OPINION: Australian industries need the flexibility, insight and foresight that comes from thinking creatively, asking critical questions, forming and testing hypotheses and reasoning quantitatively – and engineers have the technical knowledge and the problem solving skills to respond to constant change.
As they have a holistic understanding of the practical needs of communities, businesses and the environment they are well positioned to work with other disciplines, including scientists and designers, to provide a stream of new ideas and technical responses essential for sustainable competitive industries.
But future knowledge-based industries won’t just spring up because Australia’s engineers are generally well regarded or because Australia’s engineering degrees and professional associations are of high quality.
The ability of engineers to build Australia into the future – to literally build our modern infrastructure and to foster invention and innovation to support internationally competitive industries – will depend largely on changes that must occur over the next decade or so.
Australia’s next generation of engineers, our school students, poorly understand the role of engineering and the importance of the sciences and the mathematics that underpin the ubiquitous technology that determines the way we live.
We have too few students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at higher levels at high school, too few going onto engineering at university, and a shortage of engineering skills across the economy as a consequence.
We can’t just look to immigration to fill this gap; engineers are in demand across the world. Recent national efforts to promote STEM education are good news and are gaining ground, but we need to proactively continue to support capacity building.
The importance of a collaborative culture
From the university perspective we need to further enhance the engagement of engineering students with industry – beyond existing professional experience requirements within Australian engineering degrees – to produce truly “work ready” graduates.
The OECD currently lists Australia last place out of 33 nations for collaboration on innovation between businesses and the higher education sector and public research agencies.
This is a critical gap that we must address by providing substantial opportunities for students to undertake internships within a variety of industries and by bringing many more industry specialists and policy makers into the classroom to enthuse and inspire students.
This kind of holistic engineering education produces graduates who not only understand how to innovate, but how to address the real world needs of both societies and industries.
To make sure we can respond competitively in the face of intense global competition, engineering education and research must be framed by the understanding of the economic realities and operating conditions that industries face that such deep engagement fosters.
From a business point of view we need to change the way we think about our industries. The recent announcements ending car manufacturing in Australia are a good example.
That Australia will no longer manufacture cars is only a disaster if we are unable to identify and analyse what it took to make those cars, and apply this knowledge in another way.
So instead of mourning the loss of “big” industries defined by particular “end products” we need to be constantly looking for creative, new opportunities along increasingly complex, evolving value chains.
To create niche solutions that are smarter and more efficient requires both human and intellectual resources working within a vibrant culture of innovation. The key concept here is “high-value output” which is not necessarily an “end product”.
With consumer consumption driving the mass proliferation of high-tech products, we can be certain that these products will have some aspects in common such as various electronic components, which will in turn drive demand for the niche materials we need to make them.
Businesses might identify opportunities for diversification by making chips for various electronic products used in entertainment and health industries. Those car parts manufacturers could switch to making steel parts for complex equipment or for the beds used in hospitals, as the health-related industries expand with ageing populations.
What is critical here is expertise in making sophisticated steel parts and the ability to recognise and take advantage of commercially viable opportunities to continue to use those skills as economies evolve (such as within the burgeoning health care sector).
Interestingly, this growing demand for health care services and related infrastructure and equipment and the explosion in electronics – that require high-value, niche inputs such as metal alloys – is converging as the health care sector depends increasingly on complex information technology and as more and more health services are deployed in the homes via sophisticated self-managed equipment and the remote monitoring of, and communication with, patients.
Likewise, when we think about the value chain we need to think more creatively about how to incorporate the masses of potentially valuable materials we currently throw away as waste.
Not only are natural resources being depleted at an unsustainable pace, and carbon emissions rising, but industries recognise the cost-effectiveness of reusing materials. It will largely be engineers that can deliver previously unimaginable solutions.
It may not seem obvious, but alternative carbon sources from waste plastics to used tyres – huge waste burdens globally – can be usefully transformed into value-added steel by partially replacing the conventional carbon source, non-renewable coke, in electric arc furnace steelmaking.
This “green steelmaking” process, which I helped develop at UNSW, results in a more efficient furnace, reducing demand for power and simultaneously transforming problematic wastes.
Greater than the sum of its parts
Equally, engineers can provide the technical expertise to support entrepreneurs pursuing their own ideas. Such a combination of engineering and business enables both areas of expertise to achieve much more together.
In my own experience working with our commercial partner to develop our “green steel” making process, a whole range of different professions were critical in ensuring that we captured the intellectual property (IP) we generated.
Protecting our IP has meant we were able to take our business case to the world, resulting in international commercialisation of our technology in collaboration with our industry partner.
Working in partnerships with other disciplines and with industries, engineers will create new knowledge, generate groundbreaking technologies, participate in research collaborations and training exchanges. This will ensure a rapid translation of knowledge into value for Australian industries.
This will create a culture of learning driven by innovative thinking, grounded in collaboration and built on the recognition that the dynamic changes in our world are inevitable.
If we are prepared to see change as a continuous cycle of new opportunities, not new problems, we will realise our aspirations. Future generations of engineers have much to contribute to ensuring new ideas and solutions lead to continuous improvement in quality of life, in Australia, and internationally.
Professor Veena Sahajwalla is Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.