At this point it would seem safe to say that 3D printing can infiltrate any industry—and begin offering ways we simply never thought of for manufacturing, productivity, speed, affordability, and more. Whether you are a fashion designer or a brain surgeon, there may be ways that 3D printing can help you and those you serve. Today there is a wide range of hardware and software, as well as a long list of materials available for experimentation. Open-source hardware makes it easier for many to engineer what they need, as well as sharing it afterward.
The transportation industry is already well-established in using both 3D printing and additive manufacturing to improve their processes, and now Union Pacific is using the technology to see that their trains are both safer and more streamlined.
“Early 3D printed objects were fragile,” said UP’s Senior System Engineer Royce Connerley. “Today, we’re using tougher plastic allowing 3D printed parts to be dropped or treated like any other piece of equipment. It’s critical in a railroading environment.”
With five different major facilities in the US—from California to Illinois— Union Pacific has been working with 3D printers for four years now; back then, they created a handheld device meant to help them track their rail equipment, as part of their AEI system. This device coordinated with tracking of all the AEI tags (encapsulating pertinent data) attached to Union Pacific equipment. Employees use the system to make sure that trains are organized properly.
“Printing 3D prototypes in-house accelerates our rate of change,” Connerley said. “We can make modifications during multiple iterations without waiting for each version to be returned from an external vendor.”
The team at UP has recently been working on improving productivity measures with the use of remote control. Their goal is to be able to manipulate the trains as they are locomoting inside UP’s yard. Seeking greater usability and safety, their engineers turned to 3D printing once again for another handheld device.
“We can make design tweaks and have a new version ready within hours, plus the prototype never leaves UP,” Connerley added. “Additionally, it ensures a complete design before we move into expensive tooling or long lead times for molded parts.”
“A client brought us a design he drew on the back of a napkin,” said UP’s Senior IT Manager Chuck Karbowski. “We created a 3D model with our CAD software, printed a few pieces and it worked great.”
According to UP, their 3D printer is in constant use, especially for their new Machine Vision imaging system which can examine 22 components from a train that is passing, as well as using a 3D printed air knife for cooling and preventing buildup of debris.
“Right now, this piece is produced on a 3D printer,” Karbowski said, referring to the air knife. “Eventually, we will mass produce it in a more sustainable material.”