Digitalization Turns 50 Year Old Wabtec Plants Into Smart Super Facilities

Digitalization Turns 50 Year Old Wabtec Plants Into Smart Super Facilities
Industry Week September 2021
By Peter Fretty

A lot has changed across the global transportation market over the decades. An ongoing mix of regulations and customer expectations has put steady pressure on manufacturers to continuously evolve their offerings year after year. This is not only for automakers, but also for heavy transport providers like Wabtec, who produces offerings for marine and rail applications.

Of course, this type of evolution doesn’t just happen. It requires significant ongoing investments in talent and technology.

Case in point: Over the last few years, such investments have enabled Wabtec to position its Grove City, Pennsylvania plant into what the company calls “brilliant factories.”


A look inside Grove City

Grove City is home to two Wabtec plants, employing roughly 1000 people. The engine plant is a 440,000 square foot engine plant is responsible for engine assembly, machining and testing of a variety of Wabtec products. With a total production of approximately 3,000+ engines a year, it is one of the largest locomotive diesel engine manufacturing sites in the world, 60 percent of which go overseas.

Wabtec has five main platforms it uses to serve the marine and locomotive freight space and the stationary power space. Today, engineering advances enable Wabtec to meet tier four emission standards in the U.S., as well as similar standards in Europe, making it one of the few large diesel engine manufacturers doing so without using aftermarket treatments like DEF or urea. Being the only provider to have a non-urea, non-DEF solution in the marine space has caused a lot of different companies to look at Wabtec differently, as a cleaner solution – not only meeting stringent requirements but saving money as well.

The remanufacturing plant is a 240,000 square foot remanufacturing plant serves as the primary facility for routine overhauls of existing locomotive engines. Remanufacturing involves taking an engine apart, typically down to its frame, and then completely rebuilding it. Between the two plants, Wabtec services a global install base of 26,000 locomotives across 46 different countries.

Wabtec remanufactures between 1500-3000 engines each year. And, because all Wabtec locomotives have remote monitoring, the manufacturer has access to a steady stream of statistics including runtime and duty cycle parameters, which helps determine pressing needs throughout the remanufacturing process.

“Having that data enable us to make supply chain decisions from a procurement standpoint, and also helps determine how much work needs to go into that engine,” says Marty Thomas, Wabtec group vice president for services, which includes remanufacturing as well as new engine manufacturing globally. “It helps pinpoint your cost. You want to produce the most reliable product meeting customer expectation at the right cost footprint to not only remain competitive, but also provide cost savings.”

But what makes these plants brilliant?

As with many transformations taking place today, digital technology takes center stage including a mix of big data, software, sensors, controllers and robotics. Some specific technology includes a camera detection system to automatically detect production progress; smart tools like position sensing torque tools to provide an ergonomic advantage, and error proof critical manufacturing processes; digital smart gauges eliminating operator keystrokes and providing a more consistent error proof way to measure quality; RFID technology to automatically track the position and location of critical assemblies and parts as they flow through lines; and the ability for plant staff to check the current status of any machine, cell or line from their mobile devices in real time. When coupled with a coupled with a lean culture, these fully integrated systems are unlocking significant productivity improvements including a 20% reduction in unplanned down time and 10% productivity improvement for shop floor connected machines.

Metal additive has also been a game changer, explains Thomas. “Our additive lab can rapid prototype a part in a day,” he says. “Obviously, we would love additive manufacturing to start to be cost efficient enough for us to be able to run production runs, but it’s now quite there yet. Having metal spray additive capability here allows us to remanufacture engines and add metal to existing parts rather than scrapping an old part.”

Additionally, digital twin technology has allowed Wabtec to create a true a digital footprint using several digital threads to power comprehensive reliability and predictive models – representing a step function change foundationally for the manufacturing, allowing it to competitively overhaul engines while installing fewer new parts during the remanufacturing process.

Challenging opportunity

As transportation gravitates towards a more sustainable future, the pull intensifies for future fuels including natural gas, biofuels, battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells. “When you have an installed base as large as we do, it’s a challenge to transition older technologies to more sustainable solutions,” he says. “It will be a walk with our customers to see what their adaption rate is, or how they’re going to adapt their business practices to a new technology. A lot of our customers are interested in converting internal combustion engines to burn hydrogen.”

While Wabtec is making strategic investments across the board, the challenge is addressing and weighing global differences. Wabtec is fortunate to have a large engineering base in Grove City. “These onsite engineers are key enablers positioning us for the future as we develop solutions like burning hydrogen, biofuels blends and natural gas engines,” says Thomas. “We make more engines for international markets today than the US, and all of our customers have sustainability commitments to their investors that they’re going to achieve. As they develop their own path or solution, we have to be ready with solutions to fit.”