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Brandon Felts holds one of the parts that he created using a 3D printer.

3D printing is a technology that has existed for a few decades but isn’t necessarily a widespread part of daily operations at most companies. Here at C-TRAN, our Maintenance team is constantly innovating and finding new ways to keep our fleet rolling. That’s why we recently started using 3D printing to create some of our own parts and vehicle components in-house.

The ability to print materials in-house can save not only a ton of time, removing the need to rely on unpredictable inventory levels and shipping, but money as well. That technology is now a part of C-TRAN’s process. The initial use of 3D printers has been so successful, in fact, that two larger, higher-quality printers are on their way.

Brandon Felts, Transit Vehicle Electrical Engineer, is the C-TRAN Maintenance employee who first suggested printing materials in-house. We sat down with Brandon to learn more about 3D printing and how it is utilized here at C-TRAN.

The 3D printer that C-TRAN is currently using. The wheel at the top holds the printer filament.

Whose idea was it to utilize 3D printers at C-TRAN? 

Originally it was my idea because we had a few parts that needed to be replaced, and I already had a 3D printer. So I brought it in, and it’s
what I’m using right now, and I printed off parts for the Vine system, printed off enclosures.

What materials does the printer use? 

The printer we have can use any of the 3D printer filaments, which is just like a plastic material. We use PLA/ABS (a type of printer filament). We’ve also got carbon fiber-infused material. We haven’t gotten to try it yet, but we will try it to print off structural parts because it will be stronger and it won’t be as brittle.

What kind of parts can you print with carbon fiber-infused material?

We should be able to print bracketry and stuff for smaller items, potentially larger items, but we’ve got to test it before we do that.

What have you made with the printer so far? 

So far, we’ve been printing off electronics enclosures as well as cover plates for switches and knobs, a section for the airbrake pedestal to enclose all of the air lines to make sure it looks good rather than having a bunch of air lines sticking out. That’s pretty much it so far.

Does printing in-house save money?

Yes. For example, with our final product for the Vine buses, we needed ten of them. It’s a few hundred dollars apiece, versus when we print them out, it’s under a dollar apiece because you’re paying for labor rather than just materials. It costs a lot more to have it shipped out and done rather than just printing in-house.

A few of the parts that Brandon Felts has created using a 3D printer.
A brake assembly cover (top left), part of an armrest (top right), and a plate cover (bottom) created using a 3D printer.

How long does the average product take to print?

The plate covers take two to three hours. The enclosures take up to twelve hours on the current printer. The new printer should be much faster. Since we have two of them, they can print two items at once rather than printing one item and needing to restart it, not only because it’s a faster printer but because we will have two of them and can run them in tandem.

How do you design what you’re printing?

In a 3D CAD (computer-aided design) software. You’re designing in a computer, putting in measurements and stuff. You are basically drawing it but on a computer.

Do you know of any other transit agencies that use 3D printing in-house?

Not transit agencies. I know SpaceX uses ones like the small one I have. I don’t know of any transit agencies that do, personally.

What future projects do you have planned? 

An enclosure that was printed using 3D technology with the C-TRAN logo embossed on it.

We are going to have more electronic enclosures that need to be done because we have more Vine buses coming. Apart from that, there are going to be parts we can no longer get that we are going to have to replace, like on the older buses, we can’t get just the plastic trim moldings. One is the air brake; on the pedals, there’s a cover so you can cover components down there. We can’t get those pieces; you have to buy the whole assembly, which is probably a couple hundred to a couple of thousand dollars … extremely high versus printing off a part that costs 15 cents. We will probably do a couple hundred of those. Yeah, just any other trim pieces that are hard to get, you can’t get them, or it’s too expensive to get.

While utilizing 3D printing at C-TRAN is still relatively new, we are excited for the possibilities that it presents and grateful for employees like Brandon, who are continually coming up with ways to improve our processes to provide the world-class service that our passengers rely on.

To see the 3D printer in action, check out the time-lapse below. 

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