Additive manufacturing has been a buzzword for several years, alternately heralded as a gamechanger for industry and dismissed as a gimmick for designers. Rather than being only useful for single copies of an object, 3D printing happens to offer benefits over standard mould (subtractive) manufacturing even in quantities that can go into the hundreds.
Such is the observation at Alstom, where additive manufacturing (the term is generally interchangeable with 3D printing) has already started to take off with a catalogue of 532 references gradually compiled over the past three years. And while people may consider 3D printing to apply mainly to out-of-stock replacement parts, most of the products Alstom has made are used in instrumentation for tests, or in tooling to improve the speed and accuracy of workshop operations such as riveting.
So there are hundreds of ways in which additive manufacturing can help get your rolling stock up and running quickly. Here are four good reasons to help you start down the 3DP road.
1 –3D printing delivers the goods. Fast.
Print a part, close to where it’s needed. Try it out. If you need modifications, send it back, tweak the model, print again. No need to re-work complicated tooling parts and processes. Your 3D production unit with its own dedicated specialist (Alstom currently has 62 such units, set to double in 3 years) is just around the corner from your workshop. You can’t beat that for responsiveness.
2 – More competitive than you might think.
In the space of three years, Alstom has already had 32,000 parts printed from plastics or metals. 60% of these are prototypes, 30% are instrumentation tools, sometimes used only once to test a component, measure speeds or temperatures, etc. And 10% are original parts, used on a production line for a relatively small run. Take the example of a ventilation air grid, to be fitted to just two trainsets. The additional unit cost of 3D printing is easily outweighed by the absence of fixed costs of a short production run (here, 48 pieces). Typically, Alstom will save at least €5,000 per production run when resorting to 3D printing.
3 – Your guarantee of top performance solutions
With additive manufacturing, you can use previously inaccessible (and naturally compliant) materials; reducing weight by 30 to 50% for the same robustness and rigidity, for example. Or you can harness disruptive new technologies to design even more effective, streamlined parts whose complexity makes them impossible to manufacture with a mould.
4 –Helps you slash your product lead times
How long does it take you to specify a part, then the sand mould, then produce the prototype, then manufacture… in China… then get everything sent to you over here? Regardless of whether the requirement is urgent, 3D printing will cut lead times to a minimum. The experts at Alstom cite an example of a plastic accessory produced in 3,000 units in 3 weeks after 3 meetings. You can easily save two months for the whole process.
Don’t forget the added bonus: the lower environmental footprint of 3D printed products. Compare the ocean-going journey (then the truck transfer from Rotterdam) of a part manufactured in China or southeast Asia, with the trip made by a box of parts produced on the doorstep -or at least in the same country – of the facility that needs to use it. The environmental impact saving is currently estimated at 15%, and if the raw materials that made up the product could be produced locally, these savings would naturally be even greater.
So: quick, competitive, effective, efficient and green: what more do you need to start investigating how 3D printing can help you get back on track?
Thanks to Aurélien Fussel, 3D Printing Program Manager at Alstom, for his help in compiling this article.