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Bringing IoT to the stationary side of rail transportation

Helping Siemens Mobility reduce rail operator’s expenses by looking outside the train

The challenge

Railroad operators need digital to improve operations without disrupting their assets or processes.

The outcome

Siemens Mobility expanded operators’ savings opportunity beyond mechanical installations.

Accomplishment data

Next Mile helped Siemens Mobility find a connected offering opportunity that imposed a very low change burden on operators:

  • Validated Siemens’ previous disqualifications. Siemens felt like they were missing an opportunity, but in reality, they were avoiding disaster.
  • Investigation yields new perspective. While confirming the barriers Siemens encountered, Next Mile found an opening.
  • New opportunity: light touch, high utility. Not all connected offerings require hardware to create value.
  • $ saved: incalculable

A digital twin for railroad crossings will give operators the foundation for new insights and capabilities.

Siemens Mobility: digital without disruption

Railroad IoT, regulated technology

For decades, governments and corporations have invested billions of dollars in positive train control (PTC) to increase safety through standardized operation. However, mobile assets are only half the equation—trains ride on infrastructure.

Like many industrial assets, railroad crossings are 30+ year capital investments that constantly change, but never move.

100 years of railway expertise

Siemens Mobility knew that modern digital could help address this missing half of efficiency. They invented the electric tram in 1881 and remain at the forefront of transportation efficiency, pioneering advancements in mobility management, electrification, rolling stock, and digital control.

IoT meets regulatory reality

When designing industrial internet of things applications (IIoT) it’s easy to ignore the downstream impact of any decision. Even a simple sensor can impose an untenable change burden in a high-stakes regulated environment. Siemens Mobility knew such a blunt approach wouldn’t work for rail owners, and quickly disqualified every obvious plan.

Siemens had no shortage of ideas, but needed information from the field and external perspective to channel expertise and focus their efforts. Above all, digital technology needed to improve the status quo, not break it. They knew the next steps would be tricky, so they hired Next Mile.

“The job of the crossing is to keep cars and trains apart. If digital can’t help that, then it’s unnecessary.”

Principal Engineer at Siemens Mobility

Next Mile: a smart plan for smart rail

Intake and research

Siemens and Next Mile began by centering on rail customers. We unpacked the state of the industry, revisiting past ideas, reviewing a trove of preparatory documentation, and discussing Siemens’ expert impressions of life as a maintenance of way technician or a logistics expert. From there, we tailored our research plan to address each key audience.

Factory to field

The factory isn’t the obvious place to start a deep customer research effort, but it’s the first place a product meets reality. Siemens manufacturers and engineers held deep knowledge about what their products meant to customers in the long term.

Next, we put our boots on, riding with engineers, sweating with service technicians, and planning alongside logistics experts. Our research uncovered what mattered most to each. When we peeled back context, most raw user needs centered on limiting the time burden of repetitive tasks in over-busy schedules, ensuring access to part locations, and reducing downtime.

Contextual knowledge for capital assets

At first glance, customers wanted the information provided by a traditional digital twin of the crossing itself. However, Siemens couldn’t instrument a fleet of crossings without asking customers to make a colossal reinvestment.

Next Mile’s independent perspective fully validated Siemens’ previous disqualifications. It felt like we’d arrived at a dead end.

Smart Rail

Service specifics: Activate, Transition

Outcome: a digital twin for crossings

Positive control

No singular connected product can truly upend 150 years of established process. Technologies must work together against a legitimate need to produce value worth changing for.

When we stepped back, Next Mile’s investigation did illuminate potential users’ real needs. Contrary to early expectations, it turned out that a connected product wasn’t required to deliver what they wanted.

A gap, and an opportunity

As part of stepping back, Next Mile investigated other available sources of data coming from both Siemens Mobility and railroad operators. While direct, sensor-derived crossing-specific data was still a gap, we noticed that Siemens and railroad operators had that gap surrounded.

That gap was an opening! In many cases, if you know x and you know y, you can derive z accurately. This way, Siemens Mobility will create a digital twin of an analog crossing, but not by instrumenting hardware. Instead, they’ll leverage surrounding context, combining existing and new data sources to synthesize a mirror image of an instrumented crossing without implementing a single in-field change.

Future value

Our findings and collaborative ideation gave Siemens Mobility a viable route option to help railroad operators with digital services without upending their operations with massive capital investment.

“We had been focusing on digital products and digital itself, when digital might help us deliver our current products more effectively.”

Director of Technology at Siemens Mobility

Today: the route forward

Leaving the station

Siemens moved from thinking about digital as a physical product to thinking about digital offerings. They’ll translate their deep railway management expertise into digitally delivered services, offering as much or more value.

Next stop?

Siemens is a recognized leader in digital twin development and can execute without additional help. They just needed a spark to see customers and connected offerings differently.

By building a digital twin for crossings, Siemens will improve service, reduce risk, and build future value for rail operators and all of us who depend on rail.

Next Mile helped, but this is Siemen's success.

Reach out to see how Next Mile can enable your digital sustainability.

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