Dr Stuart Thomson is the CEO and Managing Director of the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). He spoke to William Poole AMT: When was the Rail Manufacturing CRC established and what are its objectives? Stuart Thomson: We were established in 2014. We’re part of the Cooperative Research Centres program, co-funded by the Commonwealth Government. Our specific areas are rail manufacturing and rail development in general. The objective is to support, co-fund and assist the rail industry to collaborate on innovation and R&D programs. We have a lifetime of six years, so we have about 18 months left to run. Over our six-year period we’ll have worked with a number of manufacturers, which include first, second and third-tier manufacturing organisations, rail operators and Australian research institutions working in rail R&D. We’ve also worked with manufacturing and peak bodies like the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) and TrackSAFE Foundation. AMT: What does the closure of the CRC mean to the greater rail industry? ST: Essentially, the closure of the Rail Manufacturing CRC is required – all CRCs can now only run for one term. In terms of what it means for the industry, I think it’s two-fold. One, the establishment of the CRC has enabled our Centre to undertake and create a culture of innovation within the rail sector, which will be ongoing. But secondly, with the Centre closing in 2020, it will be incumbent on the rail industry to either look at other options for co-funded models for rail research or alternatively set up their own ventures to enable collaboration and innovation to continue in the sector. Regardless of the path chosen, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has provided a springboard for industry to engage and collaborate. AMT: Tell us about the activities you’ve been engaged in. ST: The Rail Manufacturing CRC’s role is to foster and develop a collaborative framework among rail manufacturing organisations. Essentially our role has been to help the rail industry realise their innovation needs. We work with companies and R&D providers to workshop ideas, to understand each rail business, identify their innovation needs and help provide solutions to these challenges. We look to collaboratively develop projects, co-funded by the CRC, to bring answers to these challenges. In our research programs, we specifically work in three areas: Power & Propulsion, Materials & Manufacturing, and Design, Modelling & Simulation. Our main body of work in Power & Propulsion is around new energy storage solutions. We’re researching batteries and supercapacitors, and there’s very big interest in these areas, particularly from our Chinese partners. The reason for this is that if you can remove catenaries – the overhead electrical infrastructure – by just running batteries or supercapcitors alone and charging along the tram route, this provides opportunities to save significantly on infrastructure costs. We also fund research in energy storage control systems, and we’ve had successful programs in that area with CSIRO and their partner China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC). We’re also doing some blue-sky work in the battery area looking at lithium technologies for use in trains. That’s starting from fundamental research, so it’s very positive to be doing that work in Australia.
AMT APR/MAY 2019
AMT: And presumably we’re well-resourced in that area. ST: We are! The encouraging thing with our Power & Propulsion projects is that we’re seeing a lot of interest from multinationals coming to Australia to do the research, primarily because we have good R&D expertise. There is high regard for Australian researchers. We’d like to see more local companies take advantage, of course, but essentially the outcomes, particularly in the battery and supercapacitor areas, are very positive. It’s very technically challenging but we’re hoping to continue to get runs on the board as the individual projects in this program progress. The second program we work in is Materials & Manufacturing, which focuses on the maintenance and durability of the track and rail rolling stock. For example we’re working with Bombardier to look at wheel bearings and assessing their lifecycle. A fairly simple project on the face of it, but the mathematics used and the simulations required are complex. The aim is to better understand these materials. So with bearings, there’s changes to grease, the composition of greases used, the operating conditions, etc. We’re trying to create scenarios where we understand these materials better, understand their lifecycles, and more importantly, their maintenance cycles. If we can keep rolling stock on track for longer and optimise maintenance times, considerable savings in maintenance budgets can be made. Obviously the other scenario is if we can identify when something is about to fail, we can the get the affected rolling stock off the line beforehand. In that area, we’re working with Knorr-Bremse looking at heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units. We are also about to undertake a predictive analysis project with Downer to model numerous components within rolling stock to better understand when a failure happens, and when it’s likely to happen. Also in manufacturing we have an interest in the material components used. It’s early days yet, but we’re very hopeful one of our projects being conducted at CSIRO, to develop new materials for brake discs, will result in new technological advances. Again, we’re seeing multinationals coming to Australia to invest in these projects, not just because the projects are specific to Australian needs, but because there is technical expertise here – based on Australia’s heavy-haul and passenger rail experience – that companies know can genuinely assist their businesses. There’s a great opportunity for Australia to develop hubs of excellence to do this work, to support not just local manufacturing, but global manufacturing organisations. The third program, Design Modelling & Simulation is looking at the modelling of an array of rail applications, whether it be the design of rolling stock, the adoption of Industry 4.0, designing automation techniques to make the processes more efficient, or using sensors for collecting data off rolling stock or manufacturing processes to make them more efficient. One such area involves using UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technologies to assess rail infrastructure. We’re funding a number of PhD projects with partners such as Monash University where you have a UAV that flies from a base-station and carries an array of sensors that can monitor the track or fly into railway culverts and monitor the condition of infrastructure. In the future, this technology
AMT magazine April/May 2019