Ahead of the Composites in Rail conference we took the opportunity to gather industry insights from our expert speakers.
This week we caught up with speakers Kai Steinbach, Marcus Walls-Bruck and Marcus Mayers from our ‘Understanding and overcoming barriers to composites in rail’ session. We asked them about their predictions for the future of the composites’ industry, the most exciting industry development from the last couple of years and what they will be speaking about at the Composites in Rail conference this June.
Please tell us about your current role. What are your key focus areas and responsibilities?
Kai Steinbach: I’m responsible for all engineering projects at the LZS. We are an engineering consultant and development supplier for almost any industry branch. We focus on lightweight solutions but not only on composites as we’re convinced that it’s necessary to find solutions which fit best to the customer demands. Therefore, I encourage my colleagues and our customers to take a neutral and unbiased view on the selection of materials and technologies. Only by that approach can we ensure to find technical solutions that fit best to technical and economic needs.
Marcus Walls-Bruck: I am the Chief Engineer for Automotive and Rail at the National Composite Centre. My key focus areas are determining the best ways to utilise composites within these sectors and the technologies required, and ensuring the work undertaken is to the highest standard
Marcus Mayers: I am the owner of a small innovation consultancy business in the rail sector. Like many consultants I split my time between business development, client management and delivery. The most fun bit of what I do is investigating how new products, from clients, could fit into the rail sector and evidencing the market. I really enjoy digging into why and how things could be done better. On the business development side I get to meet some great companies of all different sizes and get exposed to mind-blowing technology.
How do you see the composites industry developing and growing in the next three-to-five years?
Kai Steinbach: That’s a difficult question because this depends much on the overall growth of the industries. But nevertheless the foundations for a stable and continuous growth are clearly visible. Composites have in the last years left behind the status as experimental and become a highly sophisticated solution for special problems. Designers, engineers and technology developers have almost all the tools for engineering successful products available in off-the-shelf software and know how to use composites in daily routine. So one could say: all the ingredients are prepared, now it’s up to the chef to prepare a delicious meal.
Marcus Walls-Bruck: More applications of composites will make use of both the achievable mass savings and manufacturing freedoms, resulting in more applications where the benefits outweigh the perceived drawbacks. Development of new material technologies will enable other applications for composites.
Marcus Mayers: As a by-product of the environmental agenda the composites industry will grow quicker; whether it’s reducing use of metals, or making things lighter, to the transport energy cost, composites have a role to play. I believe composites role will also grow in relation to miniaturisation and smaller batch runs. There will be a big push in rail to increase hotel services and free up more space for consumer equipment.
This can only be met through smaller equipment. If you take a water/cess tank as an example they are currently square and made from metal. The use of moulded composites will allow a water tank to be a very unusual shape and fit around mission critical equipment. The industry isn’t quite there in terms of confidence in the product or fully understand the price point advantage at a whole system level but programmes like the new tube train for London are starting to get designers thinking about trains differently. The applications to railway infrastructure are also extensive as people start to think about how to reduce the cost of installation through the use of light weight capital equipment. So much money is spent on manual handling in rail infrastructure, there has to be a better design of product to reduce it.
What are the barriers to growth and uptake of composites products in the rail industry and how do you think these barriers could be removed?
Kai Steinbach: From my experience there are three main barriers – small lot sizes, regulations and traditions. But on the other hand we have to remember that there are already a lot of composite solution in the rail industry which show that these barriers can be overcome or dealt with. I’m not sure if the composite industry should hope for a removal of these barriers, we should work more on proving that composites are well suited to deal with them. The future challenges for the rail industry will be growing demand for public transport or new comfort requirements which will lead to a deadly combination of less design space, higher structural weights and often regulated infrastructural capacities. Therefore, I can’t see how an increased use of composite material can be avoided in new rail projects.
Marcus Walls-Bruck: Composites are already widely used in areas such as interiors. Standards suitable for application of composites elsewhere in rail remains a challenge. Other industries, such as automotive and aerospace, have progressed composite technologies sufficiently that some of the legacy concerns have been significantly reduced.
Marcus Mayers: Critical to this is confidence and familiarity with composites and their characteristics. All the old engineers can tell you stories about carbon fibre technology dating back to the 1960’s and what went wrong. Getting the engineers to understand that technology has moved on and previous barriers have been resolved remains a challenge without the case studies. However, getting the same engineers to do a proof of concept can be exceptionally challenging. The situation is not helped by the failure of the industry to identify the key needs and value case it has for driving down costs. There is no USD $10,000 per kg metric like they have in air for rail. The separation of design and build also creates barriers as input based designs are the norm which excludes new technologies being used.
Infrastructure operators and some train companies are starting to look at how to address this gap. We see this through programme like the DB mindbox programmes or the porterbrook’s innovation hub. Giving space for low cost trials on railway equipment, to give others the confidence to build in the design and order.
What has been the most exciting development in the world of composites in the last couple of years?
Kai Steinbach: There are two things I’d like to mention here. The first is the fact itself that composites are today one material among many others. They have left the laboratories and conquered the shop floors. That’s frightening and challenging at the same time because it forces the composite industry to further constant improvement. And part of this challenge for constant improvement is the second fascinating thing I’m not only excited but also very proud of. The possibility of predicting the fatigue behaviour of composites as we’ve developed at the LZS is by many seen as one of the key steps toward the full predictability of mechanical behaviour. With these tools we can not only predict the lifetime of composites parts under stochastic fatigue loads we also can ensure that our customers get reliable and optimised products.
Marcus Walls-Bruck: In-process measurement and control for automated processing. The constituent materials of composites have inherent variability, so designing a rigid process often results in defects or wastage. Developments of intelligent processes able to overcome this variability will open new opportunities due to the increased repeatability and performance of parts enabling more efficient designs.
Marcus Mayers: For me it has to be the ability to make entire assemblies, such as wings and fuselage out of carbon fibre material. In the rail sector I’m forever being told that the product just won’t meet the fatigue and safety requirements of rail. When you can answer that with, ‘so what you do is more dangerous than safety critical systems in the sky’ you don’t give them a lot of room to carry on arguing their case. What underpins this is that the products are highly understood and perform within tolerance. It also means the repair and maintenance issues are becoming more manageable. All part of a journey towards the replacement of traditional materials.
You will be speaking at the Composites in Rail conference, could you give us a little preview on what you will be talking about?
Kai Steinbach: The talk will cover three major issues we’re facing in the development and usage of composite parts in rail applications. We will cover the use of thermoplastic materials, a new load introduction method for drive shafts and the problem of in-service repair of FRP components. With these topics I think we cover very interesting but challenging topics and I hope we can start some discussion with the audience how our approach and our solution may help them in their businesses.
Marcus Walls-Bruck: The benefits of composites, recent developments in both materials and processing technologies and how they could be transferred to rail applications.
Marcus Mayers: I will be talking about the barriers to delivering new products into rail, how you break these down and how to find the right application of your technology. I often talk to companies who have a great product, it probably could be a great product for the rail market to, but people who don’t know the sector start off assuming the requirements are the same as automotive or aerospace. To an extent they are right, but the value proposition is often entirely different. So I will speak about what is important in rail so people attending can start to understand how they need to amend their sales and business development strategies to make an impact on this market.