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Run2Rail: bringing 3D printing to rail design

A new European project is using carbon fibres and 3D printing to design lighter and sturdier trains. Professor Simon Iwnick at the University of Huddersfield tells Eva Grey about the concept.

Run2Rail: bringing 3D printing to rail design

A new European project is using carbon fibres and 3D printing to design lighter and sturdier trains. Professor Simon Iwnick at the University of Huddersfield tells Eva Grey about the concept.

Over the past few years, new manufacturing methods and materials such a 3D printing and carbon fibres have hugely grown in popularity and found their way into nearly every industry, with strong demand from the aircraft, aerospace, automotive and sustainable energy sectors, to name a few.

Now, these new techniques could change the way railway vehicles are built, thanks to ongoing studies at the University of Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research (IRR).  IRR director Professor Simon Iwnicki and his team are investigating the use of lighter and more durable train parts under Run2Rail, a €2.7m collaborative project bringing together 15 partners around Europe, including five universities and several large and small companies in the rail industry.

The project is running as part of a wider scheme called Shift2Rail, a partnership between the rail industry and the European Commission (EC). Almost €1bn in funding was made available by the EC towards this initiative, which comes in response to some of the most pressing challenges faced by the European Union, such as rising traffic demand, congestion, security of energy supply and climate change.

Shift2Rail seeks focused research and innovation in order to close that gap, and a key part of its mission is encouraging a move from road to rail transport, as it is generally more efficient, safe and clean.

The research underway by the IRR and its partners represents just one part of this, but it is crucial – if successful, the Run2Rail team could prove that 3D printing methods and composite materials can be used to design trains that are more reliable, lighter, less damaging to the track, more comfortable and less noisy, all while reducing material waste in the process.

Here Professor Iwnicki tells us about the idea and the progress of this project.

Professor Simon Iwnicki, director of the Institute of Railway Research, University of Huddersfield


Professor Simon Iwnicki: It’s certainly more of an open brief at this stage, so I think you have to look at the basic facts and then through design we’re looking at differentiating it from other forms of transport. The brief to us was to design a capsule that would go up to 700kmph, it was going to take up to 40 people and it’s a short journey. All of those things - that’s not a train and it’s not an aeroplane either. You could say it’s more of an executive jet.

The fact that you’ll have multiple capsules or vehicles travelling immediately opens opportunities to design the interiors in a completely different way. There are opportunities to brand each capsule, perhaps, with a different brand. I find that interesting. So if you have a favourite coffee brand or fashion brand, then you could travel on that particular capsule. You could travel in more of a budget airline mode, or you could pay a little bit more to get more space. All of those things you can’t really do on trains because of the nature of the beast.


We are leading the work package on materials. In essence, what we are looking at is where we can use modern materials within the railway vehicle and modern manufacturing methods to improve its performance.

We're in the fairly early stages of the project still; it's been running for about four months now, so the plan currently is that we are identifying two case studies, on two different types of vehicle.

One is relatively low speed train, perhaps a metro vehicle, and for this we are looking at having novel suspension arrangements: so instead of having bogies, we might have just two actively controlled axles and no bogies, which would remove quite a lot of mass from the vehicle. The other case study is for a more conventional, higher speed vehicle with bogies.

Our plan is to look at those two case studies and identify where in the vehicle structure and the running gear we can use novel materials.


Firstly, we are looking at a technique where we would use robots to lay up the carbon fiber. Our partners at Milan have been using robots to place individual carbon fibers to make the components and they will be embedded in the matrix that links them all together. By doing it that way, the robot can place the fibres wherever you want them to.

So you can have the strength just where you need it so you don't need to waste material by adding weight where you don't need it. We're looking at mainly making sub-frames or bogie section using that technique, and that would be done at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy.

The second technique which we're looking at is additive manufacturing, possibly using steel. This will probably be done for smaller components, maybe around the axle boxes and other components within the running gear. Again in that way, we can make the materials in complex shapes so it has the strength where we need it. Both of those techniques should mean they can have structures that are lighter than conventional steel components.


I think we can achieve the technical challenges – those are actually not the major challenges for this project. In fact, the biggest barriers are around standards and vehicle acceptance.

In other words, the railway industry is very used to working with steel, aluminium and a few other materials, but it's not used to working with these novel materials and novel manufacturing methods.

The railway industry has a very conservative culture, it's very risk-adverse and I suppose you could argue that has worked very well for it because railways are extremely safe. So people working in the railways are very reluctant to change things quickly as a result of that.

I think that culture is changing, but that's part of where our project will help – by identifying the benefits but also the potential problems with the different materials. These projects are very collaborative, with different partners around Europe, and I think Shift2Rail is doing good work in bringing that together.

Eva Grey writes for rail industry magazine Future Rail, where this article was originally published. 

Read the magazine here >>

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