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young engineers

University of Melbourne School of Engineering

Engineering education has changed a lot in 100 years – what needs to happen in the next century?

By | Preparing the next generation | One Comment

Back in 1861, Australia’s first engineering school opened at the University of Melbourne with just 15 students. In the 150 years since, global market forces and changing expectations have continuously redefined what is needed to prepare the profession’s future leaders.

According to Professor Mark Cassidy, Dean of Melbourne School of Engineering and a keynote speaker at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, engineering is the ‘action’ arm of the STEM professions — the application of science and technology and maths to find solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

He said today’s engineering students identify strongly with this ethos and are hungry for opportunities to leave a positive mark on society.

“They can see what the issues facing the world are and they really want to make a difference,” he said.

According to Professor Cassidy, the challenge this sets for universities is to create programs that meet this desire for practical experience while also laying a strong theoretical foundation.

Another thing that sets today’s young engineers apart is many have more of a ‘problem-finding’ mindset, Professor Cassidy said, and they want to pursue solutions to issues they are passionate about. He said this entrepreneurial spirit is a big shift from when he was an engineering student.

“We all just wanted to work for a major corporation or government, but now this entrepreneurial spirit is very strong in a lot of students,” he said.

“They see it as a different pathway, and that’s something that bodes well for the future of Australia.”

A precinct approach

Providing this balance is the driving force behind the university’s $1 billion investment to see the Melbourne School of Engineering 2025 (MSE2025) strategy to completion. This includes two new large-scale developments devoted to the discipline. Melbourne Connect will focus on data science and digital technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, and co-locate academia, industry and students. MSE’s new campus at Fishermans Bend will be an innovation precinct, a place for large-scale interdisciplinary research and project-based teaching.

“Both precincts are looking at where engineering will go in the future, and we’re hoping to co-locate with industry to give our students experience” Professor Cassidy said.

Professor Mark Cassidy,

“We also want to make sure our academic work is really focused on the challenges that are facing the world into the future to ensure we are making a difference with what we do in our research and our teaching.”

When asked what the university is currently known for, biomedical engineering immediately sprung to Professor Cassidy’s mind. University of Melbourne Professor Graeme Clark’s work on the bionic ear is a well-known example, and more contemporary projects include creating a brain-computer interface that allows a prosthetic to be manipulated with just a thought. Robotic exoskeletons are another promising project.

On the cyber side, the school is moving more into cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence. This work is applied in many sectors, again linking back to health. As a biomedical example, Professor Cassidy mentioned the use of sensors plus machine learning to predict the likelihood of someone having an epileptic seizure.

“Can we have sensors connected to the brain that are able to predict in real time when someone might have a seizure?” he said.

A precinct-based approach is representative of the shift to project-based teaching. In this way, industry and academia have a symbiotic relationship: more engineering students are asking for and expecting this industry-relevant training, and for its part, industry is looking for graduates who are ready to apply what they’ve learned to real-world scenarios.

“Industry are looking for graduates who are industry-ready, and hungry to apply their fresh perspectives and skill sets to the new organisations they join. We’re ensuring our graduates are prepared to do just that,” Professor Cassidy said.

This means universities can no longer do what Professor Cassidy refers to as “postbox work”, where industry and academia conduct their work separate from each other and researchers send their work to industry in a postbox, never to be applied to solve a challenge or deliver an outcome.

“A lot of the grand challenges engineers are facing are multidimensional and multidisciplinary. They need larger teams to come together — teams comprising academics and industry,” he said.

“We’re trying to really put those together. Our strategy is much more about engagement, it’s much more about partnerships and it’s much more about building larger teams together to work on these issues.”

On top of that, engineering careers — and the skills required to undertake them — are changing at a rapid pace. How can students entering school now prepare for a profession that might look quite different by the time they graduate?

Professor Cassidy said one way he thinks Melbourne School of Engineering is answering that question is by giving students a broad range of electives to build out a diverse skill set. For example, he said the new precincts will look to marry data science and engineering to prepare students for Industry 4.0.

“There’s much more emphasis on the ability to interpret data, so we look at adding computer science applications to all of our degrees,” he said.

City living

Being a CBD-based university also gives Melbourne School of Engineering an opportunity to place this work in terms of benefit to society, Professor Cassidy said. Melbourne is undergoing a period of immense change, from large city-shaping infrastructure projects to steep population growth – all while trying to maintain its crown as the country’s most liveable city.

Professor Cassidy said the engineering school’s new precincts will play a key role in helping Melbourne navigate through these looming challenges. He sees the University of Melbourne’s role as a convener, uniting startups, academics, entrepreneurs, industry and the future workforce to flesh out ideas and tap one another for expertise. Melbourne itself also serves as a living lab and testing ground for these ideas and technologies.

One example of field testing ideas in this way is AIMES, or the Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem. Located in Carlton, adjacent to the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, on 6 square kilometres is the “most highly sensored area of roads, footpaths, intersections and traffic lights in the world”, Professor Cassidy said.

Nearly 50 companies joined together with the university to test how sensors and smart technology can be used to improve the way we move around the city. Everything from traffic lights to parking meters to cameras are being used to test pain points and gauge how people move through an urban environment.

“Anyone who has been in Melbourne knows there’s quite a bit of traffic, but all cities are going through that,” Professor Cassidy said.

“If you look around the world, with the desire to keep cities moving and enhance liveability, we need to design better systems for transport, traffic and vulnerable road users. It’s the use of data like that from AIMES that will make a big difference.”

A mirror to society

As the world becomes more connected and collaborative, Professor Cassidy said engineering educators need to lean into the challenge of making sure the profession reflects this.

“The design of society is affected by who creates it. And if engineers are creating society through the application of science, then we need to have diversity in the student cohort, so that our future engineering professionals are a true representation of our society,” he said.

Boosting the number of women in engineering is an imperative for educational institutions and private organisations alike. Australia’s engineering workforce is only 12 per cent female, and while issues like workplace recruitment and retention affect that number, establishing a robust talent pipeline is firmly within a university’s remit.

Across engineering and IT, Professor Cassidy said women make up 34 per cent of Melbourne School of Engineering’s student body, a number he is particularly proud of.

“That is the highest in Australia, and we’ve been nudging that up a per cent or so a year,” he said.

Getting there has been and remains a concerted effort by a team of professional and academic staff. The school employs a suite of programs to attract diversity of gender and culture into engineering degrees and keep them there. One of its most successful programs for girls is the three-day Girl Power engineering camp for Year 9 students at the Parkville campus.

But beyond gender, Professor Cassidy said diversity in all its forms is important for shaping the future of the profession. For example, the Melbourne School of Engineering is working to increase the number of Indigenous engineering students. The school hosts and coordinates the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School (VIEWS) program alongside three other universities, which brings Indigenous Australian students from around the country to Melbourne to showcase opportunities in STEM education through the lens of problem-finding and hands-on experience.

The school is also focused on rural and regional impact. One initiative, the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (MRIC) taps into the creativity and drive of students in the Mallee district of Victoria to work on projects that more directly affect their communities and local economy, particularly agriculture.

“Agriculture is a big industry in Australia, and there are really interesting problems to solve in that space. How can we apply tech tools including automation, computer vision, robotics and drones to farming?” Professor Cassidy asked.

The Melbourne School of Engineering is halfway through its MSE2025 transformation strategy, and it has “massive ambitions” for the future, said Professor Cassidy.

So, where will the school be by 2025? Professor Cassidy said by then he wants the University of Melbourne to be internationally known for the quality and contributions of its engineering and IT research – and for its outstanding graduates.

“Whether it’s in the transport system, or biomedical engineering … I see demonstrable examples of how our work is contributing to society,” he said.

What are the major trends influencing engineering education? How can today’s professional prepare the next generation of engineers? This will be a them at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here

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