Bridge Landscape (2)
Bridge Landscape (2)
Bridge Landscape (2)
Bridge Landscape (2)
Bridge Landscape (2)

It All Adds Up

Dec. 7, 2020
Wabtec combines additive technology and patented innovation to keep locomotives on track.
Editor's Note: Wabtec CTO Eric Gebhardt will speak at the 2021 Manufacturing & Technology Show, Nov. 9-11, in Cleveland. His topic: Leveraging Emerging Technologies to Drive Sustainability. 

With 27,000 employees in 50 countries, Pittsburgh-based Wabtec Corp. is firmly entrenched within the freight and transit rail sector suppling equipment, systems, digital solutions and value-added services such as remote monitoring and diagnostics.

However, what makes Wabtec unique is the company's commitment to technology and innovation while delivering entire systems. “We've been at the forefront of shaping and transforming the industry for 150 years – a tradition that goes all the way back to George Westinghouse's air brake invention,” says Wabtec CTO Eric Gebhardt. “Our many inventions after that have really built off the engineering and manufacturing expertise around us.” So much so that Wabtec currently sports approximately 6000 patents in its portfolio. This year alone, Wabtec was issued roughly 300 patents.

Gebhardt tells IndustryWeek, Wabtec takes pride in its deeply established customer relationships. “Being local, especially within the rail industry, is very important to serve our customers properly, and understand their unique needs around the world. This is what makes us a market leader in many of the solutions we provide,” says Gebhardt. “Whether it's brake systems, pantographs, diesel engines, propulsion systems for mining, or software solutions for ports, railroads and mines. Combining the technology and innovation with solid relationships enables us to always stand behind our equipment. We're always upgrading and making our equipment more efficient and more reliable.” 

Innovative empowerment

Considering its rich history of constantly innovating, the idea of keeping rail operators efficient is a key focus area for Wabtec. Let’s take a look at a few instances:

Innovative energy management. Wabtec recently demonstrated its innovation efforts by placing a completely battery-driven locomotive into a consist of other diesel electric locomotives to drive the fuel efficiency of the overall system (see video). “When adding a battery electric locomotive in the mix, dynamic braking can charge the batteries and offset the use of diesel later on in the in the trip,” he says. “This works in a manner very similar to how electric vehicles use regenerative braking. It’s a big step forward for our overall technology.”

Understandably, energy management is an ongoing area of interest for Wabtec. And as the trucking industry explores using the hydrogen fuel cell, Wabtec is also paying close attention with an eye on how it could find its way into the transport sector going forward. 

“What's exciting for Wabtec is that it's really about plugging in different energy management system. Many of the other aspects – the power conversion equipment to traction motors – remain the same,” he says. “This is an exciting one with lots of opportunities. We are working with one of the class one operators, and with the California Air Resources Board. It's going to have the ability to have more than 10% improvement in fuel efficiency."

Solutions to improve tractive effort.  This is crucial because operators are very focused on getting more pulling from the same horsepower. “One of the keys to locomotives is that it's not how much horsepower you have, it is how much tractive effort - pushing the train forward as it goes from the wheel to the rail,” he says. Accomplishing goals here involves the integration of significantly innovative technology.

Optimization opportunities. “How do we create more automation tools to assist engineers and operators on the locomotives? Positive train control and trip optimizer are great steps here,” says Gebhardt. “We're also working on a zero-to-zero technology to make sure that we're optimizing all the fuel management. We're also making sure we're optimizing the braking systems across the entire mission profile of the train.”

Taking it a step further, as Wabtec steps into the rail yard and the ports, it now has digital technologies to optimize those environments as well to make sure container movements are handled in optimal fashion. “We know where all the containers are very similar to what Amazon would do with one of its fulfillment centers or warehouses,” he says.

Adding to the mix

Of course, being able to deliver innovative solutions often starts with a dedication to leveraging the latest technologies in-house. This holds true for Wabtec where additive is increasingly playing a more active role in its manufacturing strategy. 

“Considering the type of products we are manufacturing, such as heat exchangers, we have the opportunity to get into these geometries because with additive complexity is free,” he says. “It actually costs more to print just a square block than it does to print an intricate lattice pattern. Because it's all really just around how much material you're using and how much time it takes.”

Additive is also really helping with fuel models. “We have some added a few models that we're working on today to help better mix the fuel as it's going into cylinders. By doing that we're getting better emissions, lower particulate matter, and better and better fuel efficiency all simultaneously. It is rewarding to realize what's possible through the additive technologies.”

Another example? The small pilot holes built into some of Wabtec’s braking systems are difficult to produce using traditional subtractive manufacturing processes because they lack a line of site to drilling. With additive, Wabtec can build print them in place. “What I really like about additive is that it removed engineering constraints that often restrict shapes because of traditional machining concerns,” says Gebhardt. “With additive, engineers are unleashed to really push the physics-based boundaries of their designs.”

As Wabtec continues to embrace additive, there has been somewhat of a learning curve around materials. Currently, the company is printing in stainless steel, inconel and just starting to print in aluminum. “As you add new materials, you have to make sure that you understand the properties,” he says. “I do not see it holding us back, but it's something where we want to make sure we're doing the necessary testing to make sure it meets all of our standards.”

Embracing the role

The CTO role is an exciting one that multi-dimensional and has changed over time, and also requires a multidisciplinary understanding, explains Gebhardt. “At Wabtec, it means understanding mechanical systems, electrical systems, software analytics, and how all of those come together to provide solutions that provide customer benefits,” he says.

CTOs today also need to embrace disruptive trends. “What are the key disruptions that are that are coming—additive, artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy? However, beyond the technologies, you need to watch adjacent industries. For us that includes changes in the trucking and marine industries, as well as some of the supply chain initiatives with Amazon and others. All of these aspects can disrupt where our industry is going.”

A big part of Gebhardt job? “Making the engineers job easier by making sure they have the right tools, the right training and the right leadership to be productive and innovative,” he says. “And then always driving all of this with integrity, inclusion and diversity as we as we build out the best technology.”

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