Demand on the UK’s railways is growing at an unprecedented rate, with passenger numbers having doubling over the last 20 years. Digital technology is racing forward to tackle the problem and progress is being made: capacity is being relieved; scheduling is becoming more efficient; and trains are running closer together. But while that’s good news for us journey takers, these advancements are having a knock-on effect: our infrastructure is taking a battering and the increased traffic, speeds and weight are drastically changing the life expectancy of our assets.
Ageing assets, paired with an ageing workforce and stretched budgets, present further significant challenges for the UK rail industry. If left unaddressed, it could bring the railway to a stuttering stop. The 190,000 people working on the UK’s railways go above and beyond to ensure that the network is kept running. However, every second they are on the tracks, they are at risk. As technology progresses, more of our workforce are able to work remotely, using technology to reduce the risk of injury.
3D printing is one of the most disruptive technologies in the world today. Yet many think it remains a distant dream for large-scale engineering projects, restricted for highly-intricate components such as those used in the medical Industry. The reality is that 3D printing for large-scale infrastructure is available today. Many organisations have been exploring its use with various materials from concreates to metals, polymers to fibre embedded materials.
At Amey, we’re exploring the use of 3D printing in the rail sector, beginning with track renewals. 3D printing will fundamentally change how we conduct track renewals, with the most immediate and critical benefit being safety. 3D printing will remove our people from harm, as renewals previously done by manually removing track, will now be done automatically, in situ using robotics. Not only will this dramatically reduce accidents, the same staff will be upskilled to operate this new technology, futureproofing our workforce. Passengers will benefit too, as shorter refurbishment times will see a reduced need for track closures.
Investment in 3D printing is also an investment in sustainability. Large pieces of track previously scrapped will now be repurposed on site, drastically reducing material waste and lowering our carbon footprint. This allows the rail industry to make a significant contribution towards helping the UK government achieve its net zero target by 2050.
The biggest challenge for 3D printing rail assets is scale. It takes something the size of your average desk printer to 3D print components the size of your fist. So how can we feasibly print 5m of track without building a printer the size of a small house?
The answer to this challenge is robotics, which we are developing in collaboration with 3D printing technology to print materials over large areas. Linear assets, such as rail-tracks, lend themselves naturally to this process.
We have been exploring how this technology can repair or fully refurbish switches and crossings, an asset particularly prone to high levels of wear and one of the most vital pieces of infrastructure on our railway.
Currently, we remove old switches and crossings and replace them directly with new ones. This is an extremely costly process, requiring months of preparation for a smooth replacement. It is also extremely disruptive, requiring the network to be closed for extended periods of time.
Through the combination of 3D printing and robotic delivery, Amey is developing an in-situ rail refurbishment capability, disrupting existing approaches to S&C renewal and providing a method for large-scale rail refurbishment. The project brings together state of the art technologies, from metrology to inspect the railroad’s current state, to adaptive and automated material removal, to remove old track. After the material has been deposited using 3D printing principles and new track created, NDT (Non-destructive testing) analysis is performed, storing vital data on the new track, crucial to future maintenance.
Beyond the obvious gains in speed and efficiency, additive manufacturing and robotics offers five core benefits:
Safety - The use of automation takes our people away from harm.
Careers –This capability opens new opportunities for the same people to upskill, generating exciting new rail careers in automation and technology.
Sustainability – This technology could increase efficiency by up to 80% and deliver a 40% reduction in material waste, reducing the carbon footprint of UK rail.
Cost – These savings could equate to over £40m a year for the UK Rail Network.
Rail Availability – It is estimated over 60% of rail could be refurbished using 3D printing, especially if supported by innovations like ballast undercutters for ballast renewals. The main advantage is the reduction in time required, enabling smaller sections to be refurbished in smaller windows, ensuring the rail is open for longer. In the future, light refurbishment could be conducted on a regular basis, changing the business model entirely.
This is a challenge unlike any other, yet confidence is growing at a staggering rate as this technology becomes understood and realisation dawns that the components needed, exist today.
We are at the cusp of disrupting the sector unprecedently. The question now remains is the rail sector ready to come together and rock the status quo?