Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Racine firm devises sophisticated machinery for nation's train lines

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When railroads were first stretching their tentacles across vast new parts of this country, each new expanse of track was bought with Herculean human labor, the Racine, Wis., Journal-Times reports. No longer. Maintaining and replacing the rails still requires manpower, but far less of it. Mechanization has replaced much of what the gandy dancer and the sledgehammer achieved.

Some of the industry's newest automation comes from Racine Railroad Products, which is not just building railroad machinery, but devising it. For example, when Union Pacific wanted someone to design a fully automated machine to apply anchors - anchors keep rails from moving outward - it came to Racine Railroad Products.

"That's a big part of this company," company President Steve Birkholz said recently. "Our survival is continuing development of this kind of stuff."

The anchor applicator is a sophisticated machine used in re-laying track, explained Birkholz and Chief Engineer Dave Brenny.  The base model costs about $230,000 and has just one function: setting anchors in their precise, proper place as it rides along the track. To accomplish that, the machine:

1. Locates the tie that needs anchors.

2. Removes anchors from a magazine supply.

3. Locates the rail base.

4. Lowers and installs the anchor to the rail.

5. Squeezes the anchors against the tie.

6. Applies the anchors.

7. Moves the machine to the next tie while pulling another pair of anchors from the magazine.

Every step is performed without operator intervention.

Although Racine Railroad Products designed the anchor applicator for Union Pacific, it is sure to also appeal to other railroads. In that industry, distances and costs are gargantuan.

"To re-lay a mile of track costs about $1 million, and it's paid for by the railroads," Brenny said.

As sturdy as rails are, they take a pounding from trains, so rail maintenance is almost year-round now.

"In the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, they're replacing rail every year," Brenny said. "In some stretches, it could be 50 years."

There's a specific order to replacing track, Brenny and Birkholz said. A production gang could be 30 to 100 men, most of them operating machinery. And each machine performs just one function - pull the spikes or insert the tie plate, for example.

"It's like an assembly line where the assembly line moves, but the product stays stationary," Brenny said.

"It's almost like a circus of machines," Birkholz added.

Because of enormous costs and distances, the railroads are always looking for ways to automate. That's meant opportunity for Racine Railroad Products. It has been making railroad maintenance products, from the fairly simple to incredibly complex, since 1970.

The local company makes both the large, complex machines and also hand-operated power tools - some gasoline-driven, others hydraulic-powered. Some examples are rail profile grinders, tie drills, spike drivers and rail saws that can cut through a rail in about 90 seconds.

"We design, engineer, final-assemble and market," Birkholz said. Other parts of the process, such as machining and sub-assembly, are usually contracted out to area firms and fabricators.

During final assembly, "Each worker is building his/her own machine," which keeps the work interesting, Birkholz said.

"With the larger equipment, sometimes there's no competition," Birkholz said. That's because Racine Railroad Products is often designing a new machine, sometimes upon request - and protecting it with patents.

"We study the operations out there," Brenny said. "And we look for opportunities to mechanize and reduce manpower."

Last fall, the company started work on a new tie-straightening machine for BNSF that will sell for about $315,000. A prototype should be ready by about May, and Birkholz said Racine Railroad Products could end up producing more than 20 of them just for BNSF alone.

He said, "We're building Porsches for the railroad industry."

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