December 01, 2017

Digitalisation triggers change in strategy for suppliers

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Railways are increasingly embracing new and smart methods to maintain their assets, which is placing new demands on suppliers. Members of Voestalpine’s management team explain to Kevin Smith how the company is responding by redefining its role in the market.

AS gradual digitalisation enables railways to improve how they operate and maintain their assets, the supply sector is also altering its business models in order to keep up and deliver the smart services that their customers are increasingly demanding.

With a reputation based on high-quality products, including premium rails, signalling solutions, welding and turnouts, as well as services including infrastructure monitoring solutions, Voestalpine has established itself as a market leader in the railway infrastructure market. The Austria-based company has around 50 railway-related production sites around the world. Yet to continue to meet demand, and create additional benefits, the supplier recognises that it also needs to adopt a new approach to selling its products and services.

“10 years ago, operators and infrastructure managers relied on suppliers to provide mostly hardware and a few individual services such as rail welding,” says Mr Dieter Fritz, managing director and CEO at Voestalpine VAE. “Supplying high-quality products has been the foundation of our business, but this is no longer sufficient. The new generation of infrastructure managers is now not looking at just the product but how this asset fits within a digitalised infrastructure. To deliver this effectively, they need a new level of support from their suppliers.”

Mr Jochen Holzfeind, the new CTO of Voestalpine Railway Systems, confirms that there is increasing demand from the market for data driven services. These effectively act as value-added add-ons to the traditional supply of individual assets and components, and enable railways to deploy smart components, which can support predictive maintenance and help to increase asset utilisation. Holzfeind argues that in order to survive, suppliers like Voestalpine have to become system providers rather than simply hardware suppliers.

During his presentation at the Fifth Railway Forum in Berlin on August 31, Dr-Ing Oliver Kraft, CEO of Voestalpine BWG, presented the group’s vision for the digital railway.

From a network maintenance regime based on measurement trains, manual measurement instruments, and visual controls, which while suitable, are elaborate, expensive to carry out and promote an internal-oriented maintenance regime, the new railway is defined by utilising unused possibilities. These include installing measuring devices on track components and control trains, sensory data collection, fusion and enrichment, and data evaluation which will increase the utilisation of large amounts of data, as well as new modelling and forecasting techniques. Together these processes will enable railways to deploy demand-oriented preventative maintenance regimes, which will improve the efficiency of personnel deployment and planning and, crucially, will reduce failures and delays.

Effective digitalisation is reliant on harnessing significant amounts of data, which is a complicated process. Kraft says a railway might have around 200 million data points, which collectively produce billions of pieces of individual data. However, with only around 1% of this actually useful, only those who fully understand the significance of this can turn it into the smart data required to deliver the digital railway.

Mr Frederick Kübler, managing director at Voestalpine Schienen, adds that Voestalpine is well-placed to meet these requirements, and in particular growing demand for products and services that offer a comparatively lower lifecycle cost throughout their duration.

“We understand the whole system, from the upper side of the rail to the sub-ballast layer,” he says. “We also understand that there is a cause and effect relationship here, and through this understanding we have the capability to extract a lot of data to show how individual assets are performing. We believe that only with deep product know-how it is possible to provide the support required to optimise the maintenance process.”

Dr Martin Platzer, senior vice-president for marketing, supports this view: “Our current offer for the new market includes a lifecycle cost calculation tool for rails, which is based on 120 track tests performed around the world in different rail traffic scenarios. This service enables infrastructure managers to evaluate possible procurement and maintenance strategies as well as determine the costs across the entire lifecycle of an asset. Critically this will facilitate growing demand, including in the European Union, that procurement focuses on life cycle rather than upfront capital costs as a key determination when awarding contracts.”

Kraft says that with the gradual digitalisation of railways underway, it is crucial that the supply sector makes calculated decisions to deliver this change effectively. “The opportunities are now within reach, and they promise to deliver the high levels of availability railways now need in order to remain competitive,” he says.

“Digitalisation of infrastructure will take years to deliver, but this process will pay off,” Fritz concludes. “We will need less maintenance and check-ups, and it will help to increase the confidence in our infrastructure. Delivering this will require partnership business models that help us to process data useful for third parties, which will help us to find the right way forward together.”

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