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German rail operator DB expands use of 3D printing

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The German rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) is ramping up its use of 3D printing in manufacturing train parts. To date, the German company has produced approximately 1,000 spare parts using 3D printers, including everything from headrests to ventilation grills. By the end of this year, that number is expected to double.

Now, DB has announced an ambitious plan to expand its 3D printing resources even further. According to company representatives, 15,000 3D printed components will be manufactured by the end of 2018. It’s a large undertaking to be sure, but one that DB is confident will pay off.

“For the maintenance of our vehicles we need immediately available spare parts. Our trains are expected to roll,” said chief executive of DB vehicle maintenance Uwe Fresenborg. “3D printing helps us in doing so. Printing is faster, more flexible and cheaper than conventional manufacturing processes, and the vehicles are available again in a very short time and are used for our customers."

3D printing can also help solve the mounting issue of obsolescence, noted Stefanie Brickwede, who is heading the project. “Most of the parts that we are printing are very old and often we cannot find a 3D file of the design—we are often lucky to get a 2D drawing.” But since 2015, when DB’s 3D printing initiative first began, a lot more options have become available. “[Now] we take all the specifications we can from the existing component to create a CAD file, from which we can produce the component using 3D-printing," said Brickwede.

The first component to be 3D printed was a coat hook, back in the early days of the project. Since then, a whole range of products have been successfully 3D printed and put into use, including junction boxes beneath the trains, locks for tablets, propellers for radiator fans, dust caps, and oscillating levers. Even unexpected areas such as replacing worn-out components in vacuum cleaners have benefitted from the company’s shift toward additive manufacturing technology.

Beyond maintenance, DB is exploring other potential 3D printing applications too. Current examples include a project to improve wayfinding for passengers with reduced mobility and/or vision. 3D printed braille signs are currently in trial phase at Berlin’s Main Station.


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