3D Printing the Future of Rail at Deutsche Bahn

Deutsche Bahn is investing heavily in additive manufacturing. How can they best incorporate this technology into their future supply chain?

Deutsche Bahn (DB) is a German state-owned global mobility and logistics provider. Their passenger transport division moves 7 million rail passengers daily, with over 80% of those trips occurring in Germany.[1] At the leading edge of adopting additive manufacturing (AM) in rail, DB has made a public commitment to incorporate this technology into its supply chain. While DB does not own its own 3D printers, it collaborates with industry to employ this technique.[2] To date, AM has allowed DB to better manage parts availability to reduce rolling stock downtime and inventory costs.

DB’s annual report summarizes their AM strategy: “To maintain vehicles we need spare parts to be available immediately. Printing is faster and more flexible than conventional manufacturing processes and the vehicles are back in operation in no time at all.”[3] Maintenance demand for many rail components is irregular, often in small quantities, and missing parts are a problem. With traditional manufacturing and procurement processes, there is a clear tradeoff between the costs of holding excess inventory of spare parts and the potential for rolling stock downtime and missed trips. For many components, AM eliminates this tradeoff.

The clearest opportunity for DB to employ AM in its supply chain is for older, out-of-production (obsolescent) parts for which replacement is unscheduled and missing parts are common.[4] For Siemens-built ICE-1 trains manufactured from 1989 to 1993, AM has reduced ICE-1 train downtime when failures require replacement of some obsolete parts.[5] Both Siemens and DB benefit from this technique. Siemens reported that 3D printing is cheaper, custom parts production is reduced from six weeks to thirteen hours, and Siemens no longer casts excess parts for its own inventory.[6]

DB has also found that the total costs of 3D printing can be below traditional manufacturing and procurement costs. For one component (a heat exchanger for electric trains), a DB study found that although the unit cost to procure these parts from traditional manufacturers was below the cost to print them with AM partner 3YourMind, reduced inventory carrying costs from just-in-time production offsets this initially lower procurement cost and justifies 3D printing.[7]

Deutsche Bahn and BigRep discuss their partnership:

DB has developed a clear strategy to promote adoption of AM. Internally, DB has committed significant resources to AM with a team of seven full-time and forty part-time employees from across the organization working on the program.[8] As a result, AM is deployed across DB, not just in rail maintenance: for example, printed parts include handrails coated in braille to improve mobility for the blind in stations.[9]

Because DB is relying on third parties to produce 3D-printed parts, a key component of their strategy has been to develop and formalize the AM industry. Externally, DB has proactively formed partnerships in the industry. The “Mobility Goes Additive” initiative, led by DB’s Head of Additive Manufacturing, has grown from 9 to over 80 participants (e.g. Swiss Federal Railways, Austrian Federal Railways, Siemens, 3YourMind, Big Rep) in the last two years, and focuses on knowledge transfer and the development of profitable partnerships.[10][11][12] As of June 2018, DB’s logistics arm became the world’s first logistics service to offer AM services, coordinating 3D printing from its third party printing partners with delivery through an online portal.[13]

Additionally, DB has communicated AM volume goals to the market, further encouraging suppliers. In 2016, they produced 1,000 parts, for 2017 they set a goal to produce 2,000 parts, and for 2018, 15,000 parts.[14] Volume commitments, and other communications about the importance of AM for DB will encourage long-term investments by its private sector partners and other rail operators.

To promote AM adoption, DB should consider incorporating AM into future rolling stock procurements. For all new trains, manufacturers could be responsible for providing 3D printing blueprints as a part of maintenance materials. New trains could rely on a mixture of AM and traditional procurement for ongoing maintenance, allowing DB flexibility to optimize maintenance strategy from train introduction. Furthermore, the costs of obsolescent part management will be significantly reduced if 3D designs have already been obtained.

Second, DB Engineering & Consulting (E&C) could pursue consulting business to convert other rail operators to AM. Not only could this produce revenues from numerous customers, this work would align with DB strategy to promote adoption across the rail industry.

Looking forward, DB has stated that they may want AM in-house. DB’s focus has been identifying parts to print and finding external partners to print for them. Should DB pursue in-house printing? If so, what capabilities would DB need to develop?

Furthermore, if DB decides to pursue in-house printing, should DB limit themselves to only certain types of products? Should they focus on producing non-critical parts (e.g. braille handrails) that are not safety-sensitive and require less precision, or should they pursue production of safety-sensitive, flame retardant train components?

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[1] Deutsche Bahn, 2017 Facts and Figures, https://www.deutschebahn.com/en/investor_relations/gb_online-1213324, accessed November 2018.

[2] Deutsche Bahn, “3D Printing:  Replacement on time increases train availability,” https://www.deutschebahn.com/en/Digitalization/DB_Digital/productworld/3dprint-1214672, accessed November 2018.

[3] Deutsche Bahn, 2017 Integrated Report, p.63, https://www.deutschebahn.com/en/investor_relations/gb_online-1213324, accessed November 2018.

[4] BigRep GmbH, “Deutsche Bahn Goes Additive with BigRep,” November 13, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BwUo612YU0, accessed November 2018.

[5] Siemens, “A Print-on-demand Manufacturing Plant,” https://www.siemens.com/innovation/en/home/pictures-of-the-future/industry-and-automation/additive-manufacturing-spare-parts-for-the-rail-industry.html, accessed November 2018.

[6] Molitch-Hou, Michael, “Siemens Rail Service Custs Part Time by 95% with 3D Printing,” Engineering.com, September 20, 2018, https://www.engineering.com/3DPrinting/3DPrintingArticles/ArticleID/17678/Siemens-Rail-Service-Cuts-Part-Time-by-95-with-3D-Printing.aspx, accessed November 2018.

[7] D’Aveni, Richard, “Overcoming Internal Resistance to Additive Manufacturing,” Industry Week, September 2, 2018 http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2099361109?accountid=11311, accessed November 2018.

[8] Brickwede, Stefanie, “DB enters the third dimension,” International Railway Journal 56, no. 7 (2016): 54-55, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1807234927?accountid=11311, accessed November 2018.

[9] Deutsche Bahn, “3D Printing:  Replacement on time increases train availability.”

[10] Brickwede, Stefanie, “DB enters the third dimension,” International Railway Journal 56, no. 7 (2016): 54-55, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1807234927?accountid=11311, accessed November 2018.

[11] Mobility Goes Additive, “About Us,” https://mobilitygoesadditive.com/en/about-us/, accessed November 2018.

[12] Mobility Goes Additive, “Members,” https://mobilitygoesadditive.com/en/members/, accessed November 2018.

[13] Deutsche Bahn, “DB Schenker is the world’s first logistics service provider offering 3-D printing solutions,” June 27, 2018, https://www.deutschebahn.com/en/presse/press_releases/DB-Schenker-is-the-world-s-first-logistics-service-provider-offering-3-D-printing-solutions-3137408, accessed November 2018.

[14] Brickwede, Stefanie, “From clones and mutants–How Deutsche Bahn solves the obsolescence problem with 3D printing,” PowerPoint presentation, May 30, 2017, Copenhagen, Denmark, https://3dprinting-live.com/wp-content/uploads/10_15-Stefanie-Brickwede.pdf , accessed November 2018.

[15] Ibid.

[Featured Image] Helsel, Sandra, “Germany’s Deutsche Bahn Planning to 3D-Print Parts for Trains,” Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo, April 25, 2016,  https://inside3dprinting.com/news/germanys-deutsche-bahn-planning-to-3d-print-parts-for-trains/39620/, accessed November 2018.


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11 thoughts on “3D Printing the Future of Rail at Deutsche Bahn

  1. Very interesting article, Sam! Since the success of the program would largely depend on how often they have to print the parts and and in which quantities, the decision to in-source or to partner is rather pertinent to these factors. Ultimately, I would envision that they could partner with a partner for high-volume parts (and that partner will need to be able to provide last-mile logistics, as I presume their train depots are scattered across Germany), but for low-volume, highly unusual parts, it’d probably make sense to keep it in house. Agree that manufacturers should be providing blue-prints as part of the value-proposition, unless, of course, these manufacturers themselves could become these printers/logistics- & MRO providers, possibly?

  2. @Sam – Your final question raised an interesting point, what are the safety and regulatory considerations with AM at DB? In aviation this has been one of our biggest inhibitors to innovation with AM, specifically parts replacement for maintenance, just like DB is wanting to do.

    1. Safety-critical components receive high levels of scrutiny in rail, and components are engineered to a high level of quality and often rigorously tested to ensure that they can perform in-service; I assume that aerospace does this to an even greater extent. I can’t speak to specific regulatory requirements, but engineering hesitancy to adopt AM immediately throughout the train has been seen at DB: most components to date have been non-critical, such as seats, equipment covers, etc. As the technology improves, the application of AM to more safety-critical components will increase, and it will become more and more critical who DB chooses as its suppliers to ensure that quality is maintained.

  3. Awesome post! I really enjoyed reading this. I think that they should not pursue printing in house for the time being. I think that right now the technology is advancing really quickly and likely 3d printing companies will be able to innovate faster. Once the technology adoption curve has slowed down, I think it may make more sense to consider that type of investment. If they do go in-house, they will need to think about how this impacts their core business and align incentives accordingly.

  4. This is really interesting, Sam. As a frequent and enthusiastic passenger of DB, I’m happy to hear that they are continuing to innovate! I also see a lot of parallels here with the challenges the MTA is facing in NYC. For the MTA, the largest issue is one of the same ones that you mentioned: procurement of obsolete parts. As one of the oldest systems in the world, the NYC Subway suffers daily from the consequences of having been a first mover. No other system in the world still uses the parts that the MTA relies on, driving up both the cost of the parts and the cost of installation. I see a huge amount of opportunity for them to also use additive manufacturing to address some of these issues.

    As to your questions, I see Yury’s point that it could be beneficial to focus on the low volume parts for in house production. Doing so, however, raises the question of whether the fixed costs of launching such a program in house wouldn’t then just merit producing a greater number of items in house. Given the size of the German market and the rail network, I would assume that parts could be transported fairly quickly around Germany to the various hubs where trains are serviced, and would probably lean more on the side of continuing to outsource this functionality, pending cost difference of course.

  5. This is really fascinating! I’m curious about the process DB uses to print the parts themselves. Do they have to get CAD drawings from the original manufacturer? Are parts manufacturers willing to hand over or sell those files? Or does DB create the files themselves? What would be the safety implications of “reverse engineering” parts in that way?
    I have to imagine that some parts are pretty complex, too. Does it seem like this technology could work for the majority of frequently used replacement parts, or will it really only apply to a few?

    1. There are a lot of intellectual property issues involved, and AM will certainly need to address them going forward. Manufacturers are very reluctant to hand over information on their parts due to IP concerns, let alone hand over CAD drawings for new parts. There will likely have to be a strong escrow process for CAD drawings with clear rules around when and how these files can be accessed and used. This is complicated by the fact that trains use components from many different suppliers, all of which are trying to protect their IP.

      Currently, DB is largely producing (through its third party partners) CAD files for parts which do not hit on these IP issues (older out-of-production parts, replacement parts for seats, other parts that do not need to conform to highly technical specifications from manufacturers). When they will need to reverse engineer parts, it’s likely to create replacements for parts that are no longer in production or no longer pose IP risks; reverse engineering a part that has IP concerns is a huge legal risk to take!

  6. I loved this post! This technology can really change how transportation companies operate. Don’t you think that this technology could also apply to the airline industry? I’m also confused why DB has not internalized AM in house. I would assume that this is a kind of safety net, in case safety issues were to arise. However moving forward this solution would be way more cost effective and would enable a full transparency between DB and the engineering team, which can potentially not be achieved if the third company also collaborate with other rail companies (new developments, etc)

  7. I thought this was an exceptional example of AM can be used to reduce costs, increase accessibility and the resulting customer experience. As others have mentioned, I’m curious how a success in this industry may lead to adoption by other players and more broadly with different industries.

  8. This is a great application of AM. Thanks for sharing, Sam.

    AM can be beneficial in supply chains that require replacement parts of products over a longer period. Typically, in some supply chains, suppliers have to commit/ are contractually obligate to provide replacement parts over the life of the product or 10 years as the contracts may state. In these situation with long life cycles and unique replacement parts, I wonder if suppliers will choose to invest in 3D printing rather than keeping their older generation equipment under utilized.

  9. Thanks for sharing, Sam! One of my favorite museums in the world is the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco — if you look beneath the museum floor and beside the massive wheels that move tens of thousands of feet of cable throughout the city, you can see the machine shop where engineers still to this day hand-forge replacement parts for the fleet. Surely, the ROI on using AM for future cable car parts is minimal — the fleet is small and the parts are highly customize, and it would take eons to 3D-model and blueprint all of the antiquated parts for each distinct car in the fleet. But a forward-looking management team at another railway would be wise to require the blueprints with future part orders, as you mention — lest they ride the same road (well, really, rail… there’s a good #billypun for you) to obsolescence.

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