As 3D printing has become more and more popular, The United States market research institute IDC has estimated that 3D printing global sales will increase 30% annually from 2016 and 2019, eventually making it a $26 billion industry. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Railroad Index has grown 24% since 2009. Collaboration between these two industries can likely help the railroad sector improve service. Trains are often faced with the problem of worn parts but their rail cars are often over 30 years old making the parts extremely hard to obtain. 3D printing has produced a solution to this by allowing companies to print individual parts at a fraction of the time and cost it would have taken with conventional methods. Not only is this more cost and time effective but these new materials tend be lighter, stronger and are meant to last longer all while using less raw materials.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

3D Printing: A New Direction for the Railroad Industry

Many see 3D printing as a new door for the industry that will save billions of dollars and create better, more reliable train transportation. Some examples of 3D printing on the railroad industry are as follows:

General Electric

GE is one of the biggest manufacturers of railroad locomotives. They have also invested more than $1.5 billion in 3D printing technology. They have recently opened a Center for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, they plan on creating positions for specialists in areas that have been prospering a lot recently from technological advancements. The $39 million facility will further help GE make an impact on global manufacturing and economic expansion from their rapidly growing 3D printing technology.

Enertec

The rail equipment company designs and manufactures rail car parts. They use 3D printing rapid prototyping services which allow more design alterations while being more time and cost efficient. Enertec is able to produce their high quality custom made products with 3D printing which further helps them contribute to the railroad industry’s technological advancements.

The Siemens Competence Center for Additive Manufacturing

Siemens, one of the world’s largest producers of energy-efficient and resource-saving technologies, has created a center in Erlangen, Germany which has already started manufacturing spare parts for the local rail industry. The German railway company Deutsche Bahn, a Siemens customer, has faced many dilemmas when in need of new parts for their trains because having a piece malfunction isn’t something the company can predict. This has made 3D printing a key for these issues, allowing the German company to reduce downtime and save money by printing the individual parts as needed.

This print-on-demand process first creates a CAD (computer-aided design) model which is sent to one of the 3D printers that can print in plastic, aluminum or stainless steel. These new products are now tested for handling, stiffness, and fire protection. Unlike the original product, these 3D printed pieces are hollow and filled with powder to reduce vibrations and prevent wear, explaining how they are made with fewer materials and last longer than the originals.

Siemens also works with SWU Verkehr GmbH, another German rail company, by producing custom armrests for the driver of trams and housing covers for the coupler (the link between the two cars).  The company explained that they are now achieving maximum customer satisfaction by allowing their clients to take an active part in creation process that would not be possible through mass production. It is estimated that in 10 years, German spare parts suppliers will save €3 billion annually by using 3D printing within their operations.

Polgar KFT

This Hungarian company produces automotive parts and has recently used 3D printing to create a new design for train seats. Along with Metris 3D, a Hungarian 3D digitizing company, the two were able to save €370,000, which was 90% of the standard cost, and have the seats functional within three weeks, compared to the 16 weeks it would’ve taken without the 3D printing technology.

Bullet Train Repairs Done by 3D Printing

Xu Mingze is a machinist in Chongqing, China who uses 3D printing to repair and advance high-speed trains. He started by researching measurements that would help him print the model parts for the trains. These parts would then help him determine the internal structures of the vehicles and then what would help restore or improve the train’s functionality.

3D Printing to Improve Dubai’s Public Transportation

The Dubai Road and Transport Authority (RTA) has been utilizing 3D printing to produce parts of all sizes for their metropolitan train system all while reducing costs, creating efficient transportation for its customers, and diminishing the overall environmental impact. They plan to use 3D printed parts in the subsystems of ticket vending machines (TVMs) and ticket gates.

“The 3D printing technology is advancing at a rapid pace across the world and RTA is strongly inclined to be a forerunner in this 3D generation by highlighting the world’s best practices adopted in the rail industry. Future scope includes developments that are required to manage obsolescence, which is a huge burden of any railway worldwide,” said AbdulMohsin Ibrahim Younes, CEO of RTA’s Rail Agency.

Precision Railroading

Companies such as CSX Inc., a transportation leader in the railroad industry, pride themselves on efficient rail transportation. This company has recently hired a new CEO, Hunter Harrison, who is an expert on precision railroading.

With precision railroading, rail equipment is going to be more efficiently utilized in creating increased wear and tear and the need for more 3D printing replacement parts.

Union Pacific

This U.S. railroad company has decided to use 3D printing to improve their locomotive operations. They have so far been able to print a number of various parts, including a 3D printed air knife which is used to keep the laser cuttings cool and debris-free. They plan on mass-producing this part once they have proved its compatibility. They have also 3D printed a remote control device that allows them to track rail equipment and make sure all rail cars are assembled correctly.

“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.”

Conclusion

3D printing technology within the railroad industry will help save the industry billions of dollars with components and spare parts. This can allow these companies to use that money toward creating new technology that can make these trains even more efficient and environmentally conscious.

During a time when U.S. rail infrastructure improvement is widely needed, 3D printing can be extremely beneficial.  Superior train technology can mean more customer satisfaction, keeping railroad transportation a major option for freight and passengers.

 


Charles Goulding and Madison Khazzam of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing applications for railroads.

 

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