Union Pacific began experimenting with 3-D printing in 2013 in order to prototype a handheld automatic equipment identification device that contains a small radio transponder used to track railroad equipment and to ensure trains are assembled in the proper order.
Four years later, UP is utilizing 3-D printing for more advanced capabilities, including producing parts for in-cab radio systems and to help with a machine vision imaging system that helps inspect 22 components on passing trains.
“Early 3-D printed objects were fragile,” says Royce Connerley, senior system engineer at UP. “Today, we’re using tougher plastic allowing 3-D printed parts to be dropped or treated like any other piece of equipment. It’s critical in a railroading environment.”
The ability to print 3-D prototypes in-house allows for modifications to be made on the fly and during multiple iterations without waiting for each version to be returned from an external vendor.
That flexibility was key in developing remote-control devices used to direct locomotive movement inside a rail yard, UP says. While still in a pilot phase, UP wanted a safer, user-friendly handheld device for this endeavor and using a 3-D printed version for field testing allows changes to be made directly into the design.
“We can make design tweaks and have a new version ready within hours, plus the prototype never leaves UP,” Connerley says. “Additionally, it ensures a complete design before we move into expensive tooling or long lead times for molded parts.”
UP’s 3-D printer is housed in a basement room at its headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, where it runs constantly, working on various projects.
One such project is in machine vision where one component relies on a shutter assembly to photograph each of a train car’s undercarriage. Using additive manufacturing, the company designed an air knife that blows air across the laser for cooling and provides outward air flow to keep debris out.
Currently, that piece is produced on UP’s 3-D printer but the company plans to mass produce it in a more sustainable material.