Rail is undergoing a significant resurgence across Australia. With the current boom in rail projects in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Gold Coast and Newcastle, this strong pipeline of work is underpinning the sustainability of the rail manufacturing sector. By Dr Stuart Thomson, CEO of the Rail Manufacturing CRC.

Modern international rail manufacturing has increasingly evolved to focus on the production of high-tech, high-value components. For Australian manufacturing to keep up, there is much work to do to continue the evolution of advanced manufacturing in rail, focusing specifically on innovative research and development (R&D) activities.

This is why the formation of the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is great news for both the sector and Australia as a whole.

It started with a roadmap

The strategic direction for Australian rail manufacturing was outlined in the On Track to 2040 – Preparing the Australian Rail Supply Industry for Challenges and Growth Roadmap. Commissioned by the former Department of Innovation Industry Science and Research (DIISR), through the Rail Supplier Advocate, the roadmap was developed through intensive collaboration between industry stakeholders, government and the higher education and research sectors. It represented the consensus view of 210 industry participants from 110 organisations on the strategic pathway towards industry growth.

One specific recommendation was the need for a collaborative research entity dedicated to rail manufacturing innovation, with the establishment of the Rail Manufacturing CRC a direct result. Beginning in 2014, the Rail Manufacturing CRC was established to drive the development of new products, technologies and supply chain networks to enhance the competitiveness of Australia’s rail manufacturing capability.

Co-funded by Industry and the Business Cooperative Research Centres Programme of the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, the Rail Manufacturing CRC manages collaborative research and commercialisation partnerships between key stakeholders. This includes rail manufacturing multinationals, innovative small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), leading research and development providers, industry peak bodies, and Federal and State Governments.

The current state of play

The benefits of greater innovation for businesses are well known – it leads to improved wealth creation, employment growth and more efficient production. Innovative Australian businesses are 31% more likely to increase income and 46% more likely to report increased profitability.

In rail manufacturing, innovation is lagging.

We live in a country with a landscape and cityscape made for rail. Australia’s combination of vast distances and highly urbanised centres means that as we look to the future, railway manufacturing will continue to play a key role both as an important manufacturing industry and an essential means of transportation. Yet, as an industry, rail manufacturing has some key features that need to be better understood and addressed if a truly positive and sustainable future is to be secured.

With the significant public focus on its performance, safety and reliability, rail is widely acknowledged by those in the industry as being conservative and therefore somewhat cautious in implementing new innovation. However, the advent of robotics, new technologies and materials in manufacturing offer considerable opportunities for rail manufacturers to increase productivity and profitability.

To ensure the rail industry continues to grow and remain viable, this conservatism needs to be addressed by policies that promote and encourage innovation, at a Government level and within industry.

Some supporting key Government mechanisms now available include:

  • The Global Innovation Strategy, which includes measures that provide seed funding to assist Australian businesses and researchers to collaborate with international businesses and researchers.
  • Innovation Connections, a new $18m programme established as a component of the Federal Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme to drive new industry-led collaborations between researchers and SMEs, particularly in regional areas.
  • Tax incentives through a concessional tax treatment for investors who support innovative start-ups, including a 20% non-refundable tax offset based on the amount of their investment capped at $200,000 per investor, per year; and a ten-year capital gains tax exemption for investments held for three years.
  • The Victorian Government’s local manufacturing content weighting for tender evaluations.

And our response

The Rail Manufacturing CRC’s goal is to foster innovation in our rail manufacturing industry and to facilitate links between research and industry. A number of co-funded projects are already underway, which we believe will benefit the rail sector and increase innovation in Australian rail products.

These projects entail partnerships between rail manufacturing industry participants such as Bombardier, Downer, Faiveley Transport and Sigma, and some of Australia’s leading educational and research institutes, including CSIRO, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Monash University, the University of Queensland, Central Queensland University, Swinburne and RMIT.

One leading Rail Manufacturing CRC project is a partnership between the UTS and Downer Rail, led by Dr Alen Alempijevic from the Centre for Autonomous Systems and the UTS Transport Research Centre.

Downer and UTS are creating a Complex Dwell-time Diagnostics tool that uses robotic sensors to anonymously monitor passenger behaviour and train operations. The sensors diagnose problems leading to passenger congestion on platforms and near train doors that can lead to extended dwell-times (the time a train spends at a station without moving) and disruption to services. This tool is a critical component of a new technology developed at UTS called Responsive Passenger Information Systems, which enhances the ability of public transport service operators to respond to customers’ behaviours and needs.

Information from the diagnostics tool will enable train operators to improve platform management procedures and advice to passengers, potentially stabilising and reducing dwell-times and increasing the number of potential train paths and capacity of existing tracks. The technology can provide great benefits not only to the Australian rail industry, but also internationally.

Projects like this demonstrate the capacity for Australian-based companies to collaborate to develop high-value products and services. However, more still needs to be done to support greater innovation in rail.

Many rail businesses lack management expertise in R&D adoption and also lack dedicated resources to act as a liaison between production systems and research development. This is borne out in a 2011 report into the Australian rail industry, which found less than 1% of employees in the sector are scientists or researchers.

Naturally, the Rail Manufacturing CRC offers a pathway by which industry groups can partner and foster innovation with research experts.

Getting involved

Securing a gateway into rail manufacturing has never been easier with Rail Manufacturing CRC now offering funded partnerships for businesses wanting to join the rail sector. Coupled with the strong pipeline of projects flowing now underway across the country, rail businesses have a golden opportunity to take advantage of this positive business environment.

Measures that support innovative businesses, grow private sector investment in research commercialisation, and increase the flow of venture capital to high potential start-ups will flow across the manufacturing sector and inject some much needed confidence in business investment.

The Rail Manufacturing CRC recently rolled out its Innovation Gateway Projects, where businesses either currently working in the rail manufacturing industry supply chain or with the potential to do so were given the opportunity to enter a partnership with a research organisation to work on a commercial project to benefit the rail industry.

This program is designed to take advantage of the current boom and attract manufacturing businesses into the rail supply chain, while at the same time boosting much needed innovation in the rail industry. It has resulted in the selection of three new projects to commence shortly.

While there’s no doubt that the Australian rail industry has a significant task ahead to embrace the innovation challenge, the Rail Manufacturing CRC team is always keen to hear from businesses and SMEs, including those not already in the rail supply chain, to join in and build the railway industry of the future.

The Rail Manufacturing CRC’s research program focuses on three research themes – developing innovative rail technology and products in:

  • Power and Propulsion – including energy regeneration and storage, advanced braking systems, and electronic motors and systems.
  • Materials and Manufacturing – including high-performance materials for heavy haul, advanced manufacturing, advanced lightweight materials, and low-cost manufacturing systems.
  • Design, Modelling and Simulation – including advanced design and simulation, automated health monitoring, advanced data analysis and information systems, advanced operations management systems, and energy-use management systems.

With the Rail Manufacturing CRC co-funding new projects within these three areas, translating research-based industry solutions into timely market innovations and products will support the development of technologies that lead to new opportunities for Australian rail manufacturers.