AusRAIL, Operations & Maintenance, Research & Development

Locally grown: The in-house, Australian R&D behind every Speno grinder

Speno truck-based utility switch grinder

As a local manufacturer of rail grinding equipment, Speno Rail Maintenance Australia is providing a complete solution.

Speno rail grinders in operation around Australia and NZ are designed, manufactured, and assembled in Western Australia. While a major provider of grinding equipment and services to the Australasian market, Speno Rail Maintenance Australia (SRMA) is also part of Australia’s rail manufacturing ecosystem, with significant operations in the Perth metro area.

To get an understanding of how the company takes an idea through the research and development process to providing a customer with a final solution, Rail Express spoke with Speno’s general manager Mark Green and technical manager Justin Tysoe.

For every project that Speno works on, the impetus to design and build a new piece of equipment comes from the specific requirements of each individual client, creating purpose-built bespoke machines. Recently, with more light rail networks becoming operational around Australia, Tysoe’s team were tasked to come up with a solution for this expanding genre of the market.

“Currently we are designing a new mini grinder – a truck-based, utility switch grinder.”

The truck-mounted design is an extremely flexible solution, capable of complying to a client’s specifications. The key advantage behind the truck-mounted utility switch grinder, when compared to a rail-bound switch grinder, is that the truck is able to access track and complete the grind with minimal interruptions to train running, where a rail-bound switch grinder must travel on track and have train paths booked – consuming revenue train paths.

One of the challenges for traditional grinders working on light rail networks is the increase in grade.

“If you take a traditional rail network, they’re normally only at two to three per cent grade,” said Tysoe. “When you are looking now at light rail, we’re looking at some much higher grades – up to seven per cent. That gives completely different requirements for traction systems.”

Another challenge is the reduced kinetic envelope. As vehicles on light rail tracks travel through densely populated areas there is less room for large equipment and machinery. In addition, as the name suggests, the weight that light rail track can carry is reduced.

“The rail grinder has got to be narrower and lighter because unlike something designed for heavy haul railways, where they’re running 40-tonne axle loads, now you want to run on a network where they’ve got 15-tonne axle loads,” said Tysoe.

“You’ve got to have smaller, lighter equipment to be able to run on those light rail networks. These are completely different scenarios, which is also why we do a lot of the R&D in Australia.”

Environmental requirements must be taken into account when designing a new machine, as complying to the regulations is critical for the sustainability of the country and business.

With these requirements in mind, the next stage for Speno is to develop a concept model. Using digital design tools, Tysoe and the manufacturing team create mock-ups of the equipment prior to assembly.

“We do a vast amount of 3D modelling and engineering. Before we make anything, we might look at many different ideas then design and refine them until you get to a design to manufacture. The 3D model allows us to look at the interaction of various components simultaneously,” said Tysoe.

The computer-based design tools also utilise the database that Speno has built up after half a century of operating in Australia so that rather than starting from scratch, experience and expertise are designed into each product.

“If it’s a completely new concept, we build a prototype and evaluate it in the real world, so that you get a tactile feel for it, but a lot of the times you’re working on the experience of things that you’ve done in the past,” said Tysoe. “A lot of the work that we’ll do is evolution, rather than revolution.”

With a design now firmly determined, Speno turns to its manufacturing partners to finalise the product design.

“Anything that can be manufactured in Australia we manufacture in Australia,” said Tysoe. “We work closely with different engineering companies and fabrication companies nationally, and we currently utilise over 150 local suppliers.”

Throughout the design process, the end goal of the functionality of the equipment is always front of mind. As Green explains, the design and engineering are only as good as the outcome it can produce.

“Every operator’s desire is to perform as much maintenance on track as they can in the least amount of time, and that’s where the R&D is really driven from; the need to get on track and off track as quickly as possible, grind as accurately as possible, and provide the desired level of service for the client.”

In the 17 years that Tysoe has been with Speno, the focus on improving each product to meet these demands has been measurable.

“When I first started, we would be grinding at about 5km/h and doing three to six passes. Now, we have machines that can grind and do the entire profile in one pass at 25km/h. You’ve gone from a three-hour window where you might be lucky if you did two to three kilometres to now doing 75km in the same window.”

For Speno, the work that is performed on the equipment in the workshop is about maximising the amount of time a client’s railway is able to be productive. Speno has been at the forefront of working closely with their clients to achieve desirable, easy to apply and maintain solutions, resulting in tangible successes for both companies and the partnership.

“For every hour that you are on track conducting maintenance, that’s an hour that our clients are not moving rollingstock on track, whether that be passengers or freight,” said Tysoe. “A reduction in track time equates to productivity improvements for the client.”

While improvements to the machinery and the way that it operates is part of achieving this goal, current work within Speno is also looking at how to utilise digital data to improve the efficiency of maintenance activities. However, said Green, the approach that Speno takes is one that provides the complete solution from inception to operation and beyond.

“Many companies find managing and interpreting data challenging, and as such do not fully benefit from the significant value adding potential, correct data and analytics can add to their business and assets. Speno has taken the approach with our R&D of not providing large volumes of data to our clients to sort through to find the answer. Our aim is to provide the best solution from that data. Everything that we’re doing here is aimed at assisting the client’s understanding of the condition of their network, at commencement through to completion, using a data analytics solution.”

Speno’s operations in Australia are supported by the global heft of Speno International. Headquartered in Switzerland, the company has subsidiaries in Japan and Italy, in addition to SRMA, and provides rail grinding services to a wide range of railways, including high- speed rail and heavy haul networks in Japan and Europe.

“The name ‘Speno’ is renowned internationally for quality and precision, a reputation well deserved through decades of determination and focus on being the best. Countries such as Japan and Switzerland, where they are operating high- speed passenger networks, would not take unnecessary risks with quality, reliability, and safety by engaging a service provider who does not deliver to the highest standards. SRMA’s ethics and operations stem from the same level of quality assurance and responsibility, we must perform to exceptional standards to support our client’s operational requirements,” said Green.

In Australia, while governance and support comes from the international parent company, Speno is proud to be part of Australia’s manufacturing landscape with Australian designed, manufactured and locally supported equipment and personnel.

“The advantage of having something locally built is that we can support it,” said Tysoe. “If you’ve got a problem we’re here, we’re in Australia, we can manufacture the components here, using Australian-based people”.

“As we have experienced with COVID 19, with overseas trade and travel restrictions, the value of having a local manufacturer and supplier of rail equipment has become more important than ever for the success of the Australian rail networks,” said Green.