HomeRail NewsDriving Innovation: The Bombardier way

Driving Innovation: The Bombardier way

Listen to this article

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) provides a good example of cross-industry innovation within the UK. But what of innovation across a global rail industry? the rail engineer was recently offered an opportunity to talk to Martin Ertl, Bombardier’s chief innovation officer, and learn how Bombardier Transportation is driving innovation throughout its global rail business.

Bombardier has a history of innovation and diversification. The company’s name comes from its founder, Joseph-Armand Bombardier who produced his first commercially successful snowmobile in 1937. The company is now the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer, a global rail company and continues to build snowmobiles showing that Bombardier is a company that focuses on innovation. This point is further emphasised by Bombardier’s involvement in three of the winning TSB projects. All of which explains Martin Ertl’s view that “Innovation is in our DNA”.

The focus for innovation Martin Ertl joined Bombardier Transportation in 2008, having previously worked on innovation at BMW. He considers that rail innovation is more challenging than that of the automotive industry where interfaces are minimal and, for a particular car model, innovations are an upfront investment financed over the product lifecycle. For rolling stock builders, however, innovations are speculative investments and potential customers require clear proof of their benefits. Martin considers that customers are open to new concepts but first wish to see them proven in service so everyone wants to be the second to purchase new technologies.

Bombardier defines an innovation as “a new development creating a sustainable competitive advantage – an obvious clear benefit for the customer and economic success”.

Martin explained that innovation has a very prominent place in Bombardier’s overall strategy to differentiate it from the competition, meet customer demands and build Bombardier’s brand and reputation. To promote and deliver innovation, Bombardier seeks to use internal and external know- how.

Seeking and refining ideas

Bombardier Transportation has 36,200 employees, operates in more than 60 countries and has six divisions: Locomotives, Light Rail Vehicles and Equipment; Mainline and Metros; Rail Control Solutions; Services; Systems; and Bombardier Transportation North America. In the past, the different nature of these businesses resulted in a division-specific approach with each one innovating separately, even though in some cases they faced the same challenges.

Harnessing and co-ordinating employee input to develop innovations in a global company with six divisions is a challenging task. Phone conferences need to take account of time zones. Martin recognises that, although nothing beats face-to-face contact, this is necessarily limited by the expense of international travel.

New approach

Bombardier recognised that a new approach to innovation was required and decided to focus corporate innovation activity on functional outcomes related to market requirements, rather than pure technology. Martin describes this as a two staged approach, with “guided ideation”, a focused and clearly defined process of forming ideas that will become the basis for generic solutions covering a wide range of customer projects.

Each R&D case is based on three innovation focus areas:

• Energy-finding ways to reduce energy consumption to benefit the train operator in an economic and ecological way;

• Simplicity – reducing complexity to reduce cost and increased reliability;

• Passenger delight – attracting customers or encouraging them to pay for a special service.

To overcome global and divisional barriers, Bombardier implemented HypeIMT web based innovation management software. This was used, in October 2010, to create its Innovation Express system. Initially 2,000 people participated in first-idea campaigns. Twelve months later, over 6,000 participants were involved.

Last year’s employee surveys showed a 12% improvement in the exchange and transfer of information. Individuals are also encouraged to recognise wider company needs and appreciate how their expertise can help others.

When an R&D Case has been defined, it is treated as a project with a budget and a clearly defined aim. These projects have three to five year timescales with a stage gate process that has clear Go / No Go and Technology Readiness Levels. Each project is sponsored by the board with cooperation from each divisional president.

Outside influences

Externally, Bombardier is actively seeking innovations from its suppliers, universities, research institutes and others. It wishes to intensify its relationship with supply partners rather than seeing them as project- by-project component suppliers. Intensive workshops have been held with Bombardier’s three biggest suppliers, based on sales volume, which produced some interesting areas for collaboration.

Martin also advised that Bombardier is now working more closely with universities and research institutes. As an example, research by Dresden University resulted in readily available industrial diesels being used in Bombardier’s multi-engined TRAXX diesel locomotive.

Online competitions

Bombardier is also using competitions to attract external ideas. In October 2009 it launched its YouRail Train Interior Design contest using a bespoke web platform developed in conjunction with Hyve AG. This was a crowd-sourcing social-media platform linked to Facebook, which Bombardier claim is the first use of this technique by a rolling stock manufacturer. As well as encouraging the submission of designs, the web platform also encouraged networking between participants. The contest invited entrants to give their “personal vision of modern transportation”.

2,486 people from 102 countries entered this contest, producing 4,239 designs between them. The winners were decided by a Bombardier appointed jury who took account of the web ranking of designs by those participating in the contest. Martin pointed out that, unlike most other similar contests, participants retain their intellectual property rights and felt this to be important as “contestants will only go the extra mile if they can be sure they are not being ripped off”.

Second competition

Bombardier has just announced the results of its latest online competition – YouCity. This concerned the evolution of mobility in fast growing urban areas. Contestants had to choose one of three target cities – London, UK; Belo Horizonte, Brazil or Vientiane, Laos – representing countries with developed, BRIC or developing economies. They could choose whether to develop concepts in either an engineering, economic or urban planning work stream and had to provide an overview of mobility issues and present solutions.

Unlike the first competition, it did not ask for specific designs. Instead, it encouraged participants to think holistically to ensure engineering solutions met urban planning and economic constraints. Entrants were strongly encouraged to form an online community so that they could “enrich their concept with ideas from other work streams than their own”. The rating of each proposal by this online community was a key part of the judge’s assessment.

The winners in the Engineering, Business and Urban Planning categories were respectively proposals for an Autoshuttle, Liquid Oyster and Colour Zones. The proposed Autoshuttle is intended to solve London’s traffic problems by transporting road vehicles in trains made up of individual vehicle carrying cabins. The guidance system allows individual cabins to join or leave the magnetically coupled train at predetermined pick-up and drop-off points.

Liquid Oyster automatically adapts ticket pricing according to usage to incentivise off- peak travel. For Vientiane, the Colour Zone proposal would divide the city into coloured zones to provide a low-tech solution to improve the city’s informal and uncoordinated public transport.

The end result

Bombardier’s innovation process sounds impressive, but what is its end result? Specific examples of Bombardier’s innovative approach are the multi-engined TRAXX diesel locomotive, ORBITA predictive maintenance, the FLEXX Tronic WAKO bogie technology used in double deck coaches, and PRIMOVE e-mobility technology.

The TRAXX F140 DE Multi-Engine locomotive is the latest member of the TRAXX locomotive family, which all share many common components. The TRAXX brand name was introduced in 2003 and stands for Transnational Railway Applications with eXtreme fleXibility. The TRAXX F140 diesel electric is a mixed traffic locomotive with a multi-engine configuration that markedly lowers fuel consumption and maintenance costs. This innovative locomotive concept meets the new stringent Stage IIIB emission standards using four 540kw Caterpillar heavy-duty industrial diesel engines. The engine control system selects one to four engines as needed to provide optimum power for each situation. The diesel engines are mounted in modular assemblies for easy replacement. In April 2011, DB Regio signed a nine-year framework contract for the supply of 200 locomotives, with the first delivery planned for mid 2013. At its 2011 innovation awards, Bombardier named this locomotive as its top innovation of the year.

The ORBITA predictive fleet maintenance system combines telemetry, information systems and processes with historic data to pro-actively identify problems. Currently, over 2,600 rail vehicles report to ORBITA. Its benefits were demonstrated initially on First ScotRail’s class 170 fleet, of which only the later vehicles were fitted with ORBITA. It was found that these vehicles suffered 33% fewer delay minutes than earlier vehicles without ORBITA. In 2009 the Institution of Engineering and Technology awarded ORBITA its Asset Management Innovation Award.

FLEXX Tronic WAKO bogies are a key technical feature of the new Bombardier TWINDEXX Express double deck trains. They compensate for the natural roll movement of the car body to maximise comfort for passengers and to provide a 15% increase in speed through curves.

The PRIMOVE e-mobility solution was initially developed to allow catenary-free operation of trams over varying distances using contactless inductive power transfer. The system enables tram lines to operate in heritage protected areas, has no moving parts, and is not affected by adverse weather. The street cable is in eight-metre segments that are only energised when covered by the tram and can transmit 270kw of continuous output per vehicle. The system was first introduced as a pilot project in the historic city of Augsburg in Germany in 2010. Trials with a PRIMOVE-equipped bus on a 125-metre stretch of road in Lommel, Belgium also took place in 2011, demonstrating how the system can provide urban mobility in cities for all types of electric vehicles.

Compare and contrast

It is interesting to compare the similarities and differences in Bombardier and the Technology Strategy Board’s approach to innovation. Both sponsor competitions and have created online communities to foster exchange of ideas. In Bombardier’s case, these two aspects are combined with the competition being run online. Encouraging competitors to collaborate and the use of online community ratings to judge competitions is itself an innovation.

The differences in approach are as a result of different target audiences. Bombardier wants ideas from individuals both within and outside their company. To do so, it developed software designed to encourage innovation. TSB wishes to encourage small businesses to innovate and so has created its Catapults to give them access to resources that would otherwise be unavailable.

Over 150 years ago, the early railways created a huge increase in economic activity from significantly improved transport and so proved themselves to be one of mankind’s most successful innovations. Since then, other modes of transport have become more competitive. As McNulty and others have identified, more innovation is needed if rail is to compete effectively. One impetus for this is the innovative approach to innovation promoted by Richard Kemp- Harper and Martin Ertl. Who knows what will come of this? But one thing you can be sure of, the rail engineer will continue to report on this trend.

Driving Innovation: Cross-industry innovation in the UK

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. Good show, now we can see something comming.
    I do have a new monorail consept in design and will sell it to you.
    Contact me at
    Thanks for your time.
    Will Clift ME, Rapid Rail One.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.