The British Government’s decision to allow a major $11bn order for rail carriages to be placed with Hitachi of Japan matters less in terms of the loss of British jobs to an overseas supplier but rather one of the key advantages Hitachi capitalized on to win the contract, according to the The Telegraph newspaper.
Hitachi intends to make the 1,400 rail carriages, sufficient for 125 new trains, by robot in Japan and then ship them over to the UK for final assembly. The combination of advanced production techniques and widespread use of stainless steel and in particular aluminum double skin panels mean Hitachi has largely moved away from the old frame and skin construction methods requiring thousands of parts to make the carriage to just requiring a few hundred. The structure is assembled by robots. Joints are welded by Friction Stir Welding leaving near invisible seams of exceptional strength. FSW does not require any filler metal and leaves the weld joint with the same properties as the surrounding material, making design parameters much more reliable.
Finished carriages will be 17% lighter, carry 21% more passengers, and most important for geeks like me – they will provide a laptop power source for every seat! It should be said Hitachi developed their expertise on the back of massive state supported rail infrastructure investment during the 90’s and early into this decade, similar to the approach China has been taking these last few years and will boost again with their stimulus package that is heavily skewed towards rail.
Whatever the socio-political ramifications of deciding to buy foreign, one interesting fact coming out of this project award is that using modern metal materials and the latest production methods allows a company on the other side of the world to compete on cost, shipping components as large as rail carriages against a domestic manufacturer. Bombardier based in Derby, UK, has been left with an order for just 125 carriages to run on the London to Stansted airport route.