Graduation address given by Emeritus Professor Grant Steven

Emeritus Professor Grant Steven, School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, University of Sydney, gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Engineering & Information Technologies graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 18 May 2012 in the Great Hall.

The photo of Emeritus Professor Steven is copyright, Memento Photography.

Emeritus Professor Grant Steven

Graduation address

Professor McCallum, Dean of the Faculty Professor Johnston, members of the faculty, parents and family, ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly the new graduates.

The purpose of being an engineer is to produce better things. I have been very fortunate in this regard and I trust each of you freshly-minted graduates will also.

So on the subject of ‘producing things’ I want to say a few words, somewhat auto-biographical in tone but universal in application, about the collaboration that lies behind so much of what engineers make and do, achieve and contribute.

At the age of 14 I started as an apprentice fitter and turner in John Browns Shipyard in Clydebank Scotland. In the first week, at the apprentice training school the Senior Fitter hands you a block of scrap steel and a file and demands a 1 inch cube (2.5cm). Three days later I return with my cube which had one corner dimension 2 thousands of an inch undersize. I learnt the importance of dimensional accuracy as I filed another lump of steel to perfect size. In the same cohort at apprentice school was a boiler maker who survived by telling jokes, which today earn him – I am talking about Billy Connelly – millions. One I always remember from 6.30AM one winter, -10C, wind 20knots.

Two Scots are hammering floorboards down in a house.
Rab picks up a nail, realises it’s upside down and throws it away.
He carries on doing this until Jimmy says "Why are you throwing them away?"
"Because they're upside down" says Rab.
"You daft idiot" replies Jimmy "save them for the ceiling!!"

I survived by keeping my head down. I learned how to make marine gearboxes and put together diesel engines with cylinders 1.5 m in diameter. I worked in the drawing office for the QE2 and later in life in Sydney harbour took three of my kids in our little tinnie, dodging the security, to touch the ship as something their dad had helped to make. Such ships are a giant collaboration.
The decision to learn how to design ships led me to the James Watt engineering Laboratories at Glasgow University and thence into academic life. Interestingly, entry to the Engineering School did not need matriculation (HSC) Latin!!!!!!!!! Makes me feel old.

James Watt, another Scot, in 1767 invented external condensation to make the steam engine much more workable. Prior to this, internal condensation of the steam by throwing buckets of water over the cylinder was clumsy in the extreme!!!!

I wish I had lived through this remarkable period of the industrial revolution in the 19th Century Europe, especially Britain. To have been part of the collaboration in R&D that led to steam engine and machine tools for manufacture and production would have been marvellous.

Instead I have been equally fortunate, I have lived through what I regard as the second industrial, no technical revolution, with the semiconductor leading to the computer and nuclear fission, (not quite sure where that is leading). As a boy we had no phone, no fridge and out of town there was no electricity.

In my reading of the history of all these great inventions, the collaborative effort of all those that go before the final flash of genius often gets ignored. A good example is the significant pioneering work of Australian Lawrence Hargrave on aerodynamics and flight stability that found its way via Alexander Bell and Sam Langley to the Wright Bros powered flight in 1903.

In the middle part of my career as Laurence Hargrave Professor of Aeronautics here at Sydney University from the mid 80s till 2000, there were many new and significant initiatives that brought research and teaching together, in partnership - rather than keeping apart those two main activities of the academic profession, as too often they can be in universities. The procurement and redevelopment of the B707 flight simulator to the variable stability simulator we see today for student teaching and research is a world only. Well done to Peter Gibbens and Doug Auld, as is the Jibaru construction and flight mechanics research platform, the varied range of UAVs from KC Wong, the development of the method of Evolutionary Structural Optimization and its many derivatives have helped engineers all over the world.

The invention by Graeme Bird of the Direct Simulation Monte Carlo method for low density gas dynamics behaviour in space vehicles at re-entry, used by the Space Shuttle and other vehicles.

One day my eldest daughter asked as I arrived home late again, to help with her maths, “what do you do all day at the university dad”. This made me think, “I make graduates” I proudly replied.

Today I am still involved in making things, albeit more abstract. Perhaps many here have heard of the Finite Element Analysis code Strand7? That we started it in Aero in the mid 1970s. Now engineers like Tristram Carfrae of Arups and designers like Frank Ghery have their ideas for Olympic Stadia and museums designed and analysed with Strand7 to ensure they can withstand all that happens on many good days or a very bad hair day, a few earthquakes, 6m of snow and 5000 engineering undergraduates having a party, whatever. These two famous engineers are just a few of our over 4000 commercial clients. Most things designed and built in Australia use Strand7 in some way, so I feel very proud to have been there at the start, in collaboration with others.

Collaboration produces results that are – so the saying goes - greater than the sum of parts. And so, while not wishing to detract from your individual sterling efforts, you graduates are a perfect example of the partnership that went on in your family, and interactions with school and the university.

Our current world is full of challenges, climate, fuel, food security and others. I trust you will be part of the answers, mostly brought about by collaboration across disciplines and countries. This reminds me of another story from somewhere about how Scotland solved its fuel crisis.

Newsflash—The Scots have solved their own fuel problems. They imported 50 million tonnes of sand from the Middle East and they're going to drill for their own oil.

It seems to me that graduation is a suitable moment - of ‘transition’ - to acknowledge all the labours that are hidden, but not immaterial, in producing us as graduates and engineers. There are inputs from so many directions – the teachers, the great thinkers and authors past and present, the engineering profession at large, the universities that train us, and also not forgetting the households that shape our minds ..all these inputs, visible and invisible ... together, these feed our ideas, our knowledge, our contributions to our profession and the world, our achievements before us here today, and shape who we become. There will be some families here today which have gone to extraordinary effort to achieve this goal.

Maybe those in political office in this country could indulge in a little more collaboration!!

So as Max said to the Wild Things “Let the wild rumpus start”, on with the celebrations and well done. Thank you.