3D printing is disrupting many markets, but one might not -at first- think of transportation engineering as being boosted by 3D printing. After all, you can't 3D print a train... can you? Well, you can't 3D print an entire train, but the convergence between 3D printing technologies and new techniques for working with carbon fiber are opening entirely new ways to create train components! We've recently been following a fascinating initiative in Europe, called Run2Rail, which is all about utilizing cutting-edge technology to improve rail service across the EU. With partners in 15 countries, it's a truly continental project - and one with the potential to greatly advance the state-of-the-art in railways.
What Run2Rail Could Do for Transportation Engineering
According to a recent interview with Run2Rail researchers, the project has four broad goals:
1 - Improved use of passive and active sensors for condition monitoring, providing greater feedback on the state of the train while in operation.
2 - Developing active suspension technologies which can be predictive, rather than relying on springs and other "dumb" reactive suspension techniques.
3 - Finding better ways to utilize modern composite materials and the latest manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, in train construction.
4 - Improved noise dampening, to prevent larger/heavier trains and more frequent runs from becoming a noise hazard to the surrounding environment.
At present, the project is focusing most of their attention on the third item on that list, the materials, and manufacturing goals. They're exploring multiple highly-innovative techniques for improving train and component manufacture. 3D printing is a major part of this since it greatly simplifies the process of prototyping and testing.
Along with 3D printing, they are also exploring what robotics and automation bring to the picture. Robots can work with materials at micro scales beyond easy human craftsmanship, such as working with carbon fiber on a fiber-by-fiber basis for maximum precision. This also allows them to experiment with adding a range of materials to the basic carbon fiber, looking for new composites which add strength or reliability.
The rail industry tends to be conservative and tied closely to traditional materials like steel. They'll be facing an uphill battle pushing adoption of new methods - but if their transportation engineering projects work out, the result could revolutionize the railways.
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