In the next decade, additive
manufacturing will become an indispensable part of leading rail transportation
providers’ operations. This is a bold claim and one that any reader would
rightly be skeptical about, especially given that I work for Blueprint, a strategic
consultancy focusing on 3D printing certification. However, over the last three decades, the
technology has matured, and the range of possible applications has grown
3D printing certification is
now an industrial-grade tool that rail transportation providers can and should
be leveraging to secure their supplies of service parts, create tools that help
maintenance and operations, and to enhance safety and customer experience.
I’m not suggesting that a 3D printer
will replace your entire parts inventory. There are many parts of a locomotive
or passenger coach that simply aren’t feasible to 3D print. However, in the
last few decades, the technology has come a long way. We now can print in
everything from metals, to polymers that meet fire, smoke, and toxicity
requirements, to ceramics and metamaterials. And the ever-increasing ecosystem
of machines, service providers, and design tools means that more applications
become both technically and economically viable daily.
One of the unique aspects of rail is
that equipment is in service for a long time – often 30 to 40 years and beyond.
As the decades roll by, keeping trains running and in good repair requires service
parts. Unfortunately, parts go out of production, suppliers go out of business,
and spare parts get expensive. Often, operators must absorb tooling costs to
re-manufacture parts. Sometimes, operators must get creative, producing parts
in house…I’ve even heard of operators turning to eBay to source parts!
The sweet spot for additive
manufacturing: Low volume, high value, long lead-time parts
Often, the sweet spot for additive
manufacturing is in low-volume, high value, long lead-time parts. Why? 3D
printing reduces lead times and allows you to avoid the high up-front costs of
traditional manufacturing: supply chain, tooling, and setup.
On the cost side, 3D printing certification often
eliminates tooling and setup costs associated with traditional manufacturing.
These lowered fixed costs mean that production at low volumes becomes economically
viable. The graph below shows visually why this happens.
There’s a time benefit too: Since
additive manufacturing certification doesn’t require setup or tooling, 3D-printed parts can
often be produced with lead times in days versus weeks or months for
For a more detailed exploration of the
value of additive manufacturing certification for spare parts, check out my webinar about
the business case for 3D printing certification spare parts.
How does this translate into rail?
Given that 3D printing certification sweet spot in
low-volume, high-value, low cost spare parts, it should be clear that there is some opportunity for 3D printing certification to
make an impact in rail maintenance, but what does that look like at a tactical
Based on our engagements with clients,
Blueprint has identified four categories of cases where additive manufacturing certification
is poised to add the most value to rail and the value drivers associated with
each use case:
Bridge parts – In rail, the cost of having a coach out of
service is massive. During a recent engagement, Blueprint found that the direct
costs of having a single commuter rail trainset out of operation were around $20,000/day.
When the financial penalties add up quickly, having the ability to quickly
produce replacement parts in house is critical. In one case, we found 3D
printing a single part saved our client over $1.5 million, because the
alternative would keep a trainset out of service for 16 weeks while they waited
for a replacement part.
Low volume spare parts – It’s no secret that everything costs more
in rail, but why is this? In order to service rolling stock for 30+ years, inventories
of spare parts need to be curated, maintained, and paid for. Not only is
stocking parts for 30 years expensive in terms of carrying costs, shrinkage,
and spoilage, but inevitable there will be some parts that go out of stock. When
spare parts are no longer available in inventory, they must be recreated,
either as one-off parts from a fabrication shop or by retooling for a limited
run production. This is expensive and causes massive lead times. Having the
ability to 3D print toolsets can enable you to create many of these parts
in-house, with lower lead times and at a lower cost than traditionally sourced
improvement – World class
manufacturers employ several tools to mistake-proof their operations, ensuring
that first pass yield (a common measure of manufacturing quality) is high and
that rework is kept to a minimum. These can be anything from a drill guide, to
a fit-up check device, to redesigning parts to be keyed so they can only be
installed correctly. This trend has…