Rail Industry Focus


How 3D Printing is revolutionising modern manufacturing

Source: RTM August/September

James Brown, data and performance engineer at Angel Trains, explains how 3D printing technology is making a real difference to the rail industry.

The rail industry was forged in the furnace of the first industrial revolution and, as we enter the fourth industrial revolution characterised by the fusing of physical, digital and biological worlds, what is the industry’s response?

A primary area of focus is harnessing the power of 3D printing to radically alter the rolling stock manufacturing process.

Where previously this was hampered by significant capital requirements at the outset, we can now, through 3D printers and advances in modelling software, create almost anything at a lower cost, regardless of volume.

The notable impacts for the rail industry include:

Supporting older, smaller & more varied fleets – Whereas cars are produced in their millions, the largest of train fleets will number only in the thousands. This means although rail rolling stock is higher in value, manufacturing volumes are low. Hence using conventional mass production methods to source bespoke and critical components such as cab fixtures can be challenging.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) reduces the cost of supplying small volume parts by lowering the cost of customised tooling or removing the need for it entirely.  This reduces the cost of rolling stock generally - particularly the cost of maintaining and extending the life of older fleets, as well as producing more bespoke parts for smaller fleets more viable.

Simplifying Supply Chains – As lead times across the supply chain often exceed six months, operators and maintainers need large stores, which are costly. AM makes “just-in-time manufacture” a possibility. Parts can be delivered in days rather than weeks, or even hours if sites invest in on-site printers, making large stores obsolete.

Additionally, AM offers far greater control of the supply chain. The 3D models of parts can be encrypted so that they can only be printed on a specific machine, in a specific material, in a specific way. This eliminates many of the current manufacturing risks, such as the wrong material being used, signalling a change in the future of the industry. If we have “approved” part files that can be supplied by anyone with the correct equipment, will we still need “approved” suppliers?

Lowering barriers to entry and increasing the value of design – There are significant barriers to entry for new suppliers entering the rail industry. Due to these costs, newer suppliers who have the best ideas and products often miss out on opportunities, as these are awarded to suppliers with the largest economies of scale, and heavy engineering capacity.

AM and 3D printing will significantly change the investment dynamic in the industry by enabling new suppliers to manufacture their own new parts using shared 3D printing platforms without upfront capital investment.

However, AM increases the value of good design; currently, the benefits of improving an existing part’s performance can be outweighed by the costs of altering its manufacturing.With 3D printers you can constantly iterate and improve designs, creating bespoke solutions instantly without any cost increase. What might this mean for the supply chain? Might we see engineering designers and consultancies start to enter the manufacturing space in the future?

Although AM might be a disruptive technology for rail and other industries, Angel Trains believes it will generate huge benefits including driving down costs, reducing lead times and enabling better, more tailored solutions.

Our Product Technology Team’s continued focus and extensive R&D on implementing this technology, in collaboration with our partners DB ESG and Stratasys, aims to increase the industry’s uptake of this technology. We have successfully fire-tested and approved three 3D printing materials, with our first passenger facing parts going on trial next month with two UK rail mainline operators.

Angel Trains is working with the trade body “Mobility Goes Additive” to collaborate with transport companies across Europe to drive this technology, and support operators and suppliers in adopting this technology on Angel Trains’ assets. We see ourselves as driving the fourth industrial revolution in the rail industry.


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