Operations & Maintenance, Plant, Machinery & Equipment, Rolling stock & Rail Vehicle Design

Making rail parts talk

Bonnie Ryan, GS1 Australia director – freight, logistics and industrial sectors, on barcoding and the innovative i-TRACE program.

Please explain how Project i-TRACE provides the building blocks for digitalisation in the rail industry and how is barcoding the first step to digitalisation?

Project i-TRACE offers a framework of data standards that enables interoperability of business communication across the value chain. In respect of materials in the rail sector, the first critical element is to have a common and consistent (digital) understanding of what something is, and then have the ability to automatically capture data about it and ultimately exchange that information with relevant stakeholders. To enable this, there are foundational building blocks that need to be put in place and this is what Project i-TRACE is all about. Globally unique and unambiguous identification of everything, along with physical marking by way of barcoding and/or tagging of parts and components means every stakeholder in the chain is able to capture and accurately interpret information that can then be utilised in a range of processes, including maintenance, logistics, and of course asset management processes.

What are the benefits of barcoding for the rail industry?

Barcoding (or tagging) allows critical data to be electronically captured at point of use or point of interest. Using barcoding technologies is not new but it is still as relevant and important today as it was when it first launched 50 years ago; in fact, it is more critical than ever as all industries increase their digitalisation efforts and needing to deliver ever increasing amounts of information to the user; it is ubiquitous and can be applied in a myriad of applications. A real example in the ‘here and now’ is the country wide COVID check in system at every physical location, it relies on a QR code to capture the who/when/where data that is so critical to the COVID contact tracing efforts.

By a simple scan, often with nothing more than a Smart device, barcoding in the rail industry is starting to be used as a digital pointer to access critical safety information such as electronic installation instructions of the object that is being installed, and importantly, together with correct identification, the source of the information can be easily verified so it offers trust in the information being accessed.

How does barcoding an object digitalise it? Is that like creating a digital twin?

A barcode (or tag) provides the bridge between the physical and digital world; it is physically tied to an object and electronically tied to the object’s digital record. It is a fundamental building block to creating a true digital twin.

How specifically does barcoding provide the link from the physical object to the data about the object?

The barcode itself is simply a technology that allows automatic scanning or reading via a scanning device – by scanning directly from the object upon which the barcode is affixed, provides access to the data about that object.  The importance of standardising the format of the barcode and the data encoded in it provides interoperability so that it can be interpreted by whichever system is going to use the data. Anyone can put any old barcode on something and encode anything they like but if it doesn’t adhere to an agreed standard, it won’t make sense to anyone else other than the person/company that applied it and therefore will have very limited value. Project i-TRACE offers the digital framework for barcoding/tagging and encoding particular data that everyone in the industry can utilise because it is standardised.

Bonnie Ryan, GS1.

How does physically marking and identifying objects in the rail sector improve safety? Does it help with predictive maintenance?

Firstly, accurate and unambiguous identification of an object means there is no misunderstanding about what something is and having access to relevant data about that object ensures information is delivered in a timely fashion to those that need it. Digitalising the information required to undertake maintenance activities and being able to capture those activities and share those events through the life of an object or an asset aids the reliability of the whole process which ultimately improves safety because there is the opportunity to have full traceability. With this in mind, the ability to record and exchange maintenance data will, over time build intelligence to support the analytics required to achieve predictive maintenance.

Would you say that barcoding makes rail parts talk?

Yes, I guess you could say that – the barcode that bridges the object to its digital record means you can access the story about that object, and indeed build on that story as processes like maintenance and repair happen over its lifecycle.

Can you provide some interesting examples of where Project i-TRACE has been deployed? And how it has made a positive impact?

Here in Australia, there are regulations under the Criminal Act that require manufacturers to supply installation instructions with their products. Today, these are largely still paper based which poses a risk for manufacturers because although the manufacturer can include the installation manual with product upon despatch, the fact is they lose visibility of what happens to that manual once it leaves their control, so there is no assurance for the manufacturer that the ultimate installer will have the manual at his/her disposal when they need it, and this creates a point of exposure for the manufacturer. Let’s take an example of a safety critical object such as a point machine that is to be installed somewhere on the network. By implementing Project i-TRACE, the installer could simply scan the barcode on the product and automatically retrieve an electronic copy of the correct installation manual for that particular machine directly from the manufacturer, right there on site, at the point of use where it is most critical. Furthermore, that same installer could lodge a record of the time and place of the installation of that machine via a work order system and share that data to an asset management system for example, providing another chapter to the story of that point machine. 

Obviously there needs to be back-office systems capable of capturing and sharing this information but such is the efficiency that Project i-TRACE brings to a process like this that Siemens Mobility are in the process of rolling Project i-TRACE out across its    network globally.

There is a great webinar that the Australasian Railway Association hosted recently where Sydney Trains, Siemens, Pandrol and Cold Forge all talk about their implementations and the benefits they are deriving. The webinar is great viewing and can be watched via YouTube here.