With Industry 4.0 heavily influencing future trends in manufacturing, considerable opportunities exist for rail companies to continue evolving and taking advantage of new and emerging innovations in advanced manufacturing. By Dr Stuart Thomson, CEO of the Rail Manufacturing CRC.

The focus of research & development (R&D) activities in the manufacturing sector is guided by many factors, including the global economic environment, domestic and international demand, regulations and standards, the nature of competitive global supply, the general level of confidence within the sector, and the subsequent capacity of domestic manufacturers to invest in research, innovation, capital equipment and human resources. To assist the rail industry to reduce barriers in undertaking R&D activities, the Rail Manufacturing CRC was formed.

The Rail Manufacturing CRC is an industry-led Cooperative Research Centre supporting industry to develop new products, technologies and supply chain networks to increase Australian rail manufacturing’s competitiveness, capacity and productivity. The Centre is funded by the Commonwealth Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, and will operate until June 2020.

Making connections in rail

The Rail Manufacturing CRC connects Australian rail businesses with universities and research institutions that are leading the way in innovative rail research. Rail businesses are asked to identify their challenges, with specific projects then matched to research institutions with the most suited capacity to develop and deliver aligned projects.

Participating organisations in the CRC include Bombardier, Downer, Knorr-Bremse, CRRC, HEC Group and Sydney Trains, who are partnering with Australian education institutions such as CSIRO, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Monash University, University of Queensland, University of Wollongong, Queensland University of Technology, CQ University, Swinburne University and RMIT University.

The Rail Manufacturing CRC currently has 13 active industry projects underway across its three key research areas of Power and Propulsion, Materials and Manufacturing, and Design, Modelling and Simulation.

Research focus 1 – Power and Propulsion

This research area has the potential to significantly change the rail industry through the development and implementation of energy storage solutions utilising high-energy-density lithium ion batteries or supercapacitors, which can charge and discharge very quickly for potentially 100,000 cycles. There are a number of applications for energy storage in rail, including back-up power and regenerative braking, but the largest application exists for catenary-free light rail systems where the overhead lines are replaced by charging stations at tram stop platforms.

Working with CRRC, HEC Group, CSIRO and the UTS, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has a number of projects in this program area that are looking to enhance the performance of energy storage devices for use in rail applications. This includes research to increase cycle life in high-energy-density lithium ion batteries and to increase the energy density of supercapacitors through changes to cell chemistry.

Research focus 2 – Materials and Manufacturing

This area incorporates a variety of projects relating to maintenance and durability of rail track and rolling stock, which has emerged as a key focus for industry, likely due to the integration of build-and-maintain agreements that span the life expectancy of the rolling stock. The majority of projects underway involve the durability analysis of critical rail componentry, where the performance of materials and systems in these projects enables maintenance programs to better match durability properties.

For example, the development of accelerated durability testing of rail components at CSIRO will enable Knorr-Bremse to validate the high reliability requirements of their equipment in a range of environments, while a number of projects between Bombardier and the University of Queensland could significantly reduce maintenance and overhaul requirements in rail bogies.

Research focus 3 – Design, Modelling and Simulation

With Industry 4.0, automation, the Internet of Things and virtual reality gaining increasing attention throughout the rail sector, this research area focuses on the use of design and simulation techniques to model operations, develop more efficient processes and equipment solutions, and increase efficiency by extending the asset life of rail systems.

UTS and Downer Rail are well advanced in developing an autonomous system capable of sensing and interpreting passenger behaviour and train events to monitor the movement of passengers on and off trains. The interest in responsive passenger information systems resulted in project trials at rail operator sites in Sydney and Brisbane in 2017.

Sydney Trains has also embarked on a new project to scope passenger information system technologies for use on its train network, while RMIT and Airlinx are collaborating on the use of fluid dynamics to create simulated models to design improved air-conditioning ventilation systems.

Student-focused rail R&D projects

In addition to industry and university project partnerships, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has also established its Rail Innovators PhD scholarships, focused on funding postgraduate students working on rail PhD research. These leading projects will provide the rail sector with improved capability in areas such as:

  • Condition monitoring of rail components in real time.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles for infrastructure assessment.
  • Laser cladding technologies for rail components.
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies.
  • Big-data analytics for condition monitoring.
  • Automated assembly of rolling stock fabrication.
  • Stabilising ballast in rail tracks.
  • Smart axle condition monitoring.

Projects like these demonstrate the capacity for the rail industry to collaborate with research institutions to develop high-value products and services, while also further developing the skills of the potential next generation of future leaders in the rail industry.

Ingraining the importance of innovation

Despite these programs, more still needs to be done to support greater innovation in rail.

Many rail businesses have identified the need to hire more management personnel with multidisciplinary research experience and R&D adoption/commercialisation skills. To fill this need, the Rail Manufacturing CRC is working with the rail sector to identify the next round of project opportunities and postgraduate-trained researchers to enhance the Australian rail industry, whether in condition monitoring, digital design and manufacturing, virtual reality, responsive passenger information, improved energy storage, or something entirely different.

With a pool of $42m to co-fund rail research to benefit Australia’s rail industry, the Rail Manufacturing CRC is always interested in hearing project ideas from businesses, either working in rail or with the potential to do so, who are interested in addressing today’s challenges to build the rail industry of the future. For more information, visit: