3D printing: disruptive technology creating better journeys for road users
For the road users amongst us, we all appreciate how frustrating it is when stuck in congestion for unforeseen road maintenance and utility repairs. But what if there is a way we can use disruptive technology to minimise this and reduce the associated cost. Last year alone road congestion cost motorists £30.8bn according to an Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) report on Digital Transformation.
The report continues to say that by 2050, the UK’s population will have grown to 75 million, but much of our current infrastructure will still be in place. With increasing pressure placed on existing assets and reduced government budgets, we must continue to do more with what we have, strategically investing to ensure our UK assets continue to keep the population moving and connected to vital services.
Is disruptive technology and data the answer?
Traditionally, response times to faults on the highways network are restrained by two key factors, the machinery or tools available, and experience. This becomes particularly apparent when responding to faults on aged assets. In many cases, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find manufacturers of components for aged or listed assets, and if components aren’t readily available, they are often required to be purpose built or tailor manufactured. This only increases the cost and time to fix a fault as well as leading to inconvenience for our customers. Coupled with an ageing workforce across the industry, the experience and knowledge of using traditional techniques to maintain and repair specialist assets is unfortunately slowly disappearing. Data collection, analysis and additive manufacturing could be the answer, saving significant time and money.
Data leads to good infrastructure knowledge
Collecting asset data helps create in-depth infrastructure knowledge which is critical in maximising performance and optimising efficiencies. It helps asset owners make informed decisions about their long-term plans, forecasts and budgets. In addition, using virtual reality (VR) technology, more commonly associated with the gaming industry, and remote condition monitoring, users can identify problems and shortcomings in asset performance in advance in a virtual scenario.
By identifying when to strategically invest in an asset, it will reduce the occurrence of costly unforeseen maintenance. Having said that, occasionally faults will occur and this is where additive manufacturing’s disruptive potential comes to the fore.
3D printing will change how we use and build infrastructure
Currently, additive manufacturing (better known as 3D printing) is still more aligned to high cost, low volume components, however this is changing on a daily basis with the process becoming quicker and cheaper. The aerospace and medical sectors have played a key role in driving the advancement of the processes and validating the benefits available. The technology has moved well beyond prototyping, rapid tooling and creating, what many refer to as ‘paper weights’. Additive manufacturing is now creating durable and safe products for real consumers. Businesses such as General Electric (GE) have made the decision to mass-produce critical metal-alloy components to be used in thousands of jet engines, marking a significant milestone for the technology. Although powder-based additives and resin 3D printing is well established in the manufacturing industry, advances with construction-ready materials are still at an early stage.
The rise of disruptive new technologies will undoubtedly change the shape of our industry, and the built environment itself. It will change how we use existing infrastructure as well as how we design, build and maintain it.
The future - what does it look like?
Provision of 3D data means that a component can be printed in hours instead of days or weeks significantly reducing repair time and cost. Amey recently conducted a research project through its membership with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) to determine the feasibility of using additive manufacturing for producing rapid response tools for network failures. This included looking at damaged water pipe assets that require quick resolution. Through laser scanning the pipe and reverse engineering, a bespoke component could be made which could then be printed within hours instead of waiting days for it to be made by a specialist. This reduces unforeseen emergency road closures, shortens the amount of time works on the highway such as utilities work need to be scheduled for and ultimately reduces disruption for our customers.
Not long until we can print large structural components
We’re also getting ever closer to the ability to use additive manufacturing to improve response capabilities to faults on the highway network. And with the technology developing at such a rate it won’t be long before we can print large structural components that can be used to respond to instances such as that we experienced on the Forth Road Bridge in 2015, where a Truss End Link failed. We’re not talking next year but we are talking within the next decade. To really bring this concept to life, Cranfield University has recently and successfully manufactured an aerospace grade material component just shy of 10 metres long using additive manufacturing.
A printer on the back on a van - a component wherever you need it
It’s also thought the capability to 3D print could very soon be available to mount in the back of a van, to enable onsite component manufacture. Industrial 3D printing machines are slowing decreasing in price and some techniques will eventually become a feasible investment for the many, rather than the few. This will eventually enable the ability to 3D print any component or tool whenever you are and whenever you need it. This, in combination with the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud-based data storage, will mean instant access to millions of tools and components on the fly.
It’s an exciting time for the industry. It’s clear that 3D printing is no longer a gimmick and is truly a disruptive technology to stay. The ability to take digital data and turn it into a tangible item in the click of a few buttons is truly changing the way we consider the design, build and maintenance of our key infrastructure assets.
As a business, we are focusing on the digital agenda of the industry and working with our parent company Ferrovial to explore more of the game changing technologies that will shape the future of our industry and the infrastructure. If you’re interested and would like more information, please email Simon.Grundy@amey.co.uk for more information.