Rail Industry Focus


Unlocking innovation across the supply chain

Source: RTM Feb/ Mar 16

Neil Ridley, technical director at the Railway Industry Association, explains how innovation is being fostered across the supply chain.

The UK rail sector is seeing greater growth in passenger numbers and freight levels than at any point in the last 100 years. Meeting this demand at the same time as reducing costs and energy usage, whilst also increasing customer satisfaction, creates a set of challenges for the industry that incremental developments cannot solve. 

The need for innovative solutions that deliver step changes is evergrowing, however the industry has often struggled to bring in new products and services due to a lack of openness and transparency, weak capability in terms of partnerships and a disinclination to look outside the rail industry for new ideas. 

Overcoming weaknesses 

Overcoming these weaknesses is the aim of the Unlocking Innovation Scheme (UIS), a cross-industry initiative managed by the Railway Industry Association (RIA) and supported by key organisations including Network Rail, London Underground, Crossrail, HS2, RSSB, ATOC and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. 

The scheme is now in its fourth year and has involved over 2,500 people from more than 700 organisations right across the rail supply chain and beyond. At the heart of the scheme are the innovative workshops that provide a mixture of plenary and interactive sessions with presentations, case studies, ‘elevator pitches’ and product acceptance surgeries, underpinned by the all-important networking. 

The workshops are designed specifically to bring large numbers of clients and suppliers together in a single space to share challenges, capabilities and to develop solutions, whilst sharing and promoting best practice in innovation. Each workshop typically brings together more than 180 people from over 120 organisations including suppliers offering or seeking help with innovations; client organisations such as Network Rail, London Underground and TOCs, who are looking for innovative solutions; and the various bodies involved in innovation, not least those with funding and support services. 

Innovation in action 

The industry is benefitting from the scheme through improved interactions, awareness of client needs, partnerships and an increased speed to market for new products and services. As a case in point, Network Rail has been using UIS to engage with the supply chain to explore improved methods of controlling automatic barriers and optimising the closing time for road users. From these discussions they have been able to determine the state of the art from the telecoms and automotive sectors, and have been working to adapt technology to their needs. A second example was a challenge delivered by a TOC wanting to replace existing lighting panels with LED versions that provide like-for-like fitment and functionality. Within just four months a new LED system had been developed and in-service trialling started. 

UIS itself continues to evolve in response to the challenges that it sees, ensuring that it can best help clients and the supply chain to connect and seize business opportunities. Small and medium-sized enterprises find it difficult to find the time to navigate their way around the rail industry, understand the landscape, know who to approach and how to get innovations accepted. To address this, the scheme has developed UIS.Connector.Services. This is a free to use web-based tool that maps capabilities and expertise in response to keyword searches. Relevant matches are presented to the user through an intuitive graphical interface, enabling them to quickly identify organisations relevant to their needs. 

If the clients aren’t able to come to the suppliers, how about letting the suppliers come to the clients? UIS is enabling this too and in association with Network Rail’s Research, Development and Technology team has created the Quadrant Technology Showcases to provide suppliers with the opportunity to showcase their innovations within the heart of Network Rail at their headquarters in Milton Keynes. Having proved the success of this approach, UIS is now looking to set up similar showcases with other key industry clients. 

There is no doubt that UIS is helping the industry become more innovative, enabling partnerships and collaborations to be formed and for those both inside and outside the industry to more easily contribute to addressing the sector challenges of capacity, energy, cost and customer satisfaction. 

The journey has only begun, and embedding the culture of innovation within the industry may require the services of UIS for quite a number of years to come.

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