The right side of the tracks

Liz Nickels spoke to rail giant Wabtec’s global additive manufacturing (AM) leader to discuss the company’s increasing focus on metal 3D printed parts for both freight and transit.

Global manufacturer Wabtec Corporation is, notably, the first rail supplier to introduce metallic 3D printed parts in production on rolling stock in North America.

Now it has solidified its commitment to 3D printing with its move to an additive manufacturing (AM) production center in Pittsburgh, USA.

Wabtec, headquartered in the US, makes equipment, systems and software for freight (66% of portfolio) and transit (34%). According to the company, more than 20% of the world’s freight is moved by a Wabtec locomotive. In Q3 its sales were US$1.9 billion versus US$2.0 billion in the same period of 2019, with freight sales of US$1.2 billion decreasing by 7% and transit decreasing by 6% to US$628 million. Wabtec updated its 2020 sales guidance to a range of $7.5 billion to $7.6 billion.

In October 2020 Wabtec joined Neighborhood 91, an additive manufacturing (AM) production center developed in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.

The company will be housed in a 45,000 ft2 building and is also erecting a 3,000-square-foot building for metal powder storage. 

The center is located next to the runways at Pittsburgh International Airport to facilitate transportation of finished parts and will house a end-to-end ecosystem incorporating powder, parts, post-production, testing and analysis, common powder storage facilities, efficiencies in production/post-production and delivery, reduced transportation costs and airport access. It will also have access to argon, helium and other noble gases, reaching up to 60% of AM costs.

According to the company, it plans to occupy more than 11,000 ft2 in the center, which is currently under construction and targeting completion by Spring 2021.

Key focus

Wabtec will be the first manufacturing anchor tenant at Neighborhood 91 – but this is not its first advance into 3D printing – it already has AM capabilities in western Pennsylvania, according to the company. In May 2019 it invested in GE Additive’s H2 binder jet printer capabilities. At the time Wabtec identified that additive technologies could be used in the production of up to 250 components for its product lines by 2025. In fact, using 3D printing, the company produced over 1,250 additive prototypes last year.

‘Additive technology is a key focus area for us that provides new capabilities to drive innovation where traditional manufacturing could not,’ said Eric Gebhardt, Wabtec’s CTO. ‘This agreement continues our investment in resources that enable our engineers to design new and complex products for the industries we serve.’

In the center, Wabtec will research the 3D printing of large-scale, lightweight parts for transit rail customers, including aluminum transit components such as brake parts and heat sinks for freight locomotives. By 2025, the company plans to use additive manufacturing in the production of over 25,000 parts and reduce lead times by up to 80%. 

I spoke to Jennifer Coyne, global additive manufacturing leader at Wabtec, about the company’s foray into AM. 

Liz Nickels (LN): Tell me about the company.

Jennifer Coyne (JC): Wabtec is a global company with a presence in about 50 countries around the world, and about US$8.7 billion in revenue a year. We’re mostly focused on the rail industry and peripheries around the rail industry: both freight and transit – but particularly freight in North America. The transit side of business is probably what European readers are more familiar with Ӣ people movers, metros and subways and so on. In transit, we are a tier 1 supplier, so we make major components, such as HVAC doors, brake components, safety components, and so on, while in freight we are the vehicle builders, so we’re the OEMs for the locomotive business.

My team within the organisation serves the entire business with regards to AM. We’ve existed since 2018 and since then we have acquired a good range of plastics and metals printers. Generally we serve internal businesses, but sometimes some external customers. Our role is to bring innovation to Wabtec’s other businesses through AM – to see where it makes sense, for financial, sustainable, or other reasons, to use AM to build a part.

LN: What prompted Wabtec’s moving into AM?

(JC): There wasn’t a specific part in mind that we wanted to manufacture using AM. It was more that we considered the technology was becoming more and more viable for rail applications. So, we started exploring using 3D printing for various avenues in the whole Wabtec portfolio, but fundamentally felt that in general that this was an innovative technology that we could not ignore, and that we needed to understand what made sense for our business and our customers.

LN: Has the segment grown since then?

(JC): Yes – we’ve grown the team from three to about fifteen, and the machines from two to also about fifteen to print prototypes and production parts. In fact, we launched our first production parts last year. In total we designed twelve different production parts, totalling about 1,500 total printed parts last year for production, and we also developed about 12 to 15 prototype parts in addition to that – it was about 50/50 production and prototypes. Now we’re certainly trying to grow both of those segments. We’re going to be doing prototypes for the business, but also production parts for the business as well. And it’s looking like we’ll be able to launch the same number of production parts this year as last year too: in the 1,500 range.

LN: What’s the nature of these production parts?

(JC): They’re all different! On the metal side, we’ve been working with a lot of engine parts and we are starting to work towards manufacturing pneumatic brake parts for the transit part of our business.

LN: What things are important when you’re making parts for rail?

(JC): It differs depending on which segment you’re talking about. In freight, it’s important for parts to have a good performance and be reliable.  In the past, we’ve had issues with conventional manufacturing methods being consistent. Viewing them through the lens of additive has allowed us to make performance increases or reliability improvements; that’s where we find success on the freight side.

With regards to transit, as in for example aerospace, lightweight is very important, because it can make a direct impact on energy saving, emission savings and the environmental impact there. Reliability is again important, especially in complex manufacturing.

Using AM, multiple steps can be eliminated when a part can be printed as one piece, which increases durability because it reduces the number of failure points that occur when a part has to be assembled and sealed. You end up with an inherently more reliable solution.

LN: Will the rail industry require bigger 3D printers to make bigger parts?

(JC): Yes, absolutely. I hear on a daily basis that we need bigger printers! We’re actually investing in one of the largest 3D printers currently available in the additive as a result. If you think about transit systems and freight systems, they’re large, and the parts that we make for them are large; so, it’s absolutely a challenge.

LN: What will Wabtec’s move to Neighborhood 91 mean for the company?

(JC): While our company site will focus mainly on R&D, the campus space and location give us the chance to really increase the production side – although R&D that will always have a role too. The aim of Neighborhood 91, to my mind, is to increase AM efficiency with regards to production and scaling up, and the improved logistics with regards to suppliers, partners, and transport will help us streamline the whole process. The space lends itself to production and that’s why it’s bringing in a number of partners to economise the additive production cycle. 

Neighborhood 91 also makes it easier for us to incorporate post-process aspects. For example, Wabtec obviously does machining and finishing in its role as a more traditional parts manufacturer, but it’s not something that I’ve been able to invest in for my team in-house. I’m really looking forward to working with suppliers and partners to help each other rather than everybody trying to do everything in their own particular location.

LN: Currently Wabtec 3D prints aluminum components – are you looking into printing steel/hardmetal etc part as well?

(JC): Yes – and our expansion into Neighborhood 91 will be focused on this as well. Our transit segment requires lightweight parts and aluminum is the traditional metal used – it’s lightweight, it’s relatively inexpensive and engineers are used to it. So, it makes sense to use it for our AM parts as well. However, with regards to freight, we are already heavily invested in steel and harder materials, such as Inconel, and so we have a solution in-house already.

LN: Are there any particular issues in 3D printing parts for rail applications?

(JC): Some of the issues we come across are probably not too different from those faces by other industries – such as strict safety regulations and certification requirements. These may be less stringent than those for medical or aerospace applications, but they’re still there. On both the freight and transit side, the biggest issue is probably cost and the need to cost-competitive with additive equipment and additive processes compared to traditionally made parts.

LN: How do you think the rail industry will develop over the next few years?

(JC): If you’d asked me this question in January, I would have had a very different answer from what I’m saying now! The pandemic has changed a lot in transportation, with people working from home and travelling less. I think that we’re at the low point right now, and long-term we will continue to see rail grow. Wabtec has just released a report that notes that rail is still the most sustainable way to move people and goods across long distances. It’s certainly a lot more fuel efficient than trucking or air travel. We just need to make sure we’re adopting the right technology that continues to make it sustainable for the future. AM is a key part of this – as one the reasons Wabtec is developing 3D printing is to reduce the material and energy waste associated with the making of parts or complex assemblies. Through the use of additive technologies, production waste can be reduced by 70-80% and time to market has been shortened by up to 90%.

LN: How do you see the global development of AM for rail?

(JC): It’s hard to predict for rail in general as it depends so much on capital investment. In AM however, what I am seeing is that our European customers are probably more proactive in terms of adopting 3D printing. We actually have European customers coming to us to ask for our additive solutions, which is great. The North American rail market has taken a more conservative and measured approach. Some of our Asian areas, such as the APAC region, are a little bit less mature than the North America market.

LN: You seem to be in a good position to promote AM for rail, because the company is really a giant in that industry.

(JC): Yes, I think we have the advantage that we can jump into mature applications right away, rather than having to spend five years developing processes. For example, we’re already jumping into manufacturing heat exchangers, pneumatic panels, and other mature applications.