Industry 4.0 in Railway Maintenance

I recently read some articles about the “future” or what we expect to achieve by the implementation of the 4th industrial revolution. Some writer consider that there are 9 technologies that are part of that revolution:

  • Big Data and Analytics
  • Augmented Reality
  • Autonomous Robots
  • Simulation
  • Horizontal and vertical system integration
  • The industrial internet of things
  • Cybersecurity
  • The cloud
  • Additive manufacturing

One can argue either way what will be initiated by the 4th industrial revolution, a stronger globalization or a higher localization. The only thing that is certain is that it will change the way we work. Looking at railway maintenance, the following aspects are most affected from my point of view:

Specialization vs. Generalization

A problem in railway maintenance is often that while basic preventive maintenance activities can be performed with limited training and educational background, more demanding tasks often require problem analysis, system thinking and often also basic programming skills. Let’s take a door system as an example: The preventive maintenance activities by checking and replacing components can be done by a regular maintenance worker on site, but the analysis of the failure reports, trouble shooting and finding a long lasting solution for repetitive defects can most times only be found by a specialist.
As this specialist knowledge is in most areas very rare, we need to find levels to enable basic maintenance workers to perform such activities themselves.
In the case of the door, the information of the door system can be sent to the manufacturer or a specialized company where they compare and analyze the data, understand if the failure is a serial defect or might be the result of the specific operating conditions of the train. The maintenance worker on site then performs the necessary fault correction actions, supported by augmented reality glasses that instruct him exactly what he needs to do. These actions are then recorded and the rail operators’ asset management tool automatically updated.

The 4th industrial revolution will require more generalists on site and more specialists that can analyze and instruct remotely.

Spare parts management

Another aspect that comes immediately to mind when thinking about the 4th industrial revolution is certainly spare parts management. Currently, spare parts are manufactured remotely, often on the other side of the world, and require significant time to arrive on site. The parts are furthermore very specific, sometimes even unique for the respective fleet, and are therefore very expensive and not on stock.

At the same time, the development of 3D printing technology enables a rather local manufacturing of small lot sizes where, if necessary, even design changes can be included.

Let’s take for instance the supply of special clutches or screws. During a regular inspection, an analysis shows that these parts need replacement. Whereas currently, these parts are purchased by the OEM who purchases it from the sub-supplier leading to a timewise long supply chain or held on-stock creating capital costs and depreciation, the industrial revolution allows many more flexible models: The products can locally or in the region be produced and then shipped same day to the site. The train does not need to stay in maintenance for more than a day before it can return to regular revenue operation.

There are many more ways where these new technology can help the maintainer, the OEM and other relevant stakeholders to improve efficiency of the maintenance operations. It seems to be time that railway now starts to become an early follower instead of the so far persisting laggard when it comes to new technology.

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