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“…To be honest , I  was really scared when I first came to your lecture for CHE3163 last semester, you were really intimidating when asking questions and started pointing out to students when we remained silent. And I really hated how you always don’t give clear cut answers when we asked you questions , but as time progresses, when I started taking CHE3166 , I understood that the engineering world does not revolve around one answer. You made me think more than I used to when designing for the baby project. Thank you so much for being one of the best lecturers ,and I admired you for being an engineer, an industrial expert who had the chance to see “everything” in the chemical engineering world. It’s sad that you had to leave before I complete my final year project next year and I hope we crossed paths in the future.”

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“…I heard that you won’t be with Monash Chem Eng in 2021. I just wanted to say that it would be a huge loss for the students and that I am sorry to hear that. You have shaped a major part of my study life at Monash and it is unfortunate that the future engineers won’t get that opportunity.  I would love to catch up and argue about some P&IDs and pumps next time I see you. I am sure you won’t disappoint with the dad jokes….”

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“Besides being the most practical lecturer I have ever met, I can say you are a very kind and funny teacher who genuinely cares about his students.
Initially, when I was in your process control class I was struggling to adjust to your way of teaching, however by the time I did <3rd year process design> and final year design I realised that process control and your methods of teaching us to think was, and will be, very very useful. 
Your knowledge about the industry will definitely stay with me in the future. Thanks for always being available to brainstorm our design issues with; either through email or last year rocking up to your office.
I feel very privileged that I was a Monash Chem Eng student while you were here too. It is a big loss for the future students that they will not be able to gain your practical knowledge and meet your awesome self. 
Thanks again John, take care….”

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“…On the one hand, I feel blessed that you did not leave before I finish university because with all honesty, I learnt the most from your units and you. On the other hand, I feel future students are not going to get the most out of their learning which is a huge drawback. 
I have thanked you before for everything but I would like to take this moment and thank you again. If our paths do cross one day I will be lucky. The best way to end this email is by saying that I have been your student for the past four semesters but the impact you had on me will last for a lifetime, you boosted my confidence and nurtured my engineering education. 
I wish you all the best in your future and I really do hope our paths cross one day. For there is no greater gift to give someone than education and I will be forever grateful….”

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“I just want to say that your units were some of the most fun I’ve had during my chemical engineering degree. You truly did impact my life and the lives of others. When me and my mates talk about uni we always talk about you and your hilarious dad jokes and your ability to make even dull content something fun to consume. You were a great lecturer. 
I understand that the decision was mutual between you and the department, as you said in your email, but it is still deeply saddening. The chemical engineering teaching facility and monash as a whole is losing something of great value this year. I feel sorry for new student who do not get to appreciate your witty banter and great teaching style. 
But all good things sadly have to have an ending. And you were a good thing, a really good thing.
I wish you nothing but the absolute best and I hope that you keep inspiring people in your next venture in the same way you have inspired so many during your time at Monash. 
Never lose the joy you have in work!”

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“…I have absolutely loved learning from you these past 3 years.

I just wanted to email you and say thank you. Specifically for this moment which really affected me. In the second semester of 2017, I sat in a crowded E3 lecture theatre for Process Design, not sure if Chemical Engineering at Monash was right for me. My friends and I were doing double degrees with science, however we were unsure at the time if chemical engineering was the right engineering for us and I remember sitting in that classroom, looking at alternative options on my phone. And then you walked in, voice booming, unlike any lecturer I had had so far. Instead of putting up equations on the projector and speaking quietly about your research, you spent the lecture explaining what chemical engineering was, what you had done and how process design is about logic and common sense, all whilst cracking jokes and getting people up to the front to demonstrate. I left that lecture with a massive smile on my face, knowing that chemical engineering was exactly what I wanted to do.

Throughout the years, I also had you for Process Control and Sustainable Processing 2. Every semester, I could not wait for your units and loved being part of your lectures. You consistently challenged me, made me think outside the box, whilst ensuring students had fun. You engaged with students, learned their names and gave up your time week-after-week to help them.  You made chemical engineering at Monash an amazing experience and I speak for last year’s cohort here when I say – I could not imagine my time at Uni without your guidance, support and development. You were the face of so much of my education here and without you, the department would be a shadow of itself.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.
Feel free to email/call me if you ever want to catch up over a coffee or a BrewLab beer.
Love the dad joke as well <3

Warm Regards Eddie”

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Normally I try to keep my notices and communications somewhat upbeat, but this time I must apologise in advance for some sad information.

It appears some individuals and/or companies are using COVID19 unethically.

I do not have hard and fast proof, just anecdotal evidence, but there is a lot (a LOT) of anecdotal evidence.

And, as engineers, we pride ourselves on being responsible members of the community. Or we should. But maybe I need to change my attitude toward my engineering peers.

I have three examples:

Example 1: Tendering. The COVID19 crisis means a lot of engineering work is slowly drying up. Tenders that normally would attract maybe 4 or 5 companies are now attracting 15-20 companies. This is normal, but … the bidders for the tenders are padding their credentials by listing very experienced contractors as key team members – without knowledge of the individual very experienced contractors. I believe the technical term is “bait and switch”. In my opinion, this is a form of identity theft, but I might be over-reacting. Aside, please do not contact me with a legal definition of identity theft, but I do think this meets the moral definition of identity theft.

Example 2: Phantom jobs. This COVID19 activity seems to the work of recruitment agencies looking to build up their data base. Many people have told me of interesting jobs where people are needed ASAP. They tick all the boxes and apply … and hear nothing … and then see the same ad posted (say) 2 months later. Again, this is not illegal, but it is (in my opinion) immoral. While rejection is one thing, lack of information is worse, and given the stress on individuals that have lost work/jobs due to COVID19, this is a potential adverse contributor to mental health problems. There is a variation on this – where the job is advertised, but internally it is defined as an expression of interest, not a job. This one can be easily solved … the job board companies need to develop a method to ensure no phantom jobs are posted. I will leave it to them to determine the best way forward with that solution.

Finally, example 3: No return communication. Before I describe this problem, I need to say the culprit may not be engineers – instead engineers tend to be the victim. When a company legitimately is looking for someone, the people in the company are probably overwhelmed with communications from applicants. The expression of interest phantom job is also a contributor to this in communications – so many people are looking for work and looking for information about the job that the phone calls and emails are numerous. While this does increase the workload, it appears the solution of choice is to ignore phone calls and emails and just not respond. Many people have told me that the switchboard will not complete their calls (if the switchboard is attended), and messages are not returned. In the rare case you do get through to a person, they tend to be overwhelmed with the quantity of communications they need to coordinate – and because they are stressed (and have the power) they can be a bit abrupt on the phone. There is a similar situation with emails. One person on the other end of this situation has said they get over 300 emails per day. Valid … but digging deeper shows most of the emails are group emails where the discussion is ongoing, and the person “wants to be in the loop”. This can be changed if companies use email etiquette. Some simple rules for email etiquette:

  • Do not include everyone in the discussion, but include everyone in the resolution
  • Does your manager really need to know this? Aside … many young people think the answer is yes because the manager needs to know they are being productive – that is the other side of micro-managing (being micro-managed), and we all know micro-managing is bad.
  • Reply in a timely manner. I know I am sometimes guilty of this, but … if you have so many emails that it is negatively impacting your performance, you need an admin assistant. And that can help the economy by creating more jobs (yes this is wishful thinking, but … at least it is upbeat – and it will increase the productivity of the person receiving the 300 emails)

I am hoping that adapting to COVID19 does not increase unethical behaviour in the engineering community. Please let me know your observations. And stay safe and well.

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COVID19 has been a horrible disease, but it has caused some positive changes in the workplace. The “work from home” requirement has meant many people have had to change the way they work, often with surprisingly positive outcomes. Some examples …

Bosses must be less controlling. A micro-managing boss is never good but working from home has freed many people from the micro-management. They used to be able to survey the office and see who had “head down bum up” and they cannot do that in a work from home environment. Therefore, for them to maintain any form of total efficiency, they have had to learn to “let go” a little bit.

Voice communication is often more efficient than written communication. I am sure many of us have had to participate in too many zoom meetings / Microsoft Team meetings / Google meet meetings / etc, but the practice of two or three people meetings has really opened up productivity. Communications flow freely and the exchange of ideas is quick and more efficient. Yes, the need to write minutes does slow us down, and the paper trail is not as good, but if the session is recorded then the full benefits can be achieved. I have observed that my students that used text-based communication tools did not do as well as students that used voice-based tools.

Some meetings can be done remotely. If the meeting facilitator can keep the group together and focussing on the same thing, remote meetings can work well. This is a big savings in travel cost. In addition, working from home we are more casual, so the conversations tend to be more casual (and that often raises productivity because participants can relax a little).

Another benefit is … I do not have to fight traffic. My pre-COVID19 life was not conducive to public transport, so I drove. My commute has been reduced from close about 1-hour to a few seconds.

And that means … I get to see the family more. Lunch with the family is now normal.

Naturally there are downsides – and I am going to focus on the non-traumatic ones. For example, when my wife started working from home, she found me to be a more productive IT department than what she could get by phone from her employer.

The temptation to “work late” means we must learn how to turn off. Leaving the office – when the office is at home – requires a different mental disconnect from home and life than physical distance naturally provided.

My internet service provider … well … I had to really read the fine print. The “new normal” has really put extra load on our internet access. I must coordinate with others. For example, I cannot use some remote platform for some heavy-duty computing while someone else is downloading NetFlix. Again, increased and improved verbal communications is the key.

I have also found my patience has improved. Partly because I am experiencing many of the excuses I heard previously that did not apply (did not apply YET is probably a better way to make that statement).

One of the more interesting observations is from my friends that are migrants – they are feeling extra isolated. It is not the issue that we can use technology to communicate with relatives that are 20 hours away by plane – it is that they are 20 hours away by plane and the borders are closed. I expect my findings are not universal. If others have similar experiences to me, then the entire workplace will increase in productivity. Here is hoping significant parts of the “new normal” are better.

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I hope this does not sound like advertising, but I also hope you do not forget the small engineering companies and organisations that have worked with you in the past.

During the lockdown I have been blessed so far. I have been remarkably busy with my part time commitments to the university, and I have had two small consulting activities to fill in the gaps. Incredibly lucky for me.

One of them was quite interesting and is the basis for this blog. A small consulting company contacted me asking for some assistance. Seems one of their clients had a hydraulic problem with the manifolds that distribute water to a cooling tower. The header (a complex piece of fibreglass piping) had broken in a storm, and my contact was asked to provide some support while the replacement was rebuilt.

My contact and I took the opportunity to diagnose the root cause of the maldistribution and working with the client (getting both old and anecdotal data) we developed some scenarios to explain the maldistribution. Simple calculations were performed and refined, and a short list of possible causes was developed and presented to the client. After discussions with the client on our findings, there was enough there to justify going forward with one of our recommendations. While the details are confidential, we developed a quite simple path forward that centred on a simple piping modification. The client was able to restart with the new manifold, and reports are better than favourable (SUCCESS!!!).

In looking back over my consulting career, most of my non-training work has been small studies or niche problems. And many of them have not been local – they have been based on my international network. And outside of being a “gun for hire” for a large project, this tends to be the main purpose of small engineering companies. I am not sure what is in our small corporate DNA that gives us this advantage, but short-term problem identification seems to be a characteristic many small engineering companies share.

Small problem identification does not equate to small problem solution – often a larger company is required to implement a solution (because the solution is often a project). It is a symbiotic relationship where both benefit from the other – much like the oxpecker bird and the zebra have a symbiotic relationship. One could function without the other, but one functions better with the other. And clearly, they do not compete with each other.

The lockdown will cause unprecedented change, including causing the closure of many small companies. Several of these companies are less than ten-person companies with a few core individuals with years of knowledge and experience, and it would be a shame for that knowledge base to be lost prematurely. And like with many ecosystems, the more diverse the ecosystem, the healthier it will be. I am hoping our global engineering ecosystem can survive this lockdown, and recovery.

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In spite of issues of excessive screen time, I think most people would say the smart phone has had a very positive impact on their lives. There are countless apps that can be downloaded that make our life easier, more interesting, more fun, and/or more informed.

But … I am of the opinion that the smart phone is one of the biggest threats to any engineering career. And the very way we are taught to think and solve problems is contributing to that thinking.

I recently went to a talk about future technologies. One speaker talked about how someone had developed an app that would

+ select a suburb

+ search for property prices

+ search for material costs and labour prices

+ search for population trend statistics

+ develop some simple housing profiles of new homes that could be built

And then (and this is the “scary” part)

+ create all drawings needed for construction

+ estimate all materials needed

+ schedule all pertinent labour

+ develop a cost estimate for the completed house, including clearing and land acquisition

<and behind me, I heard one loud whisper say … “That’s my job!”>

I did not track down that person, but it was clear from the tone of the statement that they were concerned about their job and job future. In thinking about it, that person could transition into something more customised like vintage home restoration (possibly seamlessly) but some change would be needed to survive. And when is likely to be now.

How are we contributing to this “problem”? Well … as engineers, we tend to modularise our problems, and our solutions. We tend to make drawing modules (for example, what valves and instruments are needed for a pump). It makes it easy and cost effective to implement a solution because we have seen most of it (or all of it) before and we know what worked. Unfortunately, anything that can be modularised can be converted into an app.

Looking ahead to the future, I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. The students I am teaching have spent several years learning “this is the way to do this, this is the way to do that”, etc. I am amazed at how many “really good students” turn out to be only capable of entering numbers into their calculator. It makes my job extremely rewarding to see them actually “get it”.

I am convinced the way to stay ahead of an app is to understand why.  Understanding is something an app can not due yet (and it will take many advances in artificial intelligence before an app can understand). I am trying to do my part in my training deliver – both industrial and academic – I find it my job to convey comprehension. It is difficult, but incredibly rewarding.