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K-State's Technology Development Institute creates wire-scanning system to improve railway safety

Friday, Nov. 17, 2023

TDI 3D scanning system

The Technology Development Institute at K-State has produced a 3D scanning system for the prestressed concrete industry that will advance railroad safety. From left: Terry Beck, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering; Robert J. Peterman, professor of civil engineering and Mark H. and Margaret H. Hulings Chair in Engineering; John Bloomfield, TDI engineering director; Christopher Reeve, metallurgical engineer for Insteel Wire Products; and Ellis Rhoden, quality inspector for Insteel Wire Products. | Download this photo.



MANHATTAN — Kansas State University's Technology Development Institute collaborated with engineering researchers and industry professionals to create a special-purpose 3D scanning system for the prestressed concrete industry that will lead to advanced safety in the railroad industry.

The Technology Development Institute, or TDI, produced the 3D scanning system to measure and report critical indent measurements on wire that is used in the prestressed concrete industry, specifically targeting the production of concrete railroad ties, which support the rails in railroad tracks.

The development of the scanner was funded through a series of Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, contracts awarded through the Office of Research and Development's Broad Agency Announcement, or BAA, program. The contracts focused on improving the quality and reliability of concrete railroad ties, where premature cracking and failure had previously been inadequately explained, thereby posing a safety issue.

Additional matching funds for the research were provided by Nucor LMP.

The project began when a team of K-State researchers received an FRA grant more than 10 years ago to study the indented prestressing steel-concrete interaction to explain concrete tie success or failure. The research team includes Robert J. Peterman, professor of civil engineering and Mark H. and Margaret H. Hulings Chair in Engineering; Terry Beck, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering; and John Wu, professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering and Gisela and Warren Kennedy — Carl and Mary Ice Cornerstone Teaching Scholar.

The researchers found that the indent geometry rolled into a high-strength steel wire at the wire manufacturing facility is a critical element to successful concrete tie design, and it must be properly matched to other important factors like aggregate types, concrete strength and concrete wire cover thickness. They prototyped a scanner that worked slowly, but it proved the concept and persuaded the FRA to invest to further develop the technology. Cam Stuart, program manager with the FRA, encouraged the researchers to streamline the measurement and analysis processes with the goal of deploying the technology in the industry.

The research team collaborated with K-State's Technology Development Institute to improve the concept, making a scanner that was easier, faster and more reliable to use with higher-end hardware and software. TDI worked with the researchers to assist in the design and production of the machine and its accompanying software and helped harden the overall function of the system.

After consulting with industry professionals and incorporating design feedback, TDI and the research team finalized the wire-scanning system. The TDI-developed machine can scan, process, and report on 24 inches of wire in just a few minutes with microns of precision and repeatability. The scanner makes and processes more than 3 million individual measurements of the wire surface within minutes to extract the specific geometric features that are critical to the wire performance when used to make pre-tensioned concrete ties.

The new scanning system is now being accepted as the industry standard for quality control in the production of indented wire for the pre-stressed concrete industry.

"The deployment of this new measurement system to industry as a direct result of years of FRA-funded research is very exciting," Peterman said. "This project is a perfect example of the FRA identifying a safety need in the railroad industry, funding the necessary research to understand the underlying cause and develop a solution, and then having the right team in place to bring new technology to a readiness level where it is deployed in industry. The result will help the industry confidently produce safe infrastructure through better understanding the inputs to the process and having the equipment and technology available to control it."

Insteel Industries, Inc., the nation's largest manufacturer of steel wire reinforcing products for concrete construction applications, was the first to place an order for one of the scanners. The company contracted with TDI to build a system for their quality inspection as a means to prove that they are delivering the demands of their customers that use indented wire. The unit was completed at the end of October, and representatives from Insteel visited K-State to pick up the machine and receive training for the operation of the system before shipping the unit to Florida, where it will be put into operation.

"There are off-the-shelf measurement systems out there that might approach pieces of this difficult inspection application, but none that can do it as fast for less cost and better accuracy," said John Bloomfield, engineering director for TDI. "The research team did a great job engaging industry early on to understand the gap in technology, and the result is the machine that we were able to produce for them to meet their quality control needs."

Bloomfield said that TDI has additional scanning machines on order and that the institute will continue to produce them as long as there is industry demand.

This project was completed in support of the K-State 105 initiative, Kansas State University's answer to the call for a comprehensive economic growth and advancement solution for Kansas. The initiative leverages the statewide K-State Research and Extension network to deliver the full breadth of the university's collective knowledge and solution-driven innovation to every Kansan, right where they live and work. Additionally, K-State 105 forges the connections and partnerships that create access to additional expertise within other state institutions and agencies, nonprofits and corporations — all part of an effort to build additional capacities and strengths in each of the 105 counties in the state.

The K-State Technology Development Institute in the Carl R. Ice College of Engineering is a U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration University Center and received a grant from the Research and Entrepreneurship Federal Matching Grant Dollars Fund. TDI provides a broad range of engineering and business development services to both private industry and university researchers to advance the commercial readiness of new products or technologies.

Media contact

Division of Communications and Marketing


Technology Development Institute

Written by

Bret Lanz