turn a profit upon it.

Somewhat surprisingly, those that are more expensive are often limited in their production. This will reduce the potential to spread development costs, but it does help to ensure they sell.

He also needs to keep a range of more affordable items available, to provide an entry point for those on a constrained budget. It is one of these – a twin bale carrier – that he uses to demonstrate the progression of an idea through to a finished product.

Once the machine is chosen, a real-life example is measured and photographed; Ciaran insists on the maximum authenticity possible.

The various components which will make up the model are then drawn out on a computer-aided design (CAD) programme and printed out – in the first instance – on paper. The paper parts are then cut out and a prototype assembled, to ensure the model can actually be built as intended.

Any necessary changes are made and, once satisfied, he lays out a final cutting template which is sent off to Scotland for photo-etching onto a brass sheet.

When the sheets return, the various parts are ready for cutting out and assembly. By using brass, Ciaran is able to fold the parts into shape (where they hold themselves in position).

Should they need fastening together then, he uses solder to “weld them up” – as he puts it.

Painting is done in a separate spray booth using various types – often original two-pack (despite the quantities required being minute).

“A lot of half-empty paint tins get thrown out,” he noted, but it does make for an accurate finish to the models.

The decals are provided by a local lady more used to vehicle graphics; water transfers would be more suitable for the scale, but they are difficult and time-consuming to apply.

The finished items may well be rooted in a tradition of craftsmanship, but Ciaran is keen to embrace new technology. The use of CAD and photo-etching allows detail down to around 0.2mm to be reproduced. The mesh on the brush-cutter safety guards is an example of how ‘fine’ it is possible to go.

However, he is also enthusiastic about 3D printing and noted: “Many panels on modern machines are plastic and bubble-shaped; 3D printing also uses plastic and reproduces these curves far better than is possible with brass sheet.”

Presently, it is mainly wheels that are produced using this method – but he hopes to expand the scope of what is possible in future.

Future plans

Plans for the future include building a Volvo loading shovel, as these are machines that he is familiar with in reality.

In the past he has considered producing certain tractors (from scratch), but is very wary of being undercut by less detailed versions (churned out by an increasing number of model-making companies).

At the moment he is working on a McHale silage-cutter; it will retail for around €30. That’s a far cry from his signature piece – an Armer Salmon beet harvester (pictured below) that carries a €1,200 price tag! This latter item took at least six weeks to design and plan; the effort shows in the exacting detail and impressive accuracy of the model.

Besides creating new-from-the ground-up models, Ciaran takes in other items for modification, adaption or repair.

Many farmers like to have a favourite machine reproduced in model form; he will gladly customise existing units to a customer’s requirements. This may be as simple as adding beacons or could even involve reducing the width of a forage harvester’s header (by slicing a section out of the middle and fusing it back together again).

Bulk production (by commission from manufacturers) is another area of the business he would like to expand.

Nearly all the models made are in 1/32 scale, although he will work to other sizes if requested. You can see more of his work on his website. Alternatively, you can catch up with him at upcoming scale model exhibitions – the next one is prepped for Killarney on April 22.