Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Digitisation: speed up or die

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"The rail industry moves very slowly" is a common refrain heard at conferences and trade shows around the world with respect to the introduction of new products and technology. Rail's strong safety culture partly explains the apparent reluctance to embrace and pioneer innovative but often unproven technology. Lengthy certification processes and acceptance by railways are other reasons why tried-and-trusted remains the preferred course.

But should the industry be doing more to change this situation and speed up? Is the perception of a slow moving industry now just an excuse for sticking to what you know?

"Digitisation" is the current industry buzzword, and everywhere you go it seems everyone is talking about big data, the Internet of Things, and machine-to-machine technology. Industry figureheads are keen to point out the advantages that digitisation offers through greater automation, smart components, and services tailored to individual passengers, as well as the threats it poses to rail such as the development of automated cars.

For example, Dr Rüdiger Grube, German Rail's (DB) CEO, told the Fourth Railway Forum in Berlin on March 1 that every sector of DB is now "digitised" in some form. He referred to digitisation as the "innovation driver of the 21st century" and said that getting it right was crucial for rail to remain a viable mode of transport.

Similarly it was a major topic of discussion at the International Railway Summit, hosted by IRJ and Irits, in Vienna in February. Director general of the International Union of Railways (UIC) Mr Jean-Pierre Loubinoux told delegates that rail must embrace the digital revolution to meet current and future passenger requirements. Similarly European Rail Research Advisory Council (Errac) chairman Mr Andy Doherty described digitisation as the "Trojan horse" for the industry's development.

Public pronouncements may be one thing, but there need to be definitive cultural changes within railways for the sector to realise the benefits on offer. After all, digital technology waits for no-one. A balance must therefore be struck between investing in the technology that will offer rail a competitive edge but which can easily be updated and does not become obsolete after only two or three years.

DB's chief procurement officer, Mr Uwe Günther's, pronouncement that DB will in the future favour suppliers that offer new innovations in their bids for tenders as well as the opportunity to upgrade as new solutions become available, is encouraging. He also hinted at a situation currently where suppliers are not offering the innovations he feels the railway needs despite these solutions being readily available.

However, speak to any supplier and they will chart the frustrations they have with getting their products, which may offer many of the desired innovations, approved and in the hands of the big railway companies. Stories of 10-year certification and approval process for some components are not uncommon (IRJ September 2014 p118).

This is true regarding a technology which Grube was keen to tout during his speech: 3D printing. He reported that DB has been working on developing this concept with industry partners to produce components such as coat hooks and window handles for vehicles with 20 solutions now ready for adoption.

However, 3D printing for the rail industry is nothing new. My visit to Parker's factory in Milton Keynes, Britain, (IRJ April 2015 p45) revealed the extensive work that has taken place in this area for many years. Yet while aviation, medical and Formula 1 motor racing are benefitting from the lightweight and strong but malleable components that this process can offer, rail is struggling to follow suit.

Parker has manufactured thousands of 3D printed components for rail, but this is usually for reverse engineering purposes to develop moulds for obsolete components used on aging rolling stock. Use of these lightweight components in new systems is currently rare because of the challenge of securing certification and acceptance.

Adopting legislation to alter this process then is just as important as changing a specific railway's procurement culture, and there are signs of progress in at least two key areas.

Adoption into national law and practice of the EU's public procurement framework is scheduled to take place this year. This includes awarding public contracts based on the most-economically advantageous tender (Meat) principle, which emphasises using lifecycle and not-upfront costs as a deciding factor during procurement, and may be a way of affording railways, which are under pressure to justify outlay, the flexibility to try something new.

Acceptance of the Fourth Railway Package's technical pillar, which Mr Josef Doppelbauer, executive director of the European Rail Agency (ERA), told delegates in Vienna will happen by June, also promises to help overcome these hurdles by establishing ERA as the "one-stop-shop" for certification in Europe. The hope is that this will dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes for suppliers to certify their products for use in multiple countries. In turn, this will result in greater innovation in tenders.

However, if it is to succeed in its expanded role, ERA must have sufficient resources. Doppelbauer says that any talk of funding was left out of the terms of the technical pillar due to the mine field that is European politics. But with the acceptance date looming, he says he is now actively discussing how much funding ERA will require in the coming years to operate effectively.

Given the chosen path for rail in Europe, the outcome of these negotiations is crucial. A situation where ERA cannot keep up with demand will be no better than today's drawn-out country-by-country certification processes. Indeed it will threaten the future ability of railways to compete and severely limit their capacity to embrace digitisation. The technology might be within their grasp but at present too much is continuing to slip through their fingers. Something has to give.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith joined IRJ in 2009 as features editor and since then has travelled the world reporting on developments in the world's railways. Before joining IRJ, Kevin worked for several local newspapers in the United States and as a freelance technical writer for a university engineering magazine. Kevin graduated with a first class honours degree in American Studies from Lancaster University, Britain, in 2006, and with a Master's degree in American Studies from Purdue University, United States, in 2008.