Of all the potential uses for additive manufacturing, making parts for the railroad industry is surely at the bottom of the list.
Railcars and the locomotives that move them are heavy, blocky constructions weighing tens or even hundreds of tons. There’s no need for lightweighting, and topology optimization is almost laughable for a device that relies on brute strength to do its job. Furthermore, rapid prototyping can’t possibly be a factor for a vehicle whose basic design hasn’t changed in centuries. Right?
Jennifer Coyne will tell you: Wrong on all counts. She should know. In 2008, Coyne earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Grove City College in Pennsylvania while serving an internship at GE Transportation. After her hiring, she pursued a master’s degree in the same field from the Georgia Institute of Technology, all the while climbing the GE ladder to become a design engineer, senior systems engineer, then a global AM team lead for GE Transportation, which was soon acquired by Wabtec Corp.
During this time, Coyne held roles in locomotive traction, propulsion systems, on-shore wind and diesel engine emissions designs and energy storage reliability. She’s a graduate of GE’s Edison Engineering Development Program and oversaw the successful launch of more than 50 production AM parts and four 3D printing labs in the U.S. and India. She’s also led PLM (product lifecycle management) and MES (manufacturing execution system) software implementations, the second of these aimed specifically at AM.
Finally, Coyne is listed on eight U.S. patents, all related to making rail transportation safer and more efficient. Because of her extensive experience and contributions to the industry as a whole, she was named one of Railway Age’s Top Women in Rail for 2020, received the 2017 Women in Technology Award from GE Transportation, and took home the GE Transportation Innovation Engineering Award in 2013.
Today, Coyne’s the associate director of programs at The Barnes Global Advisors, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm whose stated mission is “to help industrialize additive manufacturing.” It’s there that she oversees project development and execution, much of which revolves around bringing traditional manufacturers into the AM space.
“We help companies learn about AM equipment and processes, qualify parts for end use and understand which ones are suitable candidates for the different additive technologies,” she said. “In some cases, it can be a vast undertaking.”
Vast or not, it’s abundantly necessary. Like others in her position, Coyne is well aware that the AM industry as a whole suffers from a lack of material data and established manufacturing criteria, leaving question marks about what these technologies produce or are capable of producing. In addition, the technology is quite complex, with numerous variables and process parameters that can affect the product outcome—something she refers to as “turning the knobs.” It’s for this reason among others that, when not busy helping clients industrialize their AM processes, Coyne also serves as an SME Additive Manufacturing Community Advisor.
“Manufacturers have the ability to adjust process variables on a layer-by-layer or feature-by-feature basis,” Coyne said. “This is a very powerful tool, but it can also make part qualification challenging. This more than anything remains one of the biggest hurdles to widespread AM adoption.”
Coyne has ample experience to tackle such issues, much of which comes from her time at GE Transportation. There, she and her team developed a tool that evaluated the different parts on a locomotive, ranking them by size, material, quantity and other criteria, giving her and her team a more effective means to separate the AM wheat from the chaff.
Still, it wasn’t easy, she said. “Oftentimes, the parts we looked at were designed and optimized for centuries-old manufacturing technology. It is rarely going to be cheaper or more efficient to make such parts using AM, so any selection tool is going to be very subjective, and will only show you whether a part can be 3D printed, not whether it should be 3D printed. At the end of the day, the best way to determine this is to understand the requirements. Let that drive the design, and then design for the process that you’re trying to use.”
Coyne and her team were responsible for the entire locomotive system. Many of its parts are large and bulky, and although the technology has improved, the AM needed for these parts wasn’t as developed back then.
This forced them to zero in on the smaller, high-value components, most of which are in the engine’s cooling system and power generation areas. “Anywhere we could improve performance or reliability on a critical component, that was our focus,” she said. “I’m happy to say we had quite a few successes.”
Contrary to what was stated at the start of this article, Coyne pointed out that the rail industry enjoys many of the same AM-generated benefits as other manufacturing sectors. Chief among these is the need for legacy replacement parts whose tooling is no longer available, or where producing small quantities is neither time nor cost-effective. In these situations, a single 3D printed part can spell the difference between a few days of downtime vs. waiting weeks or even months for a casting or fabricated component.
But just as it does for the aerospace, automotive, energy, and many other industries, AM also presents rail manufacturers with countless opportunities for part count reduction, shortened product lead times, lower development costs, and products that are either more fuel-efficient, more reliable, or both. Said Coyne, “There are AM parts on trains everywhere right now, with more being built each day.”
Ironically, if it weren’t for GE’s well-known efforts in the aerospace market and subsequent push into AM writ large, Coyne might not have had the chance to pursue it. “GE was all in on additive,” she said. “All of their business units were strongly encouraged to use it, and it’s partly because of that corporate-wide adoption that I had the opportunity to lead their global AM team at Wabtec.”
Her work is no longer limited to the rail industry, however. The Barnes Global Advisors works with clients in all industrial sectors and, as the company’s name implies, anywhere in the world. Some are startups, but many more are traditional manufacturers interested in AM and need guidance on fitting an unfamiliar technology into their existing business strategy.
“For instance, I’ve been working pretty closely with a company out of Australia recently,” Coyne said. “They’re looking at some new AM equipment and we’re helping them with their technical assessment and go-to-market strategy. We’re also doing some work right now with a well-known automaker, assisting them with product development and systems requirements. But those are just a couple of examples. We support a variety of customers with design for additive, product launches, training and application support—there’s a lot going on out there.”
When asked about common pitfalls or advice to those who are AM-curious, her answer might seem surprising to anyone in the conventional manufacturing space, where the amortization on CNC machinery and other equipment is often measured in decades.
“AM technology is advancing so rapidly that manufacturers have a much higher risk of obsolescence,” she noted. “Because of this, the depreciation period is often set much lower than typical manufacturing equipment to ensure you can take advantage of productivity leaps that are happening so quickly.”
She also recommends taking a hard look at AM’s supporting software systems, a viewpoint that harkens back to her Wabtec days and the need to support a global AM business unit spread across 50 countries and with 30,000-plus employees. Coyne quickly learned that the ERP and PLM available at that time were centered on traditional manufacturing processes and would limit her ability to track 3D printed prototype and production parts through the entire AM workflow.
As noted earlier, Coyne turned to MES, a solution she describes on the TBGA website as “a huge leap forward from the homegrown spreadsheets of most AM users’ beginnings” and “a critical maturation of the technology.” MES is not a necessity in all AM environments—but for manufacturers who wish to harness Big Data and Industry 4.0, it should rank high on the requirements list. “You can limp along for a while without it, but certainly for anyone doing volume work, I don’t think there’s any choice but to implement an integrated, AM-capable MES system.”
Looking back at her early days in the AM space and comparing them to her relatively recent position with The Barnes Global Advisors, Coyne has noticed a few trends. The first is that manufacturers have begun treating 3D printers as they would other capital equipment. Where AM was once a novel, nice-to-have technology able to print cool new part geometries, it is quickly becoming a necessary and very much mainstream production process. As such, equipment owners are now demanding higher levels of productivity, cost-effectiveness and part quality. This trend will surely continue as AM’s reach continues to grow.
Coyne has some advice to those who might have looked at AM five or 10 years ago, only to decide it wasn’t a good fit. “Look again,” she said. “The material costs have come down. The equipment is better than it once was. More people understand it now, and it’s getting easier all the time to get parts qualified for end-use. That said, it might require some part redesign, and it will certainly require rethinking some business processes, but the writing is on the wall. AM is here to stay—and that’s a good thing.”