Jimmy Trains Animator origin story

By | May 5, 2023

The Animator – Lightening and Animator – Feller were developed very rapidly. This happened almost by chance. This post will be about the origin of the idea and the work required to make it happen. Sometimes chance creates incredible things.

It all started with this image this image it doesn’t look like much but what I’m showing here is two bridges on top of each other. I was going to mount these two bridges to an elevator mechanism so I could raise the whole train up from one level to the next. This would allow me to change level without an incline. Also I thought it would be really neat.

Unfortunately this idea had some risks. Raising the bridge exposes the end of the tracks where the cars can go right off the edge and crash to the floor.

To prevent this I wanted to create some motorized gates. I originally though I would use a gear motor and some switches but quickly started exploring microcontrollers.

I started with the Arduino shown here. In the box there were a lots of goodies. There was all sorts of dc motors, switches, stepper motors, servos, neo pixels etc. I was particularly interested in the servo motors in the kit because I could use those for the gates.

I figured I was all set for my elevator I could just use the servo motors to close the gates. I searched on youtube for examples of servo motor driven train gates and came across a tree Feller animation. A guy was chopping a tree and every chop the tree shaked and then eventually fell.

This got me thinking I could use a servo motor for that. That would be fun on the layout. But I also wanted sound, but the Arduino kit didn’t have any audio components in the box.

So I started searching for kits that had audio components and came across a raspberry pi pico kit that included audio components. So I bought a second kit. I started discovering that the pico was much more sophisticated then the Arduino.

I got audio working pretty quickly and then got Davinci Resolve out to mix sounds for the tree feller animation. This was February 17th. I was now committed to this project and halted the train room renovation. I was ready to take a deep dive into this new concept.

Only three days later I had two servos working and a speaker. The proof of concept was very close. I cut out a cardboard figure and cardboard tree and attached them to the servos. I had the figure strike the tree with a chop sound and the tree shook. After a few chops the tree fell with a crashing sound and bounced when it hit the ground. It was so cool and worked great.

This was February 23rd. Of course the cardboard speaker wasn’t gonna make the cut so I started 3D printing boxes for the speakers. I also ordered a great Feller figure with an ax from Model Tech Studios.

I also wanted the animator to work with a train transformer so that the user had the option to use a usb power supply or their transformer. I started prototyping by rectifying the ac voltage and using a buck converter to produce clean 5vdc for the pico. This worked great.

After breadboarding the design I start putting the design into KiCad. The board design took some time because it has been awhile since I designed a circuit board. In the past I used Altium but KiCad was free. This was March 1st.

Next I started testing various trees. The first was a 12 inch Bachman fir. It was way too big. Then I got some trees for cake decoration and they were to springy. I eventually settled on plastic tree armatures from scenic express. They were just right.

Next I experimented with different size speakers. I eventually settled on a 3″ Sony driver that sounded great.

Next I found out that the mp3s I were using did not sound as good as wav files I was testing. There was one problem though. The pico only had only 2Mb of flash storage and the wave files I wanted to use were way too big. So I added a SD card to the design.

At this point I was so excited and everything was falling into place. I incorporated all the design changes in Kia Cad and submitted my board to a board house. I was amazed when I got 30 boards in about a week.

At this time I felt so good that I registered as dealer for the TCA York Train Show. I figured this would be a great test to see if someone wanted this product.

This was March 23rd. Fortunately the bamboo printer that I ordered came in time and it allowed me to make 20 units and 5 show displays. Without this printer I would have never made it. It was 4 times faster than my ender 3.

At this point it was the end of March and only had 17 days left. I had to hunker down and get it done.

I started with the show units. I figured if I was not able to produce units for sale at least I could create some interest.

I was able to do both. I created 5 show units and 17 sale units.

This process was a blast and it was well received at the show.

Now that this is done I need to figure out how to scale production. Fortunately I still have some inventory left which will give me time to make the needed changes.