Monthly Archives

June 2019

Darron Lomman plastic recycling

Meet one engineer transforming plastic waste into the filament of the future

By | Engineering for humanity | No Comments

Perth-based mechanical engineer Darren Lomman is working to stop plastic waste ending up in our oceans by converting it into 3D printer filament.

In December 2016, Darren Lomman was watching television in his lounge room when he saw an advertisement that changed the course of his career. The ad was for reusable water bottles and included an alarming statistic: by the end of 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

“My first reaction was that it sounded far-fetched,” he said.

“I looked it up and found that it’s actually based on scientific research. I have a 2-year-old daughter — is this the kind of legacy we’re leaving for our kids?”

It was that initial curiosity that led Lomman to discover an uncomfortable truth about the state of plastic recycling in Australia. It was his knack for problem solving, however, that prompted him to make a difference.

After six months of research, Lomman launched GreenBatch, a social enterprise that is building a system to reprocess plastic bottles into 3D printer filament. The plastic will be collected by a broad network of secondary schools in Western Australia and the filament will be returned to the schools for their 3D printing projects.

Backed by institutions such as the University of Western Australia, GreenBatch is also receiving assistance from industry giants such as WorleyParsons, and Lomman is fast building a strong community of supporters who share his passion and purpose.

Starting up again

At the age of 34, Lomman might be regarded as a veteran of the Australian start-up scene. While a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Western Australia, a chance meeting with a fellow motorcycle enthusiast prompted him to launch his first enterprise, Dreamfit, a not-for-profit organisation that develops innovative equipment to enhance the mobility of people with disabilities.

During his 15 years as CEO, Lomman grew the enterprise from humble beginnings in his backyard shed to a 1500 m² workshop and helped more than 10,000 people with disabilities to fulfil their dreams.

“It was never intended to be a big business or enterprise,” said Lomman, who was awarded 2007 WA Young Australian of the Year for his work with Dreamfit.

“The whole drive behind it was to help people.”

DarrenIn May 2015, Dreamfit was acquired by Ability Centre, which provides services and support for people with disabilities in Western Australia. Lomman stayed on as Chief of Design and Innovation before becoming restless.

“Dreamfit had grown so big that it didn’t need me anymore, so I decided to unclip my entrepreneurial wings,” he said.

Lomman spent the next six months exploring new ideas.

“I had a blank canvas and could paint my own picture,” he said.

He wanted his next venture to involve 3D printing, but it was only after seeing that TV advertisement about plastic in our oceans that the picture began to take shape.

Like most Australians, Lomman has always separated his recyclable rubbish. However, while developing his idea for GreenBatch, he struggled to locate a plastic recycling plant in his state. He went on a tour of a material recovery facility, where further separation of materials occurs, and asked where they would be sent for recycling. He was met with a blank stare.

“That’s when I found out the truth behind our recycling industry,” Lomman said.

“[Plastic] is put on a ship and sold through the international waste market to whoever will buy it. We have zero reprocessing in WA.”

Lomman cast the net beyond his home state in search of an Australian PET (polyethylene terephthalate) recycling plant. He could only find a small facility in New South Wales that recycled just a portion of the state’s plastics.

“Not a single bottle that I had put into a recycling bin has ever been recycled in Australia,” Lomman said.

“I felt that we’d been lied to. I just thought, how the hell have we not dealt with this?”

Ideas into action

Frustration with the state of recycling — and a passion for 3D printing — helped foster Lomman’s vision for GreenBatch. His first idea was to design a desktop machine that would shred and melt plastic bottles to create filament; however, it proved too expensive and Lomman knew that sales would not cover his costs.

It was time to think big; rather than desktop machines, he decided to build an industrial-scale recycling plant. The original plan was to produce 300 kg of filament a week from recycled plastic.

“As I’ve got more supporters onboard, we’re now scaling the plant to 300 kg [of filament] an hour,” Lomman said.

Darren Lomman demonstrates 3D printing

Lomman demonstrating the 3D-printing process to students.

At this scale, Lomman predicts the plant will recycle approximately 131 million plastic bottles a year.

“We’re going to have to create other product lines and we’ll keep going until not a single PET bottle leaves the WA shore, because how else can we guarantee that the plastic is not going to end up in a waste incinerator or a landfill or a river that feeds our oceans?”

Building a community

Financial investment has been vital to getting GreenBatch off the ground, but rather than looking to the world of venture capital, Lomman chose to ask the community for help.

“I did not want to take commercial investors onboard with this,” he said.

“I want it to be driven by environmental gains for the community.”

Lomman launched a crowdfunding campaign in October last year, with the aim of raising $50,000. It ran for four weeks and raised $70,000.

“It was one of the biggest crowdfunding campaigns to come out of WA,” he said.

If Lomman is successful with a recent grant application, he might soon be able to draw a salary from his enterprise. WorleyParsons is contributing pro bono support for the plant design and UWA has provided Lomman with office space to work from, access to its network, plus eight student interns to assist him. It has also provided the land on which the facility will be built.

The layout of the Greenbatch recycling plant.

Kent Anderson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UWA, describes the university’s involvement with GreenBatch as an “anchor” for the enterprise.

“Getting your first big partner is essential because it enables you to get your second,” he said.

“Darren came to us when the business was at a nascent stage and we were like, ‘wow’. We believe GreenBatch is going to become big very quickly.”

Secondary schools have also been willing partners and GreenBatch is currently working with 50 schools across the state. Lomman hopes to increase the number to 300 next year.

Hannah Fay, science teacher at Santa Maria College, a pilot school in the GreenBatch program, said students are learning vital lessons from their involvement.

“From an education perspective, GreenBatch not only shows students the importance of considering their environmental impact, but it also encourages them to look beyond the standard career and into more innovative roles,” she said.

GreenBatch is working with 50 secondary schools from across Western Australia.

Leading the way

The GreenBatch recycling facility is predicted to be up and running by July 2019. Lomman said he is overwhelmed by the support he has received from the community.

“Plenty of people say that this should be the responsibility of government,” he said.

“I put my hand up and said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to wait. I’m doing something about it.”

Susan Kreemer Pickford, General Manager, WA Engineers Australia, and a member of the GreenBatch Corporate Advisory Board, met Lomman a decade ago when he was still involved with Dreamfit. She believes he is a natural leader.

“He has the self-belief to forge a mission that people will follow,” she said.

“It doesn’t come from ego, but from wanting to step up and do something. Darren has put himself out there and people want to get behind him because it’s good for the whole community.”

With the GreenBatch recycling facility still at design stage, Lomman is focused on building his network of supporters.

“It takes pigheaded determination to fight through all the naysayers and the people who don’t respond because it’s not on their radar,” he said.

“But I’m pushing it and I’m driving it. I can’t do it on my own, but what I can hopefully do is inspire others to join me.”

Darren Lomman will share how we can give plastic waste a second life at the upcoming World Engineers Convention. To learn more and to register, click here

autonomous robots and engineering

With autonomous robots on the rise, what do engineers need to know?

By | Preparing the next generation | No Comments

As collaborative robots give way to autonomous ones, the future is not as frightening as you might think, says Professor Elizabeth Croft, presenter at the World Engineers Convention.

When her daughter came home with a textbook that said robots are designed by ‘scientists’, Professor Elizabeth Croft was very surprised. Most of the driving force behind robot technology and capability is coming from engineers, she said.

“I had a bit of a fit when I saw what the textbook said. I told my daughter, ‘No, actually, engineering is pushing the forefronts of robotics. Science, art and design all contribute and help us to think about it, but the engineering part is what allows us to continue to innovate,” said Croft, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University.

When Croft talks about the future of robotics, she’s not discussing the manned ‘collaborative’ machines that, for instance, help people on an assembly line to lift engine blocks into car bodies and that switch off when their operator is absent. She means fully autonomous robots.

“Collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, were passive in the sense that they would not act unless the operator put motive force into them,” she said. They were very safe because they were not autonomous. If the operator did not touch the cobot’s controls, it would stop.

“Where we’ve moved is to a place where now we have autonomous robots that are independent agents, such as delivery robots, robots operating as assistants, etc.,” she said.

“This is the area that I focus on: robots that bring you something. Maybe they hand you a tool. Maybe they carry out parts of an operation that are common in a workplace. We’re interested in collaborating with those agents.”

These autonomous robots are different from cobots, Croft said, because they have their own agenda and their own intent. They are not tele-operated, and they are not activated or deactivated. They have their own jobs, just like people in the workplace. They need no permission to operate.

It’s in this area that Croft works, in the space where rules of engagement have to be figured out. Several major issues are slowing things down right now, such as questions around liability and safety frameworks. Also, how does the front-end work, or how do humans interact with the robot? How do they tell it what they want it to do? If voice operation is key, then we’re clearly not there yet, judging by the voice interactions with our smartphones.

And what about social and ethical impacts of technology in society? These are powerful, autonomous systems that are being developed, so how and where should boundaries be drawn to ensure Skynet doesn’t send a cyborg assassin to kill Sarah Connor?

“The underlying programming and bounding of how much autonomy those systems have really impacts what consequences can happen,” Croft said.

“So, it is very important that students of this technology think about ethical frameworks in the context of programming frameworks. Ethics must underlie the basic design and concepts around how an autonomous system operates. That needs to be part of the fundamental coding, part of the training of an engineer.”

Reducing complication

In order to tone down the Terminator imagery, Croft offers an example of how an autonomous robot might change workflow for the better.

When you buy a piece of furniture from IKEA, the instructions contain a small picture of a man and look friendly, but they’re actually quite complicated. There are numerous pieces, many just a little bit different to each other. Some are very small, some are very large, some are flexible. The assembly requires dexterity and making of choices about what must be done in what order. Constant close inspection is a must because of the numerous dependencies.

Professor Elizabeth Croft

Professor Elizabeth Croft.

“This job cannot be fully automated because it’s too expensive,” she said.

“But there are parts of that operation where it would make a lot of sense to have more automation or assistance involved.”

Such technology is very close to reality right now, but we don’t have the legal and other frameworks to make it fully operational.

“We’ve come to a place where people can grab onto a robot, move it around, show it an operation, then press a button and the robot does it,” Croft said.

“But because of legal issues, liability and occupational health and safety, there are risks that need to be managed. There are issues around getting the person and the robot to come together in a workspace in a safe way. Who’s responsible? When the operator is always in charge, then there’s no doubt. But when the operator has no longer got their hand on the big red button, then there is risk.”

Who assumes that risk? In Europe, Croft said, the risk is assumed mainly by the manufacturer of the robot, which creates a challenge for innovation. In North America, the risk is often assumed by the person or company that owns the robot. In other jurisdictions, the risk could be assumed by the worker who is using the robot.

Swapping robots with humans

Outside of the legal framework, the biggest issue is actually the workflow itself. On a typical production line for instance, if one worker can’t do a job, another is brought in to take their place. People are quickly interchangeable. The same needs to be true of a robot being replaced by a human. If the robot breaks down, the business can’t stop operating. So, humans and robots must be easily swapped in and out.

There also needs to be a clear understanding of the value being offered by the robot, to ensure the worker is comfortable to work with the robot. And the worker must feel that the robot understands what they do, too.

“It will become a greater and greater requirement for educators of people working in software engineering or computer engineering to create a real understanding of the impacts  – ethically, socially, environmentally – of the designs they create,” Croft said.

“We’ll need professionals interested in public policy and engineers with a strong ethical framework. The engineers are creating the future of technology. We are the ones who first see the potential impacts. If we don’t prepare our people for that, we’ll see unintended consequences of the technology.”

Elizabeth Croft will be speaking about how engineers can set the agenda for future technology implementation at the upcoming World Engineers Convention. To learn more and to register, click here

Ja

How necessity inspires invention in the mind of engineer James Trevelyan

By | Climate change resilience | No Comments

Professor James Trevelyan opens up about the many inspired inventions that have characterised his vast career.

Pointing across his office to the small appliance projecting cool air, Professor James Trevelyan gives a working example of his engineering philosophy — that necessity is the mother of invention.

He said that good engineering enables people to do more and live more comfortably, and with greater certainty, less effort and less consumption of energy.

But it was a lack of good engineering — regular power outages on hot nights in his wife’s native Pakistan — that inspired that small, quietly humming air conditioning unit.

The Close Comfort air conditioner provides extremely energy-efficient cooling.

The invention, along with the rest of his body of work, won Trevelyan the Professions award in last year’s Western Australian of the Year Awards.

Trevelyan, an Engineers Australia Fellow and University of Western Australia School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering Winthrop Professor, laughs as he recalled a night when it was 40°C indoors with 70 to 80 per cent humidity.

“We had a battery inverter that could generate about 300 W, so I was trying to think of something that would run on that amount of power,” he said.

The result was Close Comfort, a tiny portable air conditioner that creates a microclimate providing localised cooling.

Conventional air-conditioning technology focuses on cooling entire buildings, but Trevelyan said that wastes energy when it is actually just the people who require cooling.

“Close Comfort runs on 300 W, whereas a conventional air conditioner for a room of this size” — about 5 m x 5 m — “would require 2.5 kW or more, so it is incredibly energy efficient,” he said.

Close Comfort produces a near laminar stream of air and directs it to where cooling is needed, as opposed to creating a turbulent air flow that mixes up the air in a room.

Trevelyan said the machine also exploits human physiology, which dictates that if the face is being cooled then it will have a flow-on effect to the rest of the body.

Based in Perth, Trevelyan’s company, Close Comfort, is now marketing its namesake product in five countries, including developing countries like India and Pakistan.

Shear genius

Trevelyan also led the team that pioneered sheep-shearing robots for the wool industry between 1976 and 1989.

“At the time we realised we needed a different kind of education, because it didn’t make sense for engineers to learn how to write software on the job, or learn how to design electronics on the fly,” he said.

“So it was projects like the sheep-shearing robot and other similar projects around the world at the time which gave rise to the field of mechatronics.”

The team decided the traditional hand-shearing tool was the best way to cut wool and so set out to emulate expert shearers and recreate their skills in a machine.

The robot used a machine vision system to generate geometric models of the sheep’s surface, determining the arm trajectories and providing feed-forward information into the cutter motion-control system.

While the robot was not put into widespread use, the team found that the system provided a successful working example of sensor-based control, trajectory adaptation and online strategy planning.

In 1993, Trevelyan led a team of students to create “Australia’s Telerobot on the Web”, a six-axis industrial robot linked to the internet and one of the earliest demonstrations of the Internet of Things.

Ja

James Trevelyan’s pioneering sheep-shearing robot emulated expert shearers.

A thirst for more

Today, at 70, Trevelyan is not slowing down. He told create that life keeps on getting faster. He is turning his attention to providing clean drinking water in developing countries where water supply utilities are a “disaster”.

The main cost is not in filtration, he said, but in distributing safe water.

“I would like to create a water distribution system where people see value for money and will repay the cost of the service,” he said.

“We need a deeper understanding of people’s behaviour and value perceptions around our engineering work, and that has to be as much a part of an engineer’s knowledge as any technical discipline.

“It’s not rocket science, yet holds immense potential for Australian firms.”  

Making it count

Some of Professor James Trevelyan’s later research has examined how engineers create commercial value from their work.

“A lot of the engineers I interviewed often said they spent their time looking at spreadsheets or signing off on design specification documents and that they don’t get to do any ‘real engineering’,” he told create.

“My goal is to say to engineers who think they are not doing anything fancy that they actually are creating immense value by enabling investors to invest big money by reducing the apparent risks or protecting social and economic value already invested.”

James Trevelyan will be speaking on the topic of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the World Engineers Convention 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne. 

Register now.