Finding the right solutions…

Posted on 28 Oct 2008 by The Manufacturer

Andy Millar, engineering design manager of Bombardier Rail Control Solutions, describes how working in collaboration with a higher education institution through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership enabled his company to develop a product that is both innovative and marketable

Rising material costs and other growing sector pressures mean that we, as manufacturers, need to be developing products that have maximum market impact – while at the same time being cost effective.

Bombardier Rail Control Solutions is a world leader in the rail equipment manufacturing and servicing industry. It is a division of Bombardier Transportation – a company with operations in more than 35 countries.

With such an extensive global reach, the pressure on the Plymouth site to innovate and succeed in the market increases year-on-year. It must always find new ways of developing low cost innovative products that will ensure industry progression and the fulfilment of company expectations.

In order to move ahead of the competition, the next step in product design was all about taking the market lead by developing a completely new solution to a growing problem in the sector.

The technological obstacle

The Plymouth site has been developing and maintaining railway signalling products for over 30 years. However, it was entering a new era in which modern trains were being developed with varying and increasingly complex designs.

This posed a challenge to the company and to its competitors as it had to ensure that the train detection technology it offered was able to accommodate these new trains.

Train designs are continuously developing with newer high powered electrical trains containing ever more complex control systems making it extremely difficult to prove that detection systems will always work effectively. It was
therefore essential that a new piece of technology was developed to ensure that any type of train travelling on a track at any one time was safely and reliably detected by the train detection system situated along the train tracks.

Furthermore, recent regulatory requirements, such as the draft European Interoperability Standard, has put increasingly stringent technical requirements on train detection systems, meaning the process for demonstrating safety has risen considerably, which in turn has raised the level of safety engineering required. Therefore Bombardier Rail Control Solutions wanted to develop a product that helped its customers demonstrate safety in the simplest
and most cost effective manner.

The aim was to develop the next generation of train detection systems. The system would need to recognise only one type of unique transmission code – that of the transmission on the track detection system – and one that was completely unaffected by external factors, such as the electrical noise of the train, or signals ‘leaking through’ from other parts of the train detection system.
Finding a completely new solution for determining the location of any type of train on a railway track was crucial to continued commercial viability. However, the company knew that this would require a completely new approach
grounded in mathematics as opposed to traditional
engineering processes.

The collaborative partnership In 2005 the EEF made a general visit to the Plymouth site.

The visit was to promote companies running in the style of SMEs. Understanding the site’s intentions, the EEF representative introduced the firm to the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) – a government funded programme intent on promoting innovation within the UK economy. The KTP project is a three-way partnership between a company, which has a specific and strategic project, a
knowledge base (academic or research institution) that has skills relevant to the project, and a high calibre associate (recently qualified person) who works in the company on the project, while being supported by the knowledge base. After outlining the possible benefits of the KTP programme, the EEF put the Plymouth site in touch with a representative from Plymouth University.

Having never come across the KTP programme before, the company instantly realised that it could play a key role in its new product development strategy. After thorough investigation and several meetings with KTP advisors and
representatives from Plymouth University, the project was begun in 2006.

The KTP partnered Bombardier Rail Control Solutions with the satellite communications team at Plymouth University and a graduate engineering associate, Jing Cai. Under the project, Cai became a full time member of the Bombardier team and set out to help find a new solution for detecting
trains on the track. There was continuous three-way interaction between Cai,
Bombardier’s engineers and the team of academics at Plymouth University. Cai was supported by two academic supervisors who helped with the research process and there was also a dedicated programme manager based at the University who helped to ensure that the process kept moving in the right direction.

Prior to this, the site had been trying to find a suitable way of working with local universities for a number of years, but needed to effectively balance the needs of both parties. As a company, Bombardier has tight timeframes with which to
complete projects in order to keep pace in the business world. In contrast, it found that universities prioritise the research methods and don’t necessarily adhere to those strict timelines. Finally, it had found a way of working with
a higher education institution that enabled all parties to collaborate in an effective and time sensitive way.

As project manager, I oversaw the project from day one. I managed the development of Cai and the Bombardier engineering team who were working closely alongside each other. The interchange of knowledge and information
between Cai and the engineering team proved incredibly successful in bringing this product to its fruition. We helped to develop Cai’s technical approach to ensure that the theory could stand up in the real world. At the same time, we significantly developed our understanding of the latest techniques being led by the University’s research team.

The design process

Before Cai could undertake the more detailed design work, we had a number of meetings to establish the best way forward. After a few months of deliberation and initial research into different train detection systems, it emerged that the technical solution that we desired was actually more complex than previously envisaged. In a way, this whetted the appetites of the University research
team as they saw that there was real potential to develop a product that was innovative and unique, and that could have real world implications.

We set out on the design process with Cai, who generally worked for four days a week in the Plymouth offices and one day a week at the University’s research department. During her day at the University, Cai would report back on
any findings and describe any obstacles. The research team could then look into any issues and help to find ways of solving them.

Historically, train detection systems worked by an electrical signal being short circuited when a train travels over the tracks, and if no signal is detected by the receiver this determines that a train is on the tracks. When a signal is
received, this signifies that there is no train on the track.

However, the modern crop of high powered trains makes it very difficult for the detection systems to distinguish between interference from trains passing by from a different track to that of the actual train on the tracks. We needed to
unequivocally prove that any electrical signal received by the detection system – irrespective of levels of sensitivity – was from that of the tracks it was detecting.

The breakthrough

Cai proposed a mathematically-led software simulation approach to our research – enabling her to test out different situations and investigate scenarios that we had previously been unable to delve into. Using satellite communications
principles, which can cut through interference, we were able to mathematically prove the system’s reliability in a way that traditional engineering-led testing could not.

As a result, the technology that was developed was the first of its kind and as such is being patented – the first product in over 19 years for the Plymouth site. In Junethis year, Bombardier successfully trialled the product at a Network Rail demonstration, proving that it was indeed an innovative breakthrough.

Following its launch in March, the company has received keen interest from existing customers who have been waiting for such a solution ever since the dawn of new high powered trains. Talks are also underway with the Indian, Korean and Estonian markets about future purchases. Bombardier Rail Control Solutions Plymouth had made a product that was both innovative in its design but was also incredibly marketable.


The KTP project provided a platform for the Plymouth site to spread its creative wings and delve into an area of research in which it had no prior understanding. It needed to add value to its business and so needed to maximise its product offering and develop something that was unique and innovative, yet simple and cost effective.

When working together all parties were able to bring different tools and techniques to the table. We had a common purpose and all wanted to achieve the same final result. Our experience proved that design and innovation should be driven by the collaboration and I believe that this approach could prove key to UK manufacturing sector growth.