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November 2019

WEC 2019 Day 3: Creating a future fuelled by clean energy

By | Climate change resilience | No Comments

As the world’s population rises, cities grow and technology advances, finding new and sustainable sources of energy will become vital to keeping the planet a place where everyone wants to live. 

 

During their opening keynote on day three of the World Engineers Convention, which wrapped up today in Melbourne, Dr Paul Durrant, Head of Innovation Strategies for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, pitched hydrogen as a crucial component of the clean energy mix to ensure a sustainable future. 

Hydrogen is becoming an element of rapidly growing importance, Durrant said, not just because it’s the most abundant element in the universe, but because it has an important role to play in helping us tackle climate change. 

“There are significant challenges remaining, but engineers play a crucial role,” he told the audience. 

Finkel echoed these thoughts, saying that making hydrogen a viable energy storage option is a challenge best suited to engineers. 

“The goal is to ensure Earth stays beautiful — wind and sun are plentiful, and we need a high-density, transportable fuel with no CO2 emissions.” 

Finding a niche

Durrant said interest in hydrogen is driven by some key factors: there is now a societal and policy imperative to tackle climate change; achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 requires energy access, efficiency and investment in renewables; and there is a growing consensus that the world is facing a climate emergency.  

But there’s some good news, Durrant added, because viable and affordable ways of addressing these concerns are being developed. 

Globally, 26 per cent of power is generated by renewables, but the problem with renewables is that wind and solar are variable. Long-term storage becomes important to bridge the gap.

“Hydrogen isn’t an energy source, it’s an energy carrier, which makes it ideal to partner with renewable sources of energy,” he said. 

There is already some commercial uptake of hydrogen for energy storage — for example, in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or trucks. But Durrant said the area where hydrogen could have a massive impact is in helping industries that currently struggle to find viable ways to reduce emissions. 

That includes manufacturing, transport and construction, as “electrification is difficult in these sectors,” Durrant said.

Scaling up

Currently, hydrogen production is done on a relatively small scale, and a lot of hydrogen is grey hydrogen — that is, hydrogen produced using energy from coal and gas. 

Shifting from grey hydrogen to producing hydrogen with energy from renewable sources (aka green hydrogen) would make the enterprise even more viable. 

“Green hydrogen holds the most promise,” Durrant said. 

“By 2050, two-thirds of hydrogen produced could come from renewable energy.” 

A lot of time and money is currently being devoted to creating more efficient and scalable forms of hydrogen production, Durrant said, which could eventually bring the costs down as well. Most hydrogen is produced via electrolysis, a process where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. 

He acknowledged that the costs of renewable energy, electrolysis and transport are the main inhibitors, but with advancements in technology, by 2050 it could be “cheaper than fossil fuels”. 

“Economies of scale are crucial to achieving that,” he said. 

Challenges ahead

For those who can scale up production and invest in green hydrogen, there are benefits beyond emissions reductions. Hydrogen is a valuable commodity, and can be exported similarly to liquid natural gas (LNG).  

Some far-sighted countries are laying the groundwork to make this happen, including Australia, which both Durrant and Finkel said is an ideal place for hydrogen production. 

Finkel wasn’t able to appear in person at the World Engineers Convention on Friday, as that same day he was presenting Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy to the Council of Australian Governments in Perth. 

He has visions for a future where Australia produces hydrogen in the same quantities as LNG, which it currently produces for export on a grand scale. 

Hydrogen production on the same scale is feasible, Finkel argued. To make his point, he put it in terms of what’s need to produce hydrogen for export equivalent to Australia’s 2018 LNG exports. As hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel, the amount of energy stored in 70 Mega tonnes (Mt) of LNG could be found in 30 Mt of hydrogen. 

To produce that much hydrogen, it would take 900 GW of solar energy, requiring 18,000 square kilometres of land. That’s only one per cent of the country’s landmass, he said, smaller than some of Australia’s cattle stations. 

Finkel said by 2050, he would like to see a global hydrogen trade worth trillions of dollars, something he feels is achievable with the right support in the present. 

A focus on increasing the efficiency of electrolysis would go a long way. According to him, a 10 per cent increase in efficiency would yield savings of US$130 billion a year. There is also work being done to make thinner fuel cells, to find ways to increase the storage capacity for transport and to recover hydrogen from other processes. 

However, both Finkel and Durrant acknowledged there is still more work to be done before we achieve a hydrogen economy and Finkel’s dream of an electric planet. 

Hydrogen production requires large quantities of water, which is a finite resource that’s growing scarcer by the day. There is also more research that needs to be done in lifecycle analysis to ensure production is truly sustainable. 

And who better to find solutions to these challenges than the world’s engineers?

WEC 2019 Day 2: Sustainability in the built environment

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Day one of the World Engineers Convention (WEC) kicked off with a conversation about what defines a sustainable city. Matt Gough’s opening keynote on day two focused on how to make that possible and why.

Gough is currently the Director of Innovation at MACE, the construction company behind structures such as The Shard and the London Eye. It’s amazing to create projects like this and to shape city skylines, he said, but more importantly flagship projects like these not only create the vision of the industry we want, but serve to create contrast when things go wrong in construction. 

The Grenfell fire in London, the Morandi Bridge collapse in Genoa and the Opal Tower cracking in Sydney reinforce the importance of making improvements in how the construction industry operates. 

“We are in an age of exponential growth – small improvements are not enough. We have to do better,” he said. 

Why construction?

By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the planet; 70 per cent will live in cities, which means we need to “build the equivalent of New York City every month to accommodate this change”, Gough said. 

As a result, construction is going through a period of disruption, but it’s not coming from the usual digital sources that other industries are facing. Rather, he said, the climate emergency is the biggest disrupter the construction industry and the built environment face today. 

“When I joined construction, everyone was talking about how digital technology would disrupt the industry,” he said. 

“But it’s not a panacea. It’s enabling a lot of things to be done better, but not necessarily better things.”

The difference is crucial, he said, but one feeds into the other. It’s important to do things better – to be more efficient, less wasteful, less labour-intensive – because it means the industry can focus on making the built environment as sustainable as possible. 

The reason the industry needs to think more about sustainability, he said, is that construction is a big polluter: it accounts for 30-37 per cent of total carbon emissions. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest contributor of carbon emissions behind the US and China.

“We have a pivotal role to play in making sure the planet stays habitable,” he said. 

“It’s not our task alone, but reduction targets are not achievable without us.”

Learning from others

To create this change, Gough suggested borrowing techniques from elsewhere to bring in advancements that help construction do more with less – less waste, less cost, less emissions. 

One idea is bringing elements from manufacturing into construction. There is lots of interest from construction companies, investors and governments in modular construction as a way to take work offsite, and the technique is being explored for houses to high-rises as a way to meet future demand quickly and efficiently. 

But what about creating factory conditions onsite? Gough spoke about the ways MACE is experimenting with “assembling buildings like the automotive industry assembles cars”. 

As an example, MACE’s recent NO 8 project in London was built in an innovative way to eliminate many of the factors that can cause issues on construction sites, like high winds, delays and the dangers of working at great heights. 

To work around these, MACE brought the assembly floor to the high-rise by building two, 600 tonne steel structures that act as rising factories. As floors are built, the rising factories ‘jump’, using the same amount of force as what’s required to launch a rocket into space. (Gough joked they called these factories MACE X). 

Building something in this way is unusual, but Gough said the benefits for construction are evident. No tower cranes were required, labour onsite was reduced by 50 per cent, and because it was a closed environment there were fewer safety incidents, less risk of falls or dropping something, and no leading edge. 

All together, they built two 36-storey high-rises in 18 weeks – 30 per cent faster than traditional methods. Other benefits included a 40 per cent reduction in vehicle movements (which meant less emissions and happier neighbours), and a 70 per cent less construction waste. 

Matt Gough gives the opening keynote on day two of the World Engineers Convention. A slide depicting the jumping factories can be seen in the background.

“Make better choices”

This example illustrates that it is possible for construction to do better, but Gough stressed there is still work to be done. 

“We are asking people to make good choices and do better, because it doesn’t just make sense environmentally – it makes sense financially,” he said. 

He recalled an incident where one employee asked a supplier to stop providing fittings wrapped in single use plastics. It seemed like a simple request at the time, but it reduced the amount of waste produced during construction, and saved both the supplier and the customer time and money. When viewed through the scale of how many fittings are required for any project, this small change can have a massive impact. 

“It pays to be sustainable,” Gough said. 

He ended his session with a call to action for the engineers in attendance: make better choices.

“We have to build more, but we have to do that in a better way and make better choices,” he said. 

“Reversing climate change is not going to happen without the construction industry’s help.” 

WEC 2019 Day 2: Is the future of engineering human?

By | New technology and innovations | No Comments

Is the future of engineering human? It’s a big question, but a panel of experts had a go at finding an answer during the opening session of day two of the World Engineers Convention, happening now in Melbourne.

Moderator Jon Williams, Partner and Co-Founder of management consulting firm Fifth Frame, actually began the discussion with a question for the audience: How optimistic are you about the future of engineering? 

As the responses poured in (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being very optimistic, 1 being ‘we’re doomed’), it became clear that while there’s some uncertainty, many feel there will still be a place for engineers in the future. 

Panelists responded that the future of engineering is absolutely human, but all were in agreement that this will only be the case if the profession can shift in some fundamental ways.

John Sukkar.

Advances in technology are enabling new ways of working and thinking, said John Sukkar, Director – Engineering and Design for Data61. But rather than fear how technology might impact the role of engineers, he said the profession should see this as an opportunity.

“As we go through digital transformation, it’s not an elimination of jobs but rather a shift in skill sets,” he said.

Take manufacturing as an example: 50 years ago, it was a very labour-intensive industry, but today many processes are automated. As we move into Industry 4.0, the same shift is likely to happen for more professional services roles, like engineering, law and medicine.

Rather than be a threat to engineers or taking jobs, Felicity Furey, Co-founder of Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University, said tech will amplify our abilities and allow engineers to achieve more with less.

However, she emphasised that as technology makes inroads into industry, the skills required to be a ‘good’ engineer will change. 

“We will need engineers with empathy, ethics, good communication skills, collaboration, creativity and a healthy dose of scepticism — you can’t get that from tech,” she said. 

“We need the left brain and the right brain, the art and science, to come together.”

Meredith Westafer, Senior Industrial Engineer at Tesla, agreed, and added that regardless of what the future brings, the core purpose of engineering will remain the same: solving problems for people. 

“What will change is how we do that,” she added.

As tech frees engineers from the more repetitive or mundane tasks, Westafer said they will be able to concentrate on interesting and creative work — “work with a purpose”. She added that this makes it imperative for organisations to start thinking about the message they broadcast to the world about what it’s like to work there.

“Being able to attract the best talent is doing something people want to do – it’s the message you send about why your organisation exists,” she said. 

She spoke of an experience that, based on the murmurs of agreement from the audience, is a familiar one for engineers: in school, engineers are encouraged to “think big”, but once they enter the workforce, they often become hobbled by processes and the ‘this is how it’s always been done here’ mentality. 

“Let creative engineers create if you want to retain them,” she implored. 

Automating ethically

As technology takes over more of these tasks, though, engineers face an ethical dilemma: if there is a gradual reduction in people’s involvement in more manual or repetitive tasks, do engineers have a responsibility to keep people in jobs — even if they don’t need to be there?

Meredith Westafer.

To answer this question, Westafer drew on her own experiences working to design Tesla’s Gigafactory, which does incorporate autonomous technology. 

“As someone who has installed a fair amount of automation, it’s important to understand things from the side of the people displaced by the technology,” she said. 

Crucial to this is thinking about the types of jobs replaced; many of them are mundane or dangerous jobs, jobs “we don’t want humans to be doing”.

“We have an ethical imperative to keep people safe,” she said. 

“If [technology] is replacing a good job, organisations are ethically bound to retrain people. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious that organisations should be taking care of that, but if you put the onus on the person whose job is being replaced, that’s just not right.

“We need to automate ethically.” 

What are the right skills?

Upskilling the current workforce is one thing. But what about for the next generation of engineers? If the future is uncertain, how can we prepare people today to deal with the challenges of tomorrow?

In her role at Swinburne, Furey said they took this question to industry and asked engineering companies what skills they need in their organisations. The answers surprised her.

“We thought for sure it would be technical skills, but actually they came back with skills like communication, collaboration, being able to influence people, even knowing how to write a good email,” she said. 

She believes that in order to teach these skills, students need to be working on real-world projects and solving real problems as part of their degree. 

Sukkar said cultivating the skills future engineers will need also means “encouraging and rewarding people for taking risks and thinking big”.

Furey agreed, and said ‘why’ will become the most valuable question an engineer can ask. Organisations need to encourage this behaviour, she added.

“Create psychological safety in your organisations to encourage people to take risks. Give people the freedom to fail,” she said. 

Felicity Furey.

As the role of engineers changes, all the panelists agreed that they are looking forward to seeing more engineers in leadership positions. According to Furey, 21 per cent of S&P CEOs come from engineering backgrounds, which is more than lawyers or accountants.

She said the skills required to be a great leader are changing, and engineers have an amazing opportunity to step up to the challenge.

“The top skill required to be a leader today is to empower people … it’s no longer about command and control, it’s about support and empower,” she said. 

It also swings back around to the ‘why’, Westafer said, and great engineering leaders need to actively encourage that in their organisations. For example, she said Tesla CEO Elon Musk pushes first-principles thinking for all their work.

“It’s not about building an electric car the way everyone else has built an electric car. We need to be asking ‘what is the real question we are trying to answer? What is the problem we are trying to solve?’ and then work from there,” she said. 

To find this mentality for future Tesla engineers, one question Westafer always asks during interviews is: If I have a manufacturing line that is 1000 m long, how big is the factory?

“If someone responds with ‘you haven’t given me enough information’, they aren’t hired,” she said.

“I’m looking for people who ask as many questions as they want. What are we optimising for? How many parts are there? What are we building? That’s the kind of thinking we are looking for.” 

At the end of the sessions, Williams polled the audience with the same question as at the start: How optimistic are you about the future of engineering? 

Perhaps luckily for all, and as a testament to the quality of the insights shared by the panelists, engineers came out of the discussion more optimistic that people have a place in the future of engineering than when they arrived. 

Integrating major projects for a sustainable Victoria

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The urban environment impacts on the life of residents and contributes to liveability.

Sustainable infrastructure is not only the environmental impact of major projects; it is also the usability and the cost to build and maintain the infrastructure for the life of the asset.

A sustainable world requires better business in order to ensure the lifecycle costs and the end-users are considered at the outset of the project. As the tagline says, “better business, better world”.

Better business involves a number of aspects: transparent ethics, clear business objectives, clear responsibilities and more informed decision-making. Clear business objectives make it possible to have a targeted approach across all stakeholders. They allow for more decisive action based on clear corporate targets. Business objectives can be used to drive the culture of the team.

As Victoria has more Big Build projects being integrated into the existing infrastructure, it is critical that the objectives of each of the stakeholders are clear and aligned. When building these complex projects, it’s crucial we work together as an industry to get the best outcome for Victorian residents.

Collaborative objectives allow for better integration and cohesive working between the different stakeholders. There is often a competing set of values between the design and construct (D&C) scope and the operate and maintain (O&M) scope.

The D&C stakeholders are incentivised to minimise capital expenditure in order to hit competitive budgets, which can lead to a high operational expenditure and high maintenance frequency.

Conversely, the O&M stakeholders’ interest is to optimise the use of the asset and minimise operational expenditure in order to give Victorians the best value for money service, which can add to construction cost. Instinctively D&C and O&M stakeholders have competing objectives.

In order to get the optimal life cycle cost of an asset, the balance of capital against operational expenditure needs to be set by the client in the contractual objectives. Sustainable lifecycle management starts at design and is driven by the contractual objectives from the client.

Every component on a product has a lifecycle; infantile failures become steady state performance, which lead to aged failures. This evolution is commonly referred to as the bathtub curve. Integration of new infrastructure into existing systems can cause disruption in the initial stages as the infantile failures of the new scope reduce the overall system performance.

Endurance testing can be used to drive down the number of failures; however, accountability of the D&C stakeholder is required otherwise the O&M stakeholder holds full accountability for the integration. Collaborative business objectives allow the two parties to work together for an overall improved outcome.

Collaborative objectives are needed to ensure Through Life Engineering is considered at the design stage; as with Safety in Design, it is more cost effective to include controls prior to construction. The performance of infrastructure assets is typically managed “On the Average” where the average life of a component set is used with a risk factor added to address potential variance.

A sustainable business will use asset condition data of individual components to manage the system lifecycle “On the Asset”. This minimises the operational risk to the business and reduces waste of resources. If the objective for this sustainable approach is not captured early, the inclusion of condition monitoring systems will not be incorporated into the design.

Monitoring systems are evolving and data collection systems are becoming more affordable. The tools used to analyse the data, visualise the data and generate useful information are also becoming more accessible. Return on investment of these systems, depending on the duration of the contract, is becoming more reasonable. However, businesses will only invest if there is a legal, contractual or financial incentive. Some projects can be funded through opportunity costs; some projects need the contractual nudge. A clear requirement in the contract will allow for both the D&C and O&M teams to agree on what level of data management is involved.

With accurate data on the performance of each component, the ideal time to maintain or repair parts of the system can be identified. Mature asset management based on condition data will establish the degradation rate of the component and indicate any risk or opportunity for the business. By working together with the O&M team, the D&C team can identify systemic improvements from accurate performance analysis. This allows for the design to develop over time so that we can evolve as an industry to have better performing assets and provide a better environment for Victorians.

With better integration comes better performance and a better Victoria. Complex systems need clear objectives and clear roles in order to integrate new infrastructure with minimal impact. Collaboration through the lifecycle will allow for a more sustainable approach to managing assets to provide sustainable infrastructure for sustainable cities.

world engineering day

World Engineering Day announced at WEC 2019

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President of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) Dr Marlene Kanga announced that, starting next year, 4 March will be celebrated annually as World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development.

Kanga made the announcement as part of her welcoming address at the World Engineers Convention, which opened in Melbourne on 20 November.

A vote Tuesday at the UNESCO General Conference confirmed the declaration of the date, which followed the adoption of a resolution supporting the proposal by the UNESCO Executive Board this past April.

The 4th of March has a particular significance for the WFEO, which was founded on that date in 1968. The peak global body represents 30 million engineers and 100 organisations.

“World Engineering Day is an opportunity to celebrate engineering and encourage young people to consider engineering as a career for a better world,” Kanga tweeted after the announcement.

“Let’s start planning our celebrations on 4th March.”

Engineering the future

If the world is going to successfully adapt to a carbon-constrained future and produce enough resources for all its inhabitants, engineers will be crucial.

Each of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a set of targets for 2030, will require engineering to be successfully met.

Raising awareness of this — as well as overall importance of the profession — is part of the reason for adopting 4 March as World Engineering Day.

As WFEO President, Kanga has personally led the initiative.

“It was a remarkable process, with many twists and turns,” Kanga said.

“We had to learn along the way, receiving support and advice from the UNESCO Secretariat as well as various ambassadors from the UNESCO delegations to UNESCO. This is important because the proposal is put to UNESCO by member nations. It was supported by 80 engineering institutions from around the world with total membership of approximately 23 million engineers.”

Kanga wrote the explanatory note for the April session of the UNESCO Executive Board and the proposed decision.

“This eventually went through with little modification,” she said, adding that it seemed “touch and go” at the April meeting, though Namibia, China, Nigeria, France and UK supported the decision before “many countries from every continent followed”.

A worldwide celebration

World Engineering Day will celebrate the essential role of the engineering profession to a modern economy, its role in advancing the 17 SDGs, and its role in both modern and ancient history.

The day will also encourage engineering as a career in which science and mathematics can be applied to solve problems.

Proposed outcomes also include demonstrating high-achieving female engineers throughout the ages, addressing the gender imbalance, engaging with industry and government, and building awareness of the need for extra engineering capacity in developing countries.

“In all countries there is great deal to be done — to deal with the impacts of climate change, environmental issues, our growing cities and the challenges of new technologies including artificial intelligence,” Kanga said.

“There are many opportunities and the day can be used to engage with young people and say, ‘If you want to make change for a better world — become an engineer’.”

Kanga is currently in her second and final year as WFEO President.

“I am very proud that this will be one of the significant legacies of my term,” she said.

“Although there are 11 days in the calendar that celebrate various aspects of science, and a World Science Day on 11 November, there was no day that celebrated engineering.”

At the UNESCO Executive Board meeting, WFEO Executive Director Jacques de Méreuil, speaking on Kanga’s behalf, told the UNESCO Executive Board that World Engineering Day would be an opportunity to engage with society and young people, especially girls.

”You cannot have a modern nation without engineering,” he said.

“Engineers are critical to advance the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and we commend this decision that will enable focus on how engineering can create a better world.”

Kanga said it was important to put the profession forward.

“Look around you. Everything you see is nature. The rest is the result of the work of an engineer,” she said.

“World Engineering Day will be an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable achievements of engineers and engineering.”

WEC 2019 Day 1: Making the case for a diverse profession

By | Diversity and inclusion | One Comment

Engineering has a diversity problem, and who better to discuss solutions to this challenge than a cross section of the global engineering community? 

Engineers from around the world have converged on Melbourne for the World Engineers Convention (WEC), and one of the main topics for discussion was how the profession can improve diversity within its ranks – and in turn better reflect the communities it serves. 

During her keynote on day one of WEC, Lydia Gentle OAM, Engineering Manager for mining giant BHP, shared her thoughts on why diversity is so important in the engineering profession today. 

To illustrate this point, she shared BHP’s efforts to promote diversity within its ranks and how they have yielded tangible results. There is a clear business case for why more companies should strive for diversity, she said.

According to Gentle, the top 10 most diverse teams within BHP perform better than the company average. Focusing on diversity has also meant that the skill set of employees within the company has broadened, bringing with it knowledge that would have been hard to obtain otherwise. 

Advances in technology have removed some of the barriers to more women entering engineering roles as well. For example, repositioning equipment for maintenance by suspending it reduced the amount of physical strength or height required of a person to perform the task. 

She also spoke of the company’s efforts to rethink equipment design to be more inclusive, including the height of step ladders, the weight of hoses, the orientation of parts to be fitted and more. This led to a roundtable between female engineers and equipment suppliers to discuss small changes that can have a big impact. 

She closed with a call to action for those in attendance, stating that there is now an imperative to change – and change quickly.

“The workforce expects more from us; they look for things like flexibility and serving an inspiring purpose,” she said. 

“What will your role be in this transformation?”

Lydia Gentle OAM.

Small changes, big impact

The theme of diversity and inclusion in engineering was further dissected during a panel discussion on ‘The Diversity Imperative’, comprising professionals from New Zealand, Nigeria and United States of America.

Creating diverse and inclusive workplaces can be a daunting task, so panelists presented the audience with insights into what their own organisations were doing to promote diversity, and provided delegates with some actionable ideas they could take back to their workplaces to continue the conversation. 

Valerie Agberagba, Vice-President and Chair of the Committee for Women in Engineering with the Federation of African Engineering Organisations, suggested that attendees take advantage of the fact they are surrounded by engineers from a diverse range of backgrounds at the conference. 

“We’re all diverse in how we do our work, but we all have common problems,” she said.

“We must be able to learn from one another.” 

Krishna Bodanapu, Managing Director and Chief Executive of Cyient, said it’s important to focus on small changes. He gave the example of a board room at his company that only had a men’s toilet attached. This sent the wrong message – that only men would be there, he said. Now, he’s proud to say it has facilities for men and women. 

“It’s a small change, but years later there could be significant change from one small step,” he said.

Susan Freeman-Greene, Chief Executive Officer of Engineering New Zealand, said as important as it is to look at the wider company culture, it’s also important to look at yourself and your own biases.

“We all have biases, but finding out what they are is a good place to start, and then think about where they might pop up,” she said. 

One audience member prefaced their question with a warning it was controversial: “Shouldn’t we forget about labels and just focus on the right person for the right job?”, they asked. 

Bodanapu said it best: “Yes, but the system is not set up well to ensure that happens. The fact that we don’t already have diversity means that the system is broken, so we have to take this approach.”

“I’m not confident the process supports the best candidate coming through – if it was a fair process, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he continued.  

About more than gender

A poll of WEC 2019 delegates during the panel discussion revealed that 36 per cent were most concerned with gender diversity within their engineering organisations. Age diversity came in second at 24 per cent, with cultural diversity at 16 per cent. 

While many discussions of diversity in engineering focus on gender, diversity of culture and ethnicity is important as well. Allan Murray, Senior Manager – Indigenous Participation and Outcome for WSP Australia, told attendees during his presentation that it’s time for a closer relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Australian industry. 

WSP has taken steps to establish an Aboriginal Design Principles process for it Southern Program Alliance (SPA), and it has put this in practice by using Aboriginal design concepts on infrastructure. 

The project took place in Boonwurrung country, and the diamond symbol representing the Boonwurrung, of the Kulin nation, became the preferred symbol for the project. WSP’s Indigenous Specialist Services team took steps to make sure that their use of the symbol was respectful and considerate, and community consultation led to meaningful conversations about appropriate use of the design. 

Murray said incorporating traditional designs was a way to combine engineering and architecture with Indigenous ingenuity and principles. 

“It enhances the connection to place, and pays homage to the land,” Murray said. 

“To have the community involved is a great outcome.” 

Looking even further back to Indigenous engineering, Bill Jordan, Director of Bill Jordan & Associates Pty Ltd, spoke about the significance of one of Australia’s earliest engineering feats: the eel traps of Budj Bim

The site, a complex system of weirs, channels and races, has recently received UNESCO World Heritage listing. But for something that is more than 6000 years old, it took a while to be recognised for the feat it is, Jordan said.

He spoke of the early efforts to recognise the site in Australia as a place of significance. It received National Landmark status some years ago, which helped the bid for UNESCO World Heritage listing. Still, there are those who oppose applying the term ‘engineering’ to efforts like this, Jordan said. 

“Defining it as engineering was a problem for some,” he said, as its creators “didn’t have four-year engineering degrees”. But he said that’s an extremely narrow and limited view, and only served to reinforce the idea that engineering only came to Australia with colonisation. 

Murray echoed this thought, pointing to achievements like the boomerang as evidence of engineering thinking.

“I see my ancestors as engineers,” he said. 

“Their ability to transform raw materials into tools, and to see the potential for what can be done … that’s engineering ingenuity.”

WEC 2019 Day 1: Why engineers are vital to more liveable cities

By | Engineering for humanity | One Comment

It’s only fitting that a discussion about what makes for liveable cities should take place in the most liveable city in Australia. 

Engineers from around the world met in Melbourne for the World Engineers Convention (WEC), which kicked off today with a look at the role the profession plays in creating urban spaces where people can live, work, play and thrive — now and into the future.

Professor Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati, summed up the reasoning for creating more liveable, sustainable cities in four numbers: 2, 50, 75, 80. Cities take up 2 per cent of the planet’s surface, yet they have 50 per cent of the world’s population, consume 75 per cent of the energy and generate 80 per cent of emissions. 

“Making our cities more sustainable can have a huge impact at the global level,” he said. 

Stephen Yarwood, an urban futurist and former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, took up this message and said the exponential pace of technological advancement offered so many opportunities for engineers and city designers. 

He pointed to innovations such as 3D printing, peer-to-peer networks like blockchain, autonomous technology, ‘smart’ technology, and mobility as a service (MaaS) as forces that will have huge impacts on how people live in and move around cities. 

“Technology will create a new urban operating system … data will become an overlay for cities, which will become these complex systems and operate almost like living organisms,” he said. 

Both Ratti and Yarwood agreed that the amount of data we can now capture is “a bit of a Pandora’s Box”, but, for now, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“We can see dimensions of the environment we couldn’t see before, which lets us solve problems in different ways,” Ratti said. 

Knowing your end user

Later, Yarwood was joined onstage by Marco Assorati, Operations Regional Director SAE and Oceania for Salini Impregilo; Paul O’Halloran, Executive Director Network Integration for Metro Trains Melbourne; and Tanya Ha, Director of Engagement for Science in Public and WEC Master of Ceremonies for a panel discussion about engineering liveable cities. 

One common thread throughout the discussion was the importance of stakeholder engagement.

Assorati used a current Salini Impregilo project — the Perth Airport rail link — as an example of how the company prioritised communicating with end-users. He said it’s important to keep communities and end-users informed because “their lives are most impacted by these changes”. 

O’Halloran added to this by saying that, as a transport operator, it’s important to share information with end-users in an accessible way so people can make the most informed decisions about how to get from A to B.

A question from an audience member about how to balance short-term and long-term goals sparked a wave of nods from many others in attendance, as it’s a common problem experienced by those who have to forecast for future demand, which many engineering roles do. 

O’Halloran said it’s a hard task, but it’s important to plan in a way that’s agnostic about factors such as political cycles, as infrastructure spending in Australia can depend on who controls Parliament.

Assorati added that while we can’t predict the future, “we can be prepared for it”, and that means creating infrastructure that’s adaptive. 

“The key to liveability is not necessarily building more things, but we need smarter ways to build things,” he said.

It’s definitely true for Melbourne, as the things that make it liveable now will change as the population grows, said O’Halloran. What’s important, he said, is doing the most with what you have.

“Building new infrastructure needs to be done, but with moderation — we need to optimise what we already have,” he said. 

More than city centres

Later in the day, several speakers added to the conversation about the future of liveability by sharing their experiences on topics ranging from smart infrastructure to community engagement, and where engineers fit into the mix of creating sustainable urban landscapes. 

As a reminder that liveability doesn’t just apply to large capital cities, WSP New Zealand’s Philip McFarlane presented insights on how to enhance liveability in smaller or more regional areas through community-centric approaches and affordable digital tools.

The team reported on Building Better Homes and Cities, a National Science Challenge research project in New Zealand that involved partnering with two regional district councils to identify what’s required to create an affordable yet comprehensive community-centric approach to asset management. 

The project came out of the need for councils to connect with communities when making asset decisions, and to help councils answer some pressing questions like what level of service people are willing to pay for, and what’s the ongoing conversation.

“Regional areas have smaller everything — smaller budgets, smaller resources — but their people have the same needs as cities. How do we develop affordable tools to address this?,” he said.

“How do we capture needs and wants of the community, and how do those change over time?” 

Through their work, the WSP team identified key factors for determining what will be useful digital tools. They found creating ‘smart cities’ isn’t about implementing the latest, shiniest piece of technology. 

McFarlane said the first question to answer should be “How do you give purpose to data, and link it together so the community can understand it?”.

“For example, if I told people that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, we could have this piece of infrastructure — we need to develop that narrative,” he said. 

And from there, like anything else: prototype and test, test, test. 

From the ground up

Retrofitting existing communities is an important step in bringing more places into the age of the smart city, but what if you could create a smart, sustainable city from scratch?

That’s the situation Jonathan Howe, from Jacobs, found himself in when he became involved with the Australian Education City (AEC).

AEC will be a $30 billion “super city”, built on a 412 ha site located 25 km from Melbourne’s CBD. Creating this community from scratch lets “ideas come to life”, Howe said, and he’s excited by the prospect of creating an eco-city that puts community and people first — made possible by clever use of digital engineering. 

Use of digital technology proved invaluable during design, allowing the creators to “find the balance between digital expression and intuitive know-how”, Howe said, and allowed the team to “optimise recursive design cycles” and create an evidence-based design. 

“Data was invaluable to this process,” he said.

Digital twin technology was also crucial. For this project, Howe said they used both a data-rich model, and then a model that was “more creative” and focused on design expression. 

“Ultimately these two would come together, but there is a need to have both,” Howe said. 

“If you’re not doing a digital twin on this scale, you’re lost.”

While the project is a 30-year long game, Howe hopes it can serve as a blueprint and a benchmark for future sustainable developments.

Is the future of engineering human?

By | New technology and innovations | One Comment

Predictions about how technology will change engineering can get pretty dire — to the point where some are unsure if people will still have a place in the profession in the future.

But if you ask Jon Williams, Partner at Fifth Frame and panellist at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, that’s a stretch.

“Clearly, the future of everything is human, or else there is no future,” said Williams, who will be moderating the session ‘Is the future of engineering human?’ on day two of WEC.

What’s up for debate, though, is how the role of engineers will change in years to come. Will engineering become a profession where automation and artificial intelligence perform the majority of tasks with a few human overseers? Or will it be a thriving, design-led profession doing better things, with technology as an enabler?

A mix of skills

According to Felicity Furey, Co-founder at Power of Engineering and Director of Industry Partnerships at Swinburne University, the importance of keeping engineers in the equation will only increase as the world becomes a more complex place.

“Our designs are affecting more people every day, and the scale at which we influence the world is pretty big,” she said. 

“Now we’re dealing with very complicated projects and lots of systems. As engineers, we need to consider how everything works in the system, and how our projects and design absolutely influence that bigger picture, and not just the individual projects that we’re working on.”

Creativity and adaptability will define engineering into the future, she said, combined with the logical problem-solving that is every engineer’s bread and butter. 

“It’s no longer acceptable for engineers to go and build things … without community consultation, and that makes our projects better, because you get people on board early and it’s collaborative,” Furey said. 

John Sukkar, Director — Engineering and Design, CSIRO Data61, agreed, saying that while the need for technical skills won’t change, being able to understand and apply human-centred design will be in demand.

“All things being equal, an engineer who understands the customer problem and the ecosystem where their project is going to live — I think they’re the ones that will really excel,” said Sukkar, who will be appearing on the panel with Furey and Williams.

Changing expectations

Part of this requires preparing the next generation of engineers to work and thrive in this changed environment. Through her work with Power of Engineering, Furey sees firsthand how young people today perceive engineering — and it’s not always accurate. 

“Men in overalls fixing cars” is a common response, she said. While some engineering roles do mean wearing hard hats and working on construction sites, the possibilities of what engineers can do and accomplish is almost endless.

“That’s the point of our work: to shift those perceptions,” Furey said. 

So to is changing perceptions about what skills are required to become a successful engineer. Her biggest focus is communicating that mathematics and science are important, but so are complex reasoning, problem solving, collaboration and communication.

“I think it’s important that students can think for themselves and think through problems … critical thinking skills can be more important than knowledge, so students aren’t just asking ‘How can I memorise this maths? Is this going to be on the test?’,” she said.

The great enabler

“The pace of change and our inability to predict the future in even a short time frame” are massive influences on the future of work, said Williams. He added that change will continue — and likely accelerate — so “we need to go with it”.  

Technology can help bridge some of this gap, but future engineers need to think of it as an enabler instead of a replacement, said Furey.

“It’s really important to remember that technology is just a pathway, and it’s an enabler — it’s not the solution. Rather than think ‘AI will do this or that’, we need to think through what’s the problem I’m trying to solve and how could this help me solve that problem,” she said.

Technology is already so pervasive, Sukkar said, that every engineering role will come to require some skills working with data and digital systems. However, he feels technology should be used to augment human capability, rather than replace it.

“I think we’ll see a future where people are supported by machines to be able to be more productive and more functional,” he said.

He emphasised that while being familiar with digital technologies like data analytics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence is good, these systems will make the human side of engineering more important.

“As we start having human-machine interfaces, as we start having autonomous and intelligent machines navigating their own way around society, human-centred design is going to be critically important to guide engineers on how to build ethical things,” Sukkar said.

Purpose is also becoming increasingly important within the engineering profession. Furey said she is surprised at how important issues like sustainability are to students she meets through her workshops.

Starting with ‘why’ is something Sukkar strongly believes in as well.

“As engineers, as an engineering community, whether we’re very early in the research stage and innovating in technology or whether we’re late-stage, actually building the integrated solutions or solving an applied problem, you have to start with why you are doing this,” Sukkar said. 

“If you can always start with ‘why’, I think that’s going to be critically important for engineers who want to see the fruits of their work have an impact.”

Jon Williams, Felicity Furey and John Sukkar will be appearing on a panel discussing the future of the engineering profession at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. There’s still time to register! Learn more here.