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Could 3D printing revolutionize the UK rail industry?

British infrastructure company Amey think so

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UK-based infrastructure company Amey is the latest company exploring the use of additive manufacturing for the maintenance of the transportation industry. Unlike other companies we’ve seen, which are using 3D printing to produce spare or replacement parts for trains, Amey is looking into the technology for maintaining and renewing train tracks.

In the UK today, the demand for rail transport is growing. This is generally a great thing for the transport industry and users, as advances are being made to make train travel more efficient and accessible. There is also a big downside, however. As Amey points, out, the increased use of Britain’s rail infrastructure is affecting the life expectancies of the rails and other assets, leading to an uncertain future if nothing is done.

3D printing the rails

For this reason, Amey is investigating how 3D printing can be used to conduct track renewals. Traditionally, track renewals have relied on manual labor to remove and replace tracks. By using in situ robotic 3D printing, however, this process could be automated. “Not only will this dramatically reduce accidents, the same staff will be upskilled to operate this new technology, futureproofing our workforce,” said Amey. “Passengers will benefit too, as shorter refurbishment times will see a reduced need for track closures.”

Amey 3d printing rail

3D printing could also be implemented to increase sustainability. That is, additive manufacturing could be used to repurpose large pieces of scrap track, which could lead to fewer wasted materials and a smaller carbon footprint. 

The track ahead

One of the biggest hurdles at the moment, slowing the adoption of 3D printing for rail maintenance is scale. To address this, and to develop 3D printers capable of printing up to 5m of track at a time, Amey is working on the development of large-scale robotics with additive capabilities.

One of the areas where the company thinks 3D printing could make the biggest difference is in repairing or refurbishing switches and crossings, which display more signs of wear than regular track and which are essential to the functional of the railway system.

The current process for replacing these consists of removing old switches and crossings and replacing them with brand new ones—an expensive and complicated job to coordinate. This process also causes disruptions to rail usage, as the section of track must be closed during the swap.

An in-situ rail 3D printing system could streamline the refurbishment process significantly, leading to lower costs, faster replacement times and more. The technology being developed by Amey combines metrology capabilities to inspect the existing railroad; automated material removal to take away worn track; and a deposition system for placing new track down. The 3D printed track would then be inspected using non-destructive testing analysis.

Five key benefits

In addition to faster and more efficient track maintenance, Amey believes that 3D printing could offer five core advantages: safety, careers, sustainability, cost and rail availability. Let’s go through them.

In terms of safety, the automated 3D printing process would remove the need for risky manual labour. The technology would benefit the job market for the rail industry by creating opportunities for upskilling the existing workforce and creating new tech-oriented jobs. For sustainability, Amey estimates that 3D printing could increase efficiency by up to 80% and result in 40% less material waste, resulting in a lower carbon footprint.

Cost, a big driver of the investment in AM in the industry, could be affected. Amey says savings could equate to over £40m a year for the UK Rail Network. Finally, rail availability could be improved by lowering the amount of time it takes to refurbish tracks.

“This is a challenge unlike any other, yet confidence is growing at a staggering rate as this technology becomes understood and realization dawns that the components needed, exist today,” Amey concluded. “We are at the cusp of disrupting the sector unprecedentedly. The question now remains is the rail sector ready to come together and rock the status quo?”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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