Australia’s leading engineering faculties believe that more industry collaboration means better outcomes for everyone involved. Here are some of the big issues that can be tackled when we work with each other.
After a recent OECD report placed Australia last in a ranking of developed countries for collaboration between industry and academia, the Deans of Engineering at 10 Australian universities came together to advocate for stronger industry collaboration by identifying 10 areas of technology development where Australia can contribute to the future.
The 10 universities were the Group of Eight (Adelaide, ANU, Melbourne, Monash, Sydney, UNSW, UQ and UWA) plus Newcastle and Wollongong.
The Dean of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, Professor Iven Mareels, said that while he doesn’t agree entirely with the findings, arguing there is more industry collaboration that wasn’t recognised in the report, he feels there needs to be better communication between industry and academia.
“First, why is there a communication breakdown?” he asked.
“Why do we believe that technologies have to come from overseas and not from Australia? We are one of the few countries in the world with all these universities very highly ranked and there’s a lot of innovation going on. Why isn’t the translation happening? There might be a number of reasons, but I would think communication is a very important first step, so let’s talk.”
Mareels said that their list of 10 top technologies is a good opening line in that conversation.
“Here are 10 top technologies that, as universities, we believe are going to be important in the future and that we are making a contribution to,” he said.
“Then maybe industry can react to that and say, ‘Okay, we’re not interested in any of these ones, but we’re interested in this and that’ and maybe there’s a dialogue there that we can go forward with. The top 10 technologies all have some conversations already happening in them. I just want to build on what is there and then make it better.”
Professor John Dell, Dean of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics at the University of Western Australia, said communication is part of the issue but just as important is building trust with industry.
“Clearly communication is one way of building trust,” Dell said.
“But actually starting the process, solving a small problem for somebody generates that trust in a relatively organic type of way.”
He said working with industry to understand their problems generates joint ventures to solve those problems, and provides inspiration for new areas of research.
“Why would academics want to work with industry?” he asked.
“The answer is, they need to show impact, but it’s also how they actually find interesting problems to work on. Ultimately, it’s how we create new industries and actually generate jobs for the future.”
Dell said there are lots of areas where Australia is or can be world leaders, including biomedical engineering, agriculture, big data and robotic vision.
“The work that Dr Fiona Wood did on burns victims, effectively spray painting skin, is one of the very innovative things that we’re doing,” he said.
“In mining, companies are generating huge amounts of data. Those data sets let you look at how you manage load in a truck, so that you optimise its loading. You need the engineer to actually do the translation between the data and the problem and often the solution, but identifying where that solution is, is all around handling big data.”
Mareels agreed that automated mining and bionic devices such as cochlear implants are clear examples of where Australia is leading the world but there are other places where we can do that, such as solar energy.
“Although we have done very good work in solar energy, we actually haven’t realised the opportunity to Australian companies,” he said.
“A lot of the energy that we use and consume is for heating and cooling purposes and they have thermal inertia so, in fact, there’s an awful lot of storage available on the demand side of the network that we’re not exploiting right at the moment. Looking at smart grids, there is an opportunity to explore how much heat storage actually is in the grid and use that.”
The third area where the group thinks there needs to be a better conversation is with government. Mareels suggested that engineers in academia and industry should be sitting around the table with government discussing the problems faced and the options available.
“The next hundred years planning for the country is not going to be easy. We have climate change on our doorstep. We have some really big changes to make if we want to be sustainable in our economy with respect to energy,” he said.
“How do we do that? How can we afford it? Those conversations have to be had and, in the end, governments are going to responsible for the solutions implemented.”
Top 10 technologies
- Future Cities: Cities must adapt to climate change. Homes and offices won’t be just carbon neutral – they will move beyond zero and generate more energy than they use.
- Energy: Not only are engineers developing new technologies, they are creating ‘intelligent’ grids that seamlessly integrate and deliver electricity from different sources.
- Advanced Materials: Engineers are creating materials with designer properties that promise to transform manufacturing, medicine and the process of science itself.
- Big Data: Moving beyond cloud computing; Australian engineers are pace setters in federated computing.
- Manufacturing: Australian manufacturers must adapt to global competition pressure, and deliver into a global market in order to survive. Leading-edge technology and innovation are key.
- Robots: Robotic technology has made its mark in manufacturing, and presently mobile robots and drones range from entertaining toys to combat-hardened systems in the front line of conflict zones.
- Precision Farming and Food Security: Engineers are working with agricultural scientists to improve strategies and technologies for dryland farming.
- Medtech and Health: Engineers are creating technologies to help people lead longer, healthier lives.
- Cyber Security: Engineers design intrusion detection systems adopted by financial organisations and anomaly identification software to separate legitimate from malevolent clients.
- The Networked Society: Social scientists, legal experts, and engineering and IT specialists will need to collaborate to harness the true potential of a networked society in service of society.