Rail industry speeding forward with additive manufacturing

It's hard to argue how influential the invention of the railroad systems has been across so many industries. From crops to oil to military equipment, railroads have changed the game regarding transporting heavy material over large distances, and changed the way we live our lives along with it.
Frequent rolling stock accidents require on demand quick repairs

Despite the success of rail on a whole, the industry still faces critical challenges. Rail systems operate in a manner that is dependent on combinations of numerous parts and materials, making them vulnerable to downtime when parts break.  Today, we’ll take a look at how the rail industry is moving towards additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to substitute damaged parts or even create new custom pieces – all at revolutionary speeds that will keep trains on the track instead of in repair. 

Efficient Reparability 

Locomotives have many systems made up of thousands of parts working together to allow these mega-ton machines to travel across countries without malfunction. But it only takes one essential part to malfunction to stop a rolling stock in its tracks entirely. After such malfunction occurs, if the piece is not available on hand at the railway yard, it can take several days till the train can go back to functioning correctly due to manufacturing and delivery of the new parts.

Identifying, removing, and replacing a damaged part as fast as possible is essential to any rail company’s service continuity. Before 3D printing, companies had to store massive warehouses filled with large amounts of stock and thousands of individual parts in case of repairs, all because of the long manufacturing time needed for each part.

Companies like SNCF, a major player in the French railway industry, have designed cutting-edge software to identify every possible part that could be printed using additive manufacturing. This software, developed in 2021, determined that 10.3% of all parts could be made using additive manufacturing out of more than 30,000 spare parts, while reducing delivery times by over 85%.

Advancements in Prototyping

Another prominent manufacturer of parts for the automotive industry, Polgar, creates train components in addition to designing car parts. Using Omni3D’s Factory 2.0 industrial 3D printer, Polgar has 3D printed a prototype seat set to be installed in new trains. As a result, the company says it has significantly reduced the cost of prototyping, saving €370,000, or 90% of the price. In addition, Polgar states that they were able to print the part in just three weeks, whereas traditional methods require 16 weeks. In order to design the relatively large part, the seat was printed in different components before being assembled.

Due to its dual printhead technology and uniquely fast curing process, Massivit’s large-scale 3D printers can churn out full-scale rail parts within a few hours. Large panels and parts as well as functional prototypes can be fabricated, adjusted, and re-printed in hours instead of days or weeks. In addition, a
range of high-performance printing materials have been developed to serve critical flame retardancy and impact-resistance requirements. Meeting these requirements is crucial for manufacturers of rail parts when considering the size, weight, and speed at which these trains are traveling.

Different Approaches to 3D Adaptation in Rail

Every significant rail player worldwide is taking a different approach to adapting 3D printing to rail. Some of these OEMs focus on external parts that are less crucial if damaged. For example,  Alstom was able to design drain plugs made of TPU to prevent the headlights in the front of the vehicle from breaking. As a result, a dozen parts were printed in 48 hours, reducing costs by 80%.

Downtime and maintenance produces large costs for railway OEM
Downtime and maintenance
produces large costs for railway OEM

Other companies have experimented with replacing whole internal systems and dashboards with 3D-printed parts. For example, professor Simon Iwnicki of the Institute of Railways Research (IRR) at the University of Huddersfield focused his Run2Rail project on the mission of developing small components like axle boxes and bearings parts by using additive manufacturing.  The researchers on the project wanted to use 3D printing and carbon fiber to design lighter, safer, and quieter trains. As we can see, companies are also looking to additive manufacturing to make the rail experience more enjoyable for commuters, all while boosting company profitability.

How Massivit is Paving the Way

The speed and versatility of Massivit 3D’s additive manufacturing systems allow railway operators to produce complex parts, minimizing time spent on repairs and reducing costs. Massivit’s first generation of large-scale printers are able to print internal and external rail parts within a fraction of the time it would take to weld new steel parts into the system. Complex fiberglass parts can be created, combining durability with efficient material and time usage.

In particular, the advanced Dimengel 20-FR printing material introduced to market the world’s first flame-retardant 3D printing thermoset gel for large parts. It allows Massivit 3D customers to meet essential flammability-related safety and performance requirements. The company’s Massivit 10000 now offers digital production of isotropic molds for composite railway components. Addressing the crucial need to speed up composite manufacturing, this additive manufacturing system enables quick, on-demand creation of industrial molds, mandrels, and tools with the significant benefit of removing the need to produce a plug or master.

Technological advancements like these have colossal ramifications for the locomotive industry which suffers detrimental drawbacks from downtime and slow production processes. Manufacturing milestones now enable trains and trams to stay on the tracks, circumventing key vulnerabilities for the rail industry at large.


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