Interview: The Rail Industry Gets on Track with AM

Stefanie Brickwede, a champion for additive manufacturing and sustainability in the rail industry, explains how it's full steam ahead for AM adoption.

When evangelizing for additive manufacturing in the rail industry, Stefanie Brickwede wears two hats. First, she’s the managing director for Mobility goes Additive, a network of transport organizations helping advance additive manufacturing. She’s also the head of additive manufacturing at Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway company. There, she works to ensure the organization reaches its goal of having 10 percent of all spare parts come from on-demand additive manufacturing.

Deutsche Bahn’s ambitious additive manufacturing goal isn’t just because of price and convenience – it’s also because of sustainability. Brickwede has seen additive manufacturing grow from a niche technology to a cornerstone of sustainability strategies.

In this interview, Brickwede explains why additive manufacturing and sustainability go together, what’s next for the rail industry, and how any company can start with additive manufacturing.

What does a typical day-to-day look like? 

I think there are no really typical days. It’s mainly focusing on trying to encourage companies with additive manufacturing. The logic behind this push is that the more companies start with AM, the easier, cheaper, and faster it will be for all of us.

At Mobility goes Additive, we do a lot of presentations around the world. We encourage people in maintenance workshops and other companies to start with additive manufacturing. So, the typical day is trying to promote the adoption of additive manufacturing in whatever way and explaining the huge advantages of this technology.

The Mobility goes Additive annual meeting. Stefanie Brickwede is in the center in red.

So what kind of parts are being 3D printed in the mobility space?

There’s a very, very broad range. Railway companies operate infrastructure, trains, facilities, and stations. Everything you can think of has the potential for additive manufacturing. Last year at Deutsche Bahn, we printed more than 80,000 parts with AM. We’ve seen more than 500 use cases involving metal alloys and materials like PLA. Maybe in a couple of years, we will even print station buildings. Who knows?

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How does additive manufacturing help the railway sector with sustainability?

From a sustainability point of view, additive manufacturing is a great technology because you just use the material you need for the part. That means little waste, particularly with metals. You can reduce the materials required drastically. Doing different designs with additive manufacturing also helps with sustainability. You can save up to 70 percent or 80 percent of the weight, which means lighter parts and less material being used.

You can also produce much more locally, so you don’t have emission-generating transport. You can do your prints whenever you need them, which is a massive advantage for the railways because until now, we must put those parts in stock for decades.

It’s a brilliant technology where there still isn’t enough focus – that’s why I would love to encourage more adoption – especially for second and third-tier suppliers.

What do the experts have to say about additive manufacturing? Get AM insights in interviews with Honeywell Aerospace, McKinsey, and Siemens Energy.

You mentioned how additive manufacturing is sustainable because it requires fewer materials than other manufacturing methods. What are some of the challenges when sourcing the necessary materials?

Part of it could depend on geopolitical events. For example, magnesium is part of one of the common alloys in additive manufacturing – ALSi10Mg. About 85 percent of magnesium is produced in China, and approximately 8 percent is made in Russia. Obviously, Russia is not a good alternative. In China, however, they sometimes switch off whole production sites to temporarily reduce air pollution. This can happen suddenly and without notice, closing off the supply of magnesium overnight.

Companies want to produce more locally. Maybe not on site, but at least in the same region. Doing this reduces lead times and carbon emissions. It also gives companies a faster time to market.

A pump impeller with the support structures still attached. Printed using laser beam melting technology.

There’s still a lot of work to be done when adopting additive manufacturing across entire industries. Have you seen any sort of common success factors from the companies that do it best?

Successful adoption really comes from the makers within a company. With this technology, you can just start without even having to buy your own machines. You can use printing services like MakerVerse. You don’t need a huge investment. You can try out different technologies and materials. And it’s quite easy, especially here in Europe.

I also try to tell companies who are just thinking about how to start and what to buy. I advise them to focus on the parts they want to produce. Focus on getting more knowledge about the technology and the opportunities with the partners. And then it’s always a change process in a company when you try to integrate additive manufacturing in your production and supply chains.

Where do companies struggle when adopting additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing still is quite a young technology. Although the roots go back 30 years, industrial usage is much younger than that. Because of that, the quality level is not usually comparable with the other production modes and technologies. The first printed part is rarely perfect. That’s something the whole additive manufacturing industry needs to work on, as generally as the efficiency of the machines and prints.

Every company has its standards and processes for working with additive manufacturing suppliers. Do you see a standard emerging, at least industry-wide for railways, when it comes to additive manufacturing?

Every company uses their own approach and specifications. But this is something we try to overcome. We founded a working group in the Mobility Goes Additive three years ago to develop a joint approach for the rail industry. This led to a very frank and open discussion and an exchange of experiences.

So, we have suppliers, we have OEMs, and we have users. They are all interested in increasing the number of printed parts by doing a simulation-based certification process. Certification processes, unfortunately, take a lot of time and energy, but this is precisely what we must work on. The rail industry can be an excellent role model for adopting industry-wide standards.

How else is the railway sector planning to adopt additive manufacturing?

We now try to integrate additive manufacturing into the tendering process. Deutsche Bahn recently released their new tenders to collaborate on the next generation of high-speed trains. The additive manufacturing logic is part of that. That means we’ll be able to build a digital warehouse where all the needed features will be available to print on demand.

You can find Stefanie Brickwede, managing director of Mobility goes Additive and head of additive manufacturing at Deutsche Bahn, on LinkedIn.