Transforming engineering practice in Australia could result in a prosperous future based on clean energy, while in developing countries it could unleash a new wave of economic growth, according to a new book, to be launched at The University of Western Australia on Monday 10 November.
The Making of an Expert Engineer by Professor James Trevelyan of UWA's School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering is the result of more than a decade of world-leading research on engineering practice.
In the preface Professor Trevelyan writes that while our living environment is dominated by buildings, cars, roads, communication, food, medicines and water, few people connect these with the work of engineers. Even when they do, the work of engineers is hard to appreciate, much of it invisible even to the engineers themselves.
"Many of the engineers I met started by telling me how they hardly did any real engineering work: design, calculations, and the solitary technical work that they learnt to do in engineering school," Professor Trevelyan said.
"Instead, their lives seemed to be filled with what one described as ‘random madness', seemingly trivial and routine paperwork, meetings, phone calls, frustrations, confusion and misunderstandings. The consequences are affecting all of us.
"In Australia, national income is falling partly because of declining productivity. Politicians and businesses point fingers at unions. However, the reality is that huge machines, process plants and information systems dominate our workplaces. The days when labour costs were our main concern have long gone.
"What counts today is the effectiveness of these large machines and engineered systems. It's the job of engineers to make sure that production workers get the most out of them, and can predictably meet the expectations of investors. Delays and cost blow-outs on huge projects like the National Broadband Network and Gorgon are a tangible manifestation of the same issue. And it extends far beyond Australia.
"Safe drinking water for the poorest people in our world costs as much as 30 times more than here in Australia, even where pipes and taps have been installed. This is mostly due to invisible indirect costs like unpaid labour by women and children carrying drinking water because piped water does not arrive or is unsafe to drink. The developing world has some of the most world's attractive investment prospects, if only engineers could learn how to deliver predictable results for investors."
Professor Trevelyan believes his book has a transformative agenda to change this. "In Australia, particularly in the West, we have much to gain from this research," he said.
"With declining commodity prices, our future prosperity from the mining boom depends more than ever on clever engineering. The book draws on lessons from major international resources project failures to help future generations of engineers deliver the predictable results that encourage investors, avoiding the recent cost blowouts that have soured our reputation.
"Improving engineering practice could turn around Australia's poor record in commercialising our scientific research, attracting new investment, and building a prosperous hi-tech future based on clean energy and providing sustainable technologies for our region.
"Transforming engineering practice in low-income countries could unleash a huge new wave of economic growth, simply by providing basic services at similar cost to industrialised countries using sustainable energy resources to meet the growth in demand."
The book will be launched by Peter Meurs, Director of Development at Fortescue Metals Group, next Monday November 10, from 4pm to 6pm at The University Club of Western Australia, Hackett Entrance 1.
Blog and website for the book.