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When the Rail Manufacturing CRC closed its doors earlier this year, it spelled an end to dedicated rail innovation and technology funding in Australia.
While the loss has been felt deeply by the industry, the fact is the CRC’s significant gains were achieved against all odds.
A new report commissioned by the ARA has found rail innovation is in decline in Australia, and urgent changes are needed if the $155 billion in rail investment to come over the next 15 years is to deliver a truly modern, responsive and innovative rail network.
The report found rail patents are falling in a market where a lack of national focus and certainty, and wrongfooted procurement processes, have created a culture where innovation is simply not encouraged – and at times impossible to progress.
It has called for urgent action to establish rail innovation as a national priority and clearly articulated the need for a single Australian rail market that replaces state specific approaches with national local content policies.
As the federal government highlights the importance of manufacturing to help create Australia’s path out of recession, there is a real opportunity for Australian rail to embrace innovation and play a greater role in the $362 billion global rail technology market.
To do that, we need a national approach that provides certainty and longevity for the industry.
For all the benefits the Rail Manufacturing CRC delivered, the lack of continued funding beyond its term and relatively low level of public investment compared to international models saw the opportunity under-utilised.
Only 63 cents of private investment on national projects were secured for every $1 of CRC funding.
By contrast, the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network attracts $2 for every dollar of public funding, and Japan brings in 20 times its public funding from the private sector.
They achieve those results because the policy settings are right, the long term commitment is there and the focus on rail innovation recognises the invaluable role of both the public and private sectors working together.
A national approach, tied to clear commitments to invest in research, would help achieve that here in Australia.
The ARA has long advocated for a single Australian rail market to give the industry the scale it needs to invest, grow and innovate.
The report makes it clear that is more important than ever as we look to the future.
Current state procurement processes not only create inconsistent local content policies – making it hard to create true centres for innovation – but they focus on the up front capital costs in making their purchasing decisions.
That means innovations that requires investment up front in order to save time, money and boost efficiency over the life of a project or asset often don’t get to see the light of day.
Public procurement processes also err on the side of caution, calling for like-for-like replacement in many cases.
The private sector may have better, faster, or cheaper ways of delivering on requirements, but these conditions prevent them from being put forward.
Overall, these conditions create a risk averse culture that dampens the willingness of the sector to try new things.
And that is ultimately to our detriment.
Australia has great capability in the rail sector and could lead the world on rail innovation if the conditions were right.
The world-first use of autonomous heavy haul trains by the resources sector in the Pilbara is evidence of that.
Australia’s manufacturing sector features some of the industry’s brightest minds. But their big ideas are more likely to be sent overseas than developed here.
With only one per cent of rail patent submissions coming from Australia in 2019, the only way is up.
This next phase of rail investment is a chance to modernise and innovate like never before.
It is a chance to build new skills and capability in Australia to create jobs and opportunity for the next generation of rail workers.
All we need to do is take action and make rail innovation a priority for all of us.
Finding the fast track for innovation in the Australasian rail industry is available here.
Australia has the opportunity to harness the current project pipeline to improve rail manufacturing productivity, a new report has found.
The report, Finding the fast track for innovation in the Australasian rail industry, authored by L.E.K. Consulting on behalf of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), highlights that rail innovation needs to be a national priority, and not fragmented between different state-based policies.
Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, said that the current investment in rail plus the renewed federal focus on manufacturing meant that the conditions were right for a rail manufacturing resurgence.
“The rail industry is expected to invest $155 billion in the next 15 years and we have to make that investment count,” Wilkie said.
“The world-first introduction of autonomous trains in the Pilbara region is just one example that shows Australia has the capability to lead the way on rail innovation.
“But the policy settings must be right to support innovation and technology adoption across the industry at a whole.”
Wilkie said that despite Australia having a large market for rail and the required network size, differing policies on local content in various states meant that the local manufacturing industry would struggle to compete.
“The international experience has shown that where governments lead a focus on rail innovation, private investment follows,” she said.
“We have the projects in the pipeline and we have the network scale to make rail innovation a real success.
“All we need now is for a true national focus to bring government and industry together to make the most of this opportunity.”
With the closure of the Rail Manufacturing CRC earlier in 2020, the Australian rail industry has lacked government funding for innovation specific to rail. The report found that Australia was also falling behind in comparison to other countries, with only one per cent of the world’s rail patents in 2019 coming from Australia.
In a report released at the beginning of this week, the Rail Manufacturing CRC reviewed projects that it had completed and highlighted the potential for further innovation.
“Australia’s research sector is world class and there exist many opportunities for the rail sector to utilise Australia’s R&D capabilities. With the closure of the Rail Manufacturing CRC, there will be a need for both government and industry to consider new models to support ongoing innovation,” said Stuart Thomson, CEO of the Rail Manufacturing CRC.
The report highlights four ongoing challenges for the rail industry. These include the need for national harmonisation, industry co-investment in R&D, the support for a culture of innovation, and the need to secure future funding for rail R&D.
“There exist significant opportunities for the sector to increase local manufacturing, develop supply chains and to train and educate a highly skilled workforce, however Government intervention and support will be required,” the report highlights.
Wilkie said that the industry was at a critical juncture.
“We run the real risk of being saddled with an inefficient, outdated rail network if we don’t support greater innovation and technology adoption to deliver the best possible outcomes for Australian rail users.”
Lifting data from the digital grave and into the cloud has opened up possibilities for rail maintenance. Autech explains how.
Twenty years ago, Swiss rail maintenance machine manufacturer Autech began providing its customers with an innovative way to measure their tracks. Using electronic measurement data collected by maintenance and measurement machines, rail infrastructure owners and operators could see the cross-sections of their rails, enabling an understanding of the wear and tear of this critical infrastructure.
Despite having this data on hand, CTO of Autech, Peter Merz found that it was not being put to use.
“What we saw is then they piled up the data, they printed it out and put it in the archive, and basically this data was lost.”
While some aggregated data was put into enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, the fine-grain measurements that could provide a maintenance engineer with insights were unavailable.
“The individual measurements were deleted or put in a storage system and were buried in the digital grave,” said Merz.
Having had this experience, Merz and the team at Autech began working on creating a cloud-based solution that would enable rail engineers to easily make use of the data they were collecting. The software system they developed has been named RailCloud.
“RailCloud really plots the view of the maintenance field engineers, so they can see their track, the overall condition of the track, but also the data on the individual section, even a single cross-section measurement,” said Merz.
RailCloud takes measurements collected in the field and combines them in a single, analysable database that is presented based on the geography of the rail track. The software’s base layer is a map of the system, and asset data stored in the cloud is overlaid on that map.
“It starts with the topography, the mapping, so the field engineer can go to this crossing, this intersection and so on. This is connected to the measurement systems, so the measurement systems automatically upload data, located by GPS,” said Merz.
“You can connect your measurement equipment to your network environment, so the data is automatically sorted, assigned, and allocated.”
The cloud-based software can then assign work orders and maintenance tasks based on thresholds set by the operator. In addition, having the data collected together, operators can now begin to predict rates of wear and trends, enabling predictive maintenance regimes.
“Of course, it’s a continuous thing – every year you make the measurements, every year you plan your maintenance. But with RailCloud we kept it quite light weight to make it simple and smart. You really can work on a daily basis with it, collecting measurement data, network, topology, workflows. Then you get data driven maintenance.”
DATA FROM THE SOURCE
To collect data on track condition and wear rates, Autech have recently developed RailXS, bringing together 30 years of rail measurement knowledge.
“The big advantage is it is very lightweight, it’s about 60-70kg and it can be mounted on any suitable rollingstock equipment,” said Merz. “This can be a dedicated equipment, it can be a small trolley, it can be an existing maintenance rollingstock, but it also can be a regular rollingstock.”
By mounting on regular rollingstock, measurement does not have to wait for track maintenance periods or shutdowns and can be done many times in one day.
The data is collected through laser optical sensors, which can record track parameters and the rail profile. Data is then automatically uploaded to the cloud platform RailCloud either via WiFi or a mobile internet connection. If this is not available, the data is stored and then uploaded once the vehicle returns to the depot or an area of internet connectivity. Before uploading, the measurement data is tagged with a location, either through GPS locating or RFID readers. Having these automatic systems means the data is ready to be utilised by the rail maintenance engineer, rather than having to be sorted or allocated.
“By transferring the data into the RailCloud it’s automatically allocated, you don’t have to work again. You can introduce filters to smoothen, aggregate, or transfer the data, or to do additional calculations, but the real key is to automatically map the data to your network and then there is no manual interaction needed again,” said Merz.
THE KEY TO PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE
During the development process, the focus for RailCloud was to keep the software as lightweight as the measurement systems that supported it. This has enabled the software to be adopted by smaller operators, without the need for expensive experts and consultants to set up the system. Already, the system is in use on the tram networks of Zürich and Amsterdam where it has driven smarter maintenance practices.
“In Zürich, one of the departments wanted to do a replacement and the maintenance department said no we don’t need this replacement yet,” said Merz. “Using the RailCloud data they could prove that instead of a replacement being due every 5 years, it’s only in 12 years. RailCloud is driving fact- based decisions.”
Due to its flexibility, and the lack of a need for scheduled measurements by specialised vehicles, RailCloud can help operators take the next step to predictive maintenance.
“The big advantage is that you don’t measure every five years or every three years, you can regularly measure four times a year or even once a month,” said Merz. “You can set your intervals according to your needs, but in fact if you measure five times a year or 12 times a year, you have much better prognosis points of your wear rates.”
As wear rates are not linear, having more data points can enable a clearer picture of the wear curve to appear than what would be possible if measurements are only conducted every few years, said Merz.
“If you measure once a month you really see the trend or the curve, of your wear rate, and you see also deviation or if it changes in behaviour. That’s a big advantage, not just to know the state the track is in but what will happen.
“It’s the key to go into predictive maintenance.”