3D Printed… Trains? UP Takes 3D Printing to the Rails

 

3D printing is slowly becoming more normalized. Dog wheelchairs, talk of colonizing Mars by printing resources and of course, tons and tons of prototyping— it’s safe to say that additive manufacturing is here to stay. 

 

And now, even the industrial revolution standby, the trusty old iron horse is getting its 21st century update. 

 

That’s right, Union Pacific Railroad (UP) has announced they’ll be using 3D-printing technology to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the inspection process, as well as printing actual parts for in-cab radio systems.

 

 

Here’s what’s new: 

 

Since 2013, UP has been using 3D printing technology to make remote control devices that track all rail equipment, as well as make sure trains are assembled in the correct order. The device, built for efficiency, contains a radio transponder that features critical information about each car. 

 

Four years later, they’ve built upon this critical technology.

 

The company’s Omaha headquarters are currently home to a Stratasys Connex 350, a piece of equipment critical to the Machine Vision project (a train-size portal filled with inspection sensors, cameras and lasers). 

 

Machine Vision allows for UP inspectors to conduct the required 13-point inspection on each train car while sitting comfortably in front of a screen, by setting up digital imaging areas which create three-dimensional replicas of the cars as they travel at high speeds.

 

“Printing 3D prototypes in-house accelerates our rate of change,” says UP’s Royce Connerley, Senior System Engineer. “We can make modifications during multiple iterations without waiting for each version to be returned from an external vendor.”

 

Another component of this project is an additive manufactured air knife — a tool that scans across the car’s undercarriage, cooling inspection lasers and moving air flow out of the way to avoid overheating.

 

At this point, UP’s printer is used primarily for prototyping and experimentation, however; it seems that 3D printed spare parts are not far on the horizon. German railroad company, Deutsche Bahn has some additive projects in the works, and it’s only a matter of time before UP and the like start implementing the 3D printed nuts and bolts we’ve long been waiting for.