3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – has been around for decades but has slowly moved towards the mainstream as it becomes increasingly commercialised. A number of sectors have found ways it can benefit them but what use is 3D printing currently having on railways around the world?
Rail freight operator Union Pacific (UP) first experimented with 3D printing in 2013. Back then, it created a handheld automatic equipment identification (AEI) device, which is used to track rolling stock and make sure it’s assembled in the correct order. Early prototypes were fragile but UP has stuck with the technology and continues to embrace it four years down the line.
“Today, we’re using tougher plastic, allowing 3D printed parts to be dropped or treated like any other piece of equipment,” says UP’s senior system engineer Royce Connerley. “It’s critical in a railroading environment.”
In a basement room of UP’s Omaha headquarters, in Nebraska, the company’s 3D printer runs constantly. The process begins when engineers createe a virtual design of the object they want to create using computer aided design (CAD) software. From there, the process is as easy as clicking file and print, according to UP. Once it’s finished, the product needs to be cleaned before it’s ready to be used.
Printing 3D parts in-house has accelerated UP’s rate of change by removing the need to go back and forth with an external party. Connerley says design tweaks can be made, and new 3D parts printed, “within hours”.