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Plastic versus Metal
Editorial November 2007

The market for construction replicas has traditionally been divided into 'toys' and 'models'.  Toys are usually made of plastic, are meant to be handled roughly and expect to have a short life before being condemned to the scrapyard under a child's bed.  Models on the other hand are usually made of diecast metal and tend to be collector's items having a more sheltered life in a display cabinet or stuck in the box.

As materials, plastic and metal each have their own advantages and disadvantages.  Plastic is generally cheaper and is easier to mould to form details.  It can be coloured and it is is light weight.  Zinc diecast metal requires expensive tooling and cannot achieve the same level of detail within the casting.  It has to be painted to achieve a given colour.  It is robust and can be made into impressively heavy parts but unfortunately the cost of the raw material has recently risen sharply.

Construction scale models have been heavily reliant on diecast metal as the main material with plastic usually limited to windows and small details.  Casting techniques have also improved over recent years meaning that more detail and complex shapes can now be successfully produced in metal.  The majority of models produced at the moment still follow the established pattern being mainly made of metal.

However there are signs of a different approach emerging and that is the precision use of plastic to produce high quality model components.  A few models illustrate the trend of the last couple of years.  The Bauer BG24H drilling rig produced by Brami uses plastic for the drilling parts.  The Grove GMK 3055 mobile crane by TWH has the operator's cab made of plastic.  Most recently, the range of Komatsu models made by Universal hobbies has a significant plastic element creating very detailed and relatively inexpensive models.

Plastic also opens up some possibilities in the engineering of scale models.  Crane models have always had a challenge with scaled jibs in metal being proportionately heavier than their real life counterparts because lattice work cannot be scaled fine enough and real life parts are sometimes made of hollow tubes.  Anything with a boom or jib would be more stable if these parts were made of plastic.

So how should collector's view the use of plastic in models?  It is hard to argue against metal having a more quality feel, and there is something satisfying and permanent about a heavy metal model.  Having said that, if plastic is used in a high quality way an excellent model can result.  The key issue for the use of plastic seems to be that it must not actually look like plastic and this is where the new Universal Hobbies models score highly.  However as in all things 'you pay your money and you take your choice' and individual collectors will buy to their preferences.

Cranes Etc
Conrad's Case CX800 Demolition Excavator is nearly all metal and is as heavy as a brick.
Universal Hobbies Komatsu PC450 Demolition is the opposite of the Case.  Lots of plastic and detail and as light as a soufflé.
Diecast casting techniques have improved allowing fully triangulated tower crane jibs to be produced for Liebherr's flat top tower crane.