Bringing Additive Manufacturing To The Rails

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This train features a 3D-printed housing cover.Stratasys

Advances in 3D-printing have been hyped in a number of futuristic applications, like cutting-edge applications in airplane design or parts of rocket engines. But 3D-printing is also making strides in railroads, which hasn’t been considered new-fangled since the 19th century. 

In fact, replacement parts printed by Stratasys industrial 3D printers can be found on 60-year-old trains. “The rail industry is a lot like aerospace in terms of requirements,” says Scott Sevcik, VP of manufacturing solutions at Stratasys, which serves industries from aerospace to automotive. “Solutions that aerospace drove are now spilling over.”

Once company taking advantage of 3D-printing is Siemens Mobility, which has been using Stratasys printers like the Fortus 900mc since 2015 to provide solutions for its rail customers.

Trains can go a lifetime needing only two or three replacements of specific parts. Traditional manufacturing requires bulk orders, and replacement parts that are paid for, but never used, get scrapped. With additive manufacturing, Siemens can instead make a single part to order, saving time and money.

A train armrest being printed on a Stratasys printer.

A train armrest being printed on a Stratasys printer.Stratasys

One such railroad customer is SWU Verkehr GmbH, which provides rail transport in Germany. Siemens employed Stratasys’ printers for this customer to create customized armrests for drivers and housing covers for the trains’ couplers.

But in addition to simply creating replacement parts, Michael Kuczmik, Head of Siemens Mobility customer service, tells me that additive manufacturing allows the company to go further: improving those parts for existing applications.

By working with customers who’ve been involved with applications for decades, Kuczmik explains, Siemens is able to find better ways to engineer parts, or adapt them for new use cases. Sometimes this comes by new engineering, but it other cases it’s possible to take advantage of 3D-printing to use entirely new materials. For example, an older metal part might be replaced with a polymer part, or if a metal is still required, a 3D-printed stainless steel or aluminum part.

This ability to innovate in parts without having to replace existing trains has obvious advantages from both a cost and performance perspective. Which is why Siemens, Stratasys  and other companies are working to push it forward for more applications in the rail-yards.

“That’s the real direction and trend,” said Sevcik. “Production parts are becoming very real from the standpoint of repeatability and acceptance.”

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