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Union Pacific Turns to 3D Printing to Help Modernize America’s Railroads

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The railroad infrastructure is what really made America great. Today, much like other key infrastructures in the US, the US train network is having a hard time keeping up with the advancements made by other regions including Europe and Asia. While we wait for Elon Musk’s hyperloop, Union Pacific is applying 3D printing technology to make locomotive operations safer and more efficient, much like NASA is finding ways to use 3D printing to provide necessities for colonizing Mars.

“Early 3D printed objects were fragile,” said UP’s Senior System Engineer Royce Connerley. “Today, we’re using tougher plastic allowing 3-D printed parts to be dropped or treated like any other piece of equipment. It’s critical in a railroading environment.”

Union Pacific Corporation is one of America’s leading transportation companies. Its principal operating company, Union Pacific Railroad, is North America’s premier railroad franchise, covering 23 states across the western two-thirds of the United States. UP first experimented with 3D printing dates back to 2013 and was used to prototype a handheld AEI device. AEI is a system used to keep track of rail equipment. Each rail car has an AEI tag – a small radio transponder located on its side containing equipment information. Employees working in railroad yards use handheld AEI devices to ensure trains are assembled in the proper order.

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

This flexibility proved invaluable while experimenting with remote-control devices used to direct locomotive movement inside a rail yard. The team wanted a safer, more user-friendly handheld device. While still in the pilot phase, feedback from field testing a 3D printed version can be incorporated into the design.

Royce Connerley, senior system engineer-IT, left, and Chuck Karbowski, senior manager-IT, hold 3-D printed remote-control device prototypes next to UP’s 3D printer.

“We can make design tweaks and have a new version ready within hours, plus the prototype never leaves UP,” Connerley added. “Additionally, it ensures a complete design before we move into expensive tooling or long lead times for molded parts.”

Housed in a small basement room of UP’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, the 3-D printer runs constantly, working on a variety of projects. Mechanical engineers first create virtual designs using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. From there, it’s almost as easy as selecting “file” and “print.” Once the product is printed and cleaned, it can be used immediately.

“A client brought us a design he drew on the back of a napkin,” said UP’s Senior IT Manager Chuck Karbowski. “We created a 3-D model with our CAD software, printed a few pieces and it worked great.”

One of UP’s Machine Vision sites located in Beck, Nebraska.

UP’s 3D printer is playing a critical role in Machine Vision – the company’s imaging system capable of inspecting 22 components on a passing train. One component relies on a shutter assembly to photograph each car’s undercarriage. Using a 3D printer, UP designed an air knife that blows air across the laser for cooling and provides outward air flow to keep debris out.

“Right now, this piece is produced on a 3D printer,” Karbowski said. “Eventually, we will mass produce it in a more sustainable material.”

Control of design, timing and material type gives UP a competitive edge and room to experiment in ways never previously dreamed. Will we be 3D printing railroad parts on Mars someday? That remains to be seen.

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