Why are railway companies adopting industrial 3D printing?

Building a train is no mean feat, as it requires high-quality components to keep the train on the track, usually for decades.

But what happens when some components break? It can be relatively easy to find replacements for recently manufactured parts, however, when it comes to components created 20 to 30 years ago, the process becomes complicated.

In many cases, railway companies are faced with the situation when the production of the spare parts they need has discontinued or that manufacturers are no longer in business. Given the small number of spare parts needed, designing the part anew and manufacturing it, using traditional methods tailored to high-volume production, often makes no economic sense.

The downtime cost per day for a train is also quite high, driving railway companies to seek new ways of producing obsolete spare parts in a faster and cheaper manner.

3D printing is becoming one of the technologies that can solve such issues. It is a digital manufacturing technology, which means that it relies on digital workflows and doesn’t require additional tools, like moulds, to create a part.

Toolless production, afforded by 3D printing, can significantly cut the manufacturing time for obsolete spare parts, in some cases by as much as 95%. The process is also frequently coupled with reverse engineering, particularly when the original design of a part has been lost.

In this way, railway companies can speed up the train’s maintenance process, getting the trains back in use more efficiently than before.

Early adopters of 3D printing in the railway industry, like Deutsche Bahn, have identified multiple parts that can be 3D-printed as a replacement. Among them are coffee machine parts, coat hooks, steering wheel covers, headrest frames and even Braille signposts for blind travellers. However, the list of parts that can be 3D-printed for the railway industry is continually expanding.

Another driver for the adoption of 3D printing in the railway industry is the ability to produce manufacturing aids like jigs and fixtures, faster and on demand. Although a less publicised use case, 3D-printed tools are typically lighter than traditional counterparts and can be designed ergonomically, providing greater ease of use for workers.