Leading rail manufacturer Alstom believes the continued adoption of advanced technologies and artificial intelligence is crucial to shaping the future of rail operations and maintenance.
Since the first steam railway line opened in Melbourne in the mid-1800s, the Australian rail industry has undergone significant transformation.
Rail has continuously evolved over the years, playing a pivotal role in shaping economies, meeting increasing transportation needs across the country, and linking people and places to keep Australia’s capital cities and regions connected.
As rail networks continue to expand across Australia, prioritising safety and proactive risk assessment is critical. The industry must address challenges to guarantee the safety, dependability and effectiveness of services for countless passengers and freight customers every day.
During the early days of rail, every aspect of maintaining rail infrastructure relied heavily on the physical labour of skilled workers. Track inspections required laborious hand-checking, and maintenance tasks involved hands-on repairs and replacements of components. Not only labour-intensive, manual processes also presented considerable challenges in achieving accuracy and efficiency.
More recently, rail has embraced the rapidly evolving technological landscape, harnessing cutting-edge technologies and innovative approaches to enhance safety, dependability and the overall passenger experience.
According to Alstom Australia and New Zealand Director of Services, Steven Harvey, the industry is experiencing a new era in rail where technological innovations and artificial intelligence are central to all operations and maintenance processes.
“Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the driving force propelling the rail industry forward, safeguarding safety, optimising efficiency and steering towards greener and more sustainable transportation solutions,” he said.
Smart maintenance through AI and robotics
The rail industry is undergoing rapid transformation thanks to digital technologies like AI and robotics.
“Alstom is at the forefront of this innovation, leveraging technology to enhance the proactive servicing and maintenance of trams and trains. By incorporating leading technologies and embracing digitalisation, autonomous operations are now made possible through AI,” Harvey said.
To enhance the effectiveness of train inspections, Alstom is leveraging a smart robot, aimed at predicting equipment failures and optimising maintenance schedules. This advanced robotic platform captures accurate data on the train’s health and integrates with Alstom’s bespoke AI solution.
The Alstom smart robot, based on the ANYmal technology, automatically captures videos and images of rail assets using a four-legged robot to move around the train, along the lateral side, roof and underbody of the carriage to gather inspection points.
The videos and images are uploaded to the cloud through a secure network and inspected using AI and conventional image processing algorithms. Automated processes locate any potential issues, such as checking the alignment of parts and detecting the presence of panels, transmitting inspection results in real-time to guide maintenance teams to make timely repairs.
“By seamlessly integrating artificial intelligence and robotics, we can better monitor the train’s condition. This translates to reduced downtime and heightened vehicle safety. With the application of technology, potential issues can be identified before they cause any disruptions to services,” Harvey said.
The smart robot can proactively identify small defects like absent screws which may not be visible to the naked eye, with early detection preventing breakdowns.
Using 3D mapping of a maintenance depot for autonomous missions, it adopts a comprehensive detection method, navigating autonomously on predefined routes. The analysis covers dynamic detection of parts both onboard and in the undercarriage of the train, creating a detailed real-time report of results.
“Artificial intelligence is a game changer in improving the speed and accuracy of track inspection, automating tasks and further ensuring safety so we can be one step ahead of any issues. The productivity gains are significant,” Harvey said.
With complete integration into the Alstom IT environment, the smart robot is compatible with HealthHub, Alstom’s bespoke solution for predictive maintenance and fleet management.
This innovative web-based platform analyses the data captured from railway systems: from trains, signalling and infrastructure. It offers a new approach to rail asset management through condition-based maintenance and provides greater efficiency in the overall maintenance process.
The data is processed with algorithms created by Alstom’s data scientists and displayed on an interactive dashboard in a way that anyone can understand.
Thanks to the massive volume of data collected, indicators can be created, such as the Health Index, which can be viewed by the operator, maintainer, transport authorities or vehicle owner.
These indicators reduce lifecycle costs by extending the remaining useful life of all types of rail equipment, saving up to 20 percent in preventive maintenance labour and 15 percent in materials consumption.
“Predictive maintenance with artificial intelligence means we can better understand how failure occurs to prevent it from happening again in the future. We instantly know if something is wrong with the train, thanks to real-time monitoring, and our maintenance teams can take swift action,” Harvey said.
Optimising resource allocation
By streamlining routine tasks and automating repetitive rail maintenance processes, the overall workload on maintenance staff is reduced. Employees can be reassigned and upskilled to other higher-level maintenance work requiring a greater depth of skill, allowing them to work on more complex projects and problem-solving.
“Artificial intelligence is fuelling a shift in the way we manage our operations and the accuracy it delivers is undoubtedly a key driver for adoption in the rail industry,” Harvey said.
“This not only enhances safety and reliability but also translates into substantial cost savings. We can free up valuable time, reduce unexpected disruptions and minimise time spent on emergency repairs.”
Predictive maintenance can also lower waste consumption. Because potential issues can be identified before they lead to major failures, they can be addressed early, increasing the lifespan of equipment and reducing the need for frequent replacements. Replacement parts are only ordered when needed, minimising the need for excess inventory.
Embracing sustainability in maintenance and servicing
Travel by rail is highly energy-efficient compared to other modes of transport, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometre and carrying large numbers of people or freight in a single trip.
The industry is facing a growing emphasis to adopt sustainable practices and technologies to reduce the sector’s environmental impact and promote more sustainable and efficient transportation systems.
Alstom has a global commitment towards sustainable mobility and strongly advocates for the decarbonisation of transport to create more environmentally friendly transport systems, with a global goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
Underpinning this commitment, and as sustainability becomes an important consideration for many businesses, predictive maintenance has been instrumental in supporting green mobility by tracking and reporting on reduced material consumption, downtime, and waste.
Equipment can also be optimised for energy savings. When machines are well-maintained, they tend to operate more efficiently, which can result in lower energy consumption and, consequently, reduce material usage for energy production or the wear and tear on energy-consuming components.
“We are continuously innovating and finding ways to make our trains more sustainable. Technology has been a significant factor in transforming the way routine servicing is carried out while reducing our impact on the environment,” Harvey said.
“In future, the potential exists to expand our use of robotics for interior car body inspections, for example, to check the expiry dates of fire extinguishers onboard our vehicles. The possibilities that AI can deliver are endless,” Harvey said.
Advancing rail with innovation
Expanding the application of AI and robotics in railway maintenance, Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, has rapidly developed over the past few decades.
This digital manufacturing technology allows for faster and more efficient product development, as changes can be quickly made at the prototype stage.
Bringing innovation to the rail industry through 3D printing represents a transformative leap in the design, production, and maintenance of railway components. Production times and costs are reduced by enabling the creation of intricate, customised parts with unprecedented precision and speed.
By incorporating 3D printing into the manufacturing process, rolling stock spare parts can be produced on-demand, mitigating downtime due to equipment failures and therefore increasing operational efficiency.
As a global initiative, Alstom has invested in a state-of-the-art 3D Printing Hub, located in Barcelona. With an in-house team of experts in this field, the purpose-built facility pioneered 3D printing at Alstom.
To date, the team has designed and printed more than 258 different types of rolling stock parts, with a total of 13,978 pieces manufactured. The impact of this work has achieved significant time savings equivalent to weeks of work.
This expertise is being leveraged in Australia, with Alstom recently launching its first 3D printing hub in Australia. With two cutting-edge 3D printers at the Dandenong manufacturing site in Melbourne, this technology is being used to support current projects such as the build of the Next Generation Trams.
The project will include the design, building and maintenance of the new G Class trams, which are set to start rolling out from 2025.
“In an industry that has stood the test of time, it’s exciting to see how the application of technology and artificial intelligence is making great advances in rail,” Harvey said.
Visit Alstom at stand 312 in the AusRAIL PLUS exhibition hall for an interactive demonstration of the smart robot proactively identifying defects and issues. The conference is on from November 13-17.