Fighter jets, submarines and self-healing metal: Q&A with Professor Lumley

Fighter jets, submarines and self-healing metal: Q&A with Professor Lumley

Head of La Trobe Engineering, Professor Roger Lumley is internationally recognised for his innovative achievements in transforming research findings into commercial products.

Among his many accolades, Professor Lumley has received the Microsoft ‘Emerging Leaders’ award for Innovation (2009), the Victorian Professional Engineer of the Year award (2014), The Australian Industry Research Group Medal in 2015, and is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Technology Sciences and Engineering. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Engineers, Australia.

We spoke with Professor Lumley about his illustrious career and what it takes to be a highly employable engineer graduate in today’s job market.

You were awarded a Higher Doctorate in Engineering from the University of QLD last year for your distinguished research achievements, can you share some of your career highlights so far?

As a former Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO, I did a lot of work between 2004 and 2011 related to the heat treatment of high-pressure die casting. To give you some reference, high-pressure die-casting accounts for around 60 per cent of all aluminium castings, all high pressure die-castings are made from recycled metal and this production route has a global market value of around US $50 billion a year.

These castings were not considered to be heat treatable, until I found a way of heat treating the die castings to significantly increase the strength properties by more than 100 per cent, which can lead to a weight reduction.

For every increase in yield strength of 10 per cent, you can realise about a 3 per cent weight reduction using best design principles.

So, if you get a 100 per cent increase in strength there’s a potential 30 per cent weight reduction, which is not only dollar-saving but has a major influence on emission reductions from vehicles, which assists with targets for automotive producers.

I also wrote one of the first accounts in scientific literature on self-healing in metals, which is a very interesting topic.

It’s not anything like the movie Terminator, but there are biological analogies to what happens in solid materials, especially in the way biological systems respond to damage.

Functional adaption in metals has been reported in literature for over 100 years and has a huge potential future as it has never really been fully exploited. We design materials to be inherently stable whereas functional adaption requires instability to be incorporated by design.

Later, at CSIRO and then AW Bell (where I still work part time as Technical Advisor), I led a team that developed world leading aluminium casting technologies, which are now used for several components in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter.

That was a great accomplishment because I saw the work go from a proposal that I gave to the owner of the company, all the way through to now being critical components on aircraft. The fact that we scaled up and commercialised the process in under five years is also an amazing achievement.

AW Bell is now the main supplier for those components. It looks like that project could be around for the next 20-25 years and be worth an estimated $8million a year for the company in export revenue.  During my time at AWBell, among other projects, I have also worked extensively on the the (ASC) Collin Class Submarine Diesel Remediation Program, on specialty products for biomedical devices, the automotive industry, and general engineered products.

Professor-Lumley

You have an incredibly strong background in both research and industry. What do you enjoy most about your role as Head of Engineering here at La Trobe?

Academia is a completely different challenge.  There’s an opportunity here for a different style of industry engagement, but understanding what qualities myself and others looked for in graduates while I worked in industry is especially useful.

What I would like to see is the lessons I’ve learnt applied to students to increase their ability to add value.

We’re preparing students for the future: to be able to go out and take part in the engineering world and contribute to the growth of the country.  I think that’s a really nice thing to be able to do.  In my opinion, there is nothing quite like seeing your work get out into the engineering world.

How does La Trobe help students gain industry connections and experience?

We offer a range of avenues, including scholarships, internships and helping with holiday employment, but one in particular worth mentioning is work-integrated learning.

In the first semester of the fourth year, suitable students can spend six months in industry as an engineer and be awarded a $10,000 scholarship.

We also have an excellent relationship with Engineers Australia and most of the engineering staff at LaTrobe are members. Students get a free membership and we encourage them to attend Engineers Australia events and meet others in the industry. At these events, the students will probably find that many of the people there are looking for interns and graduates to recruit.

How can students make themselves more employable?

My first suggestion is to not pigeonhole yourself: it is important to have a go!  When an opportunity presents itself, take it even if it is not exactly your field of expertise. You might be surprised where it can lead you.

One of the things graduates also often take for granted or don’t understand fully is that technical skills are about 50 per cent of what they need in the workforce. Technical skills are only half the story.

The rest is  enterprise skills – or soft skills: digital literacy, teamwork, networking ability, negotiation, creativity, good presentation skills as well as being able to think on your feet and make decisions quickly, for example. These are all very desirable qualities in new graduates.

Another thing people miss, which is very important in the engineering context, is a very strong safety culture. The laws and rules that exist in Australia and elsewhere mean that poor safety culture simply won’t be tolerated by any engineering organisation. Engineers have to lead to by example and be strong advocates for safety in the workplace.

I often tell engineers and managers that ‘if it is important to you it will be important to your staff’. It may not be part of the initial job application, but in the first period that a new person is on board with any organisation their safety culture is being assessed.

What sets our engineering degree apart?

We offer two undergraduate engineering degrees: civil engineering and multi-disciplinary engineering. The multi-disciplinary engineering degree is new in an Australian context. We’ve designed it because it’s what industry is telling us they want.

It’s as simple as: when you look up ‘engineering’ on Wikipedia, it states that most people start out as a specialist and end up a generalist. It’s absolutely true. I look at my career and some of the things I’ve done along the way, I never thought I would.  So, you end up having a very, very diverse range of skills.

We’re taking advantage of this. We’ve said: let’s skip the middle bit and actually train people who are capable of going out there and doing this right from the word ‘go’.

Our graduates should be able to add significantly more value to the employer right from day one because of our course. That’s one point of difference with our School of Engineering.

As for our civil engineering degree, can you talk about the current shortage of civil engineers?

There is always a requirement for civil engineers. One of the big advantages that we do have is our regional presence.

There’s a lot of high dollar value infrastructure work going on in greater Victoria, but they’re in regional places.  When I talk to the councils in some of those areas, they’re absolutely crying out for engineers. They just can’t get enough people.

We offer engineering in Bendigo, so students come in from Bendigo and surrounding areas. After studying, they very often decide to go and work in the regional areas they’re from and contribute positively to the growth of the state, which is really, really fantastic.

Discover where our engineering courses could take you.

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