Matthew Jenner
Business Line Manager – General Industry
Atlas Copco



Peter Mitchinson
Area Sales Manager
Atlas Copco


Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Matthew Jenner and Peter Mitchinson of Atlas Copco about its innovative equipment, collaborating with industry and getting rail up to code on data-driven technology.

SSH: Tell us about these innovative solutions from Atlas Copco.

MJ: What we’re trying to do is transform the way that customers not only produce equipment for the rail industry but also how they maintain it in MRO facilities. The impact of our smarter solutions for assembly and maintenance is creating efficiencies for the customer, as well as creating opportunities to move towards a decarbonised rail network.

Our customers are companies that produce the rolling stock and also those which operate MRO facilities, so we support both manufacturers and operators. Atlas Copco can deliver solutions across the whole sector, so if there is a factory building digital signalling equipment, then we are able to provide solutions for them to enhance what they do. As a holistically focused business, we’re looking at the rail industry as a whole, although much of our growth to date has come from supporting rolling stock manufacture.

We break down our general industry portfolio into segments. One of those segments specifically looks at Rail and we’ve designed bespoke products to support that industry. As the rail sector has moved towards digitalization and having smart factories that produce their equipment, we’ve come along with them by offering those solutions that can transform them to that point.

SSH: So what kind of solutions are we talking about?

PM: If you look at how the rail sector operates, it is still using basic equipment like hand torque wrenches and air powered nutrunners that tighten to specific, often high, torques. So one of the products that we have introduced is our smart torque wrench. This is a transducerized, calibrated instrument that can apply torque across a range of values, which means that one smart wrench can replace three or four basic click-type torque wrenches, and give them traceability of the tightening data which can be sent to the network and stored for reference and analysis.

Another product is our transducerized high torque nutrunners, these are power tools that apply torque across a range and records data on the network. These are usually used on safety critical and quality critical tightening processes.

SSH: What kind of leap forward does this represent, what is the innovation within this technology?

PM: Previously the torque value might have been recorded in paper form, so there’s a reliance on the operator to record that information, whereas our technology records the tightening data automatically, during the tightening process. Once it’s complete the information is then stored in the controller or it’s sent directly to the customer’s own network. There is a lot of reliance on the operator to apply the correct torque value and then record that as well. With the tooling that’s being used now, such as basic torque wrenches, there’s also a lot of over processing. For example, it’s not uncommon for the user to take the torque wrench, then walk to the end of the factory, test the wrench to make sure it’s set to the correct torque and then they’ll go back to do the job. Despite doing this, we still don’t know if the correct torque has been applied, so an operator could over torque a bolt and there’s no real control or traceability of the process.

SSH: How important is that data that they can collect? Do you have access to it?

PM: The data that is available from the tools is an important selling point of the solutions that we’re offering. At the moment, there’s a lot of paper documentation, so having this data means that they can show their customers they’ve had a specific carriage into maintenance and correctly overhauled it, and reassembled it with the correct torque values based on the data obtained from the tools on the line, all recorded against the rail car number or the job number that they’re working on.

This kind of documentation gives their customer peace of mind that they’re carrying out the process in the right way, but it also reduces the risk of assembly errors and any costs for them further down the line.

MJ: It goes beyond peace of mind; their customers are now mandating that they must gather that data and they must have that level of traceability. So that if there is an issue out in the field, it can be traced back.

The data is there for the customer and it’s there for the manufacturer to make improvements to their tightening processes. In terms of whether we have access to the data as the tool supplier, generally the answer is no, but that’s the next evolution that some customers are working to now where we are able to support them with predictive maintenance through systems that can learn from the data that’s being generated and then help customers to take proactive steps. That’s where we’re starting to see development going, provided the customers are willing to work with us and offer us access to that level of data.

SSH: So the data has multiple applications and presumably the more eyes on it the better?

MJ: Exactly, our data collection tool is actually a data analysis tool. Th manufacturing engineer can look at the analysis produced and see how things are trending. They’re really empowered to be able to analyse their work with our software tools and then make improvements to their own processes. The next level on top is that we can give them the capability for either us to look at it and make proactive recommendations and support them with our AI engine which does the same thing.

It’s a case where other industries are a little bit further ahead; Atlas Copco serves a varied amount of manufacturing from automotive production to building wind turbines to building electronic boards for smart phones. The learning and that breadth of product that we put into developing other industry segments is something that we can offer straight away into rail customers as they come on their journey with data.

SSH: What’s the direction of travel for this technology?

MJ: There is the pull coming from the very end rail operator, up to the manufacturer and then up to us and there’s also a push from what we know we can offer. So, we’re actively promoting ourselves into the rail industry with that in mind.

The core of what we do is very assembly centric, so torque tightening and then all the systems that support that which is expanding all the time. For example, we offer location systems that will control where the tool is and only activate it when it’s in the right location to be doing that particular joint. We offer operator guidance to make sure things are done right first time. Then beyond that, we talked about the AI technology that recommends real time predictive maintenance activities to the customer. All of this builds into fully integrating it into the customer’s MES or Manufacturing Execution System. So that connectivity element is really important. We offer complementary technologies. At the core of it, we’re tightening the bolt, but we’re actually offering everything that allows the customer to record and analyse the data to control the quality and to guide the operator and fully connect to their plant.

That level of integration is the peak of the pyramid, but not every customer wants that right now, so we’re certainly flexible in our approach.

SSH: How have you found working with those different companies in the rail industry, specifically the openness to data sharing?

PM: The rail industry is notoriously resistant to change, they are traditional in the way they do things. This transformation that we’re doing is something that is probably going to take a number of years. There are different segments like repair and overhaul and then there’s freight and the passenger side of the business, so there’s a lot to cover but we feel there’s good potential to transform the industry.

SSH: What were your expectations coming into this and have they been realised?

PM: One customer was looking for better process control which fits in perfectly wit what we could offer and do for them. We always knew that for rail there was a better way to work but the hard bit was convincing them and getting them to understand the technology and understand the benefits of working this way. So that’s still a challenge in terms of developing our business within rail, to get them to understand the benefit of what we can do and how it can help them be more efficient.

The traditional supply chain relationship within an industry is being redefined. This is not a case of a customer just wanting a supplier to provide something. What Atlas Copco is demonstrating is, through strategic partnership, they are helping a customer and de facto an industry to really make significant advancements, not just from a product quality perspective but also from a business, cost efficiency and general industry advancement. By embedding in with customers and saying we can help you with costs, we can help you with quality, we can help you with sustainable operations by using tooling that takes out the traditional pneumatic style of tools. It creates so much added value beyond simply supplying a prepackaged solution.

SSH: What are some successes you have had in other areas of the rail industry?

MJ: We talked about one of the drivers for the rolling stock itself being the classification of the joints, some of which are safety critical and then we need the right solutions and data to support that. Similarly, if you’re looking at digital infrastructure like signalling, this is a safety critical device that the industry is using, and to support the manufacturing of something like that we use very similar technology but applied at a different level. If you’re talking electronics, we have our micro-torque screwdrivers which are capable of delivering very, very small but accurate torque to screws that might be using electronics. And we’ve got the full quality control to ensure correct torque and angle and the data is recorded.

Before this they might have been using a very basic clutch screwdriver that would maybe not be accurate in terms of the torque level it was delivering, and then you potentially face problems with that joint later on.

Also, as Pete said, the level of consistency would depend on the operator. So you might have one operator that potentially could be in a position where they over-torque something, another operator hits it bang on and another operator might slightly under-torque, but we won’t know until after the event if ever it came back to the rework, which obviously has its associated costs in labour, time and materials. That’s really expensive for a rail operator or an MRO. This is what this whole system is designed to help the customer alleviate.

With the smart solutions you take out the possibility of errors, because the tool will not allow the operator to move on in the sequence unless the correct torque value is met. The tool can help the operator to follow the work sequence, which improves efficiency as well as consistency.

PM: In terms of identifying opportunities within rail, what we’ve experienced with other industries is that human beings will make mistakes. So, the idea is that our solutions will eliminate errors and guide the operator through the process and then also give them the information to support tha as well in terms of data.

It’s the ultimate provenance, you can trace that tightening all the way back, so in situations further down the line there is that all important traceability to show that a particular bolt was done up in accordance with the correct procedure which stops it from becoming a point of failure. The data is there in black and white for perpetuity. MJ: Atlas Copco’s ‘Alture’ system is already being used with customers outside the rail industry. It’s a compelling application because there should be a lot of consistency in manufacturing, so it should be something that can spot those trends and if you were working the tools a bit harder over a certain period, it’s going to pick up on that and inform you to do the maintenance now because something is about to fail, rather than waiting for your annual review. So it’s giving you that intelligence to do the maintenance at the right time and not costing more than it needs to.

IT stakeholders are much more a part of our conversation with customers now. They can run much of what we do in isolation on their factory network and then any security concerns are mostly alleviated. When you start to talk about Alture and us connecting in to be able to give them this insight, that’s when there’s increased cybersecurity considerations, and that’s when we need to have a more in depth conversation with those stakeholders and make sure they understand that we as a business have considered those issues and that the required security measures are present.

SSH: How does this align with the Network Rail ESG programme?

PM: For delivering a sustainable railway, you’ll have lower emissions by moving from air to electric which would obviously reduce the carbon footprint and help companies to achieve their science-based targets. And having a railway service that is safe and reliable comes back to traceability and data collection, as well as a reduction in waste because they’re using predictive maintenance.