Engineering Connections with Prof Matthew Dunbabin
Season 4, Episode #2
Welcome to Season 4 Episode 2
Matthew says he always had a curious mind. With his dad working in construction he was always wondered how are they doing that?
In year 12 Matthew had a decision to make. He knew he was going into engineering, but was torn between chemical or aerospace.It was his love of cars and rally racing – something Matthew & Dom went on and on about off air – but it was this passion that lead him into the field of aerospace. And while he never did get a role in the race car industry, he is completely satisfied with his career to date.
I actually find that my career path has led me to some really interesting things, by experiencing different types of engineering
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: Engineers are going to be on the forefront of solving the world’s BIG challenges.
I actually really enjoy going into work each day and trying to solve the big challenges
Advice: Don’t try solving engineering problems in isolation. It’s important to build upon the foundation an engineering degree gives you
opening your eyes to beyond your current degree
The entire Space Mission
what really impresses me.. the ability of people to really think outside the box when there was no solution at all
I always admire people that had no foundations to begin with
Matthew Dunbabin received his Bachelor of Engineering in Aerospace Engineering from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and his PhD from the Queensland University of Technology. He started his professional career in 1995 as a project engineer at Roaduser Research International, and following his PhD joined the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in the Autonomous Systems Laboratory before joining the Queensland University of Technology in 2013.
He currently holds the position of Professor at the Queensland University of Technology as well as Chief Investigator at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV).
He conducts transdisciplinary research into environmental robotics focusing on advanced perception-to-action solutions with application to large-scale management and monitoring challenges.
A strong advocate of robotic systems in civilian applications, Professor Dunbabin is involved in a number of initiatives aimed at promoting, educating and demonstrating autonomous systems to a range of interest groups nationally and internationally.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 4 Episode 2
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Matthew Dunbabin
Mel or Dom: [00:00:00] it’s just amazing with engineering how I am so far away from working in the car industry these days, although it’s still something that I do as a hobby on the side.
[00:00:08] I know a lot of people that I started university with it, they all had the same story, but then roads take them in a very different direction.
[00:00:16]Matthew: [00:00:16] Absolutely. And I think my career is very much like that. Even though I did aerospace engineering, my first job was actually designing road trains in Northern territory for the mining industry. And these are big combinations where we do computer modeling and then actually got to build and try and roll these things over.
[00:00:35] They had to be as safe as the vehicles are out there now. And that was just a fantastic divergence away from my formal training, but you can take those learnings across and it’s fantastic.
[00:00:45] Mel or Dom: [00:00:45] Can I just check? Did you have hopes that you would still get into cars by the time you finished your degree?
[00:00:50] Matthew: [00:00:50] Yes. we actually had family friends that ran formula one over in the UK, and yeah, you’re always having in back your mind, you’d love to be working there, but there just wasn’t that opportunity in Australia. And, I’m actually.. I’m not regretful that I took this job. I actually find that my career path has led me to some really interesting things, by experiencing different types of engineering.
[00:01:11] And yeah, I have no regrets at all, but it’s a shame that you never get to work in there, but I want so many more things.
[00:01:19] Mel or Dom: [00:01:19] So tell us a little bit more about that first job of yours.
[00:01:22]Matthew: [00:01:22] Yeah. Well, straight out of university, I was actually fortunate enough to get a job at a company called road user research. It was a consultancy that did simulation analysis of heavy vehicle combinations, for all sorts of different environments, whether they be road trains, whether it be for road safety all across the world.
[00:01:42] But actually, my first job when I started there was actually accident reconstruction. that was to try and determined the unfortunately fatal accident, but determine the stresses and impacts during that truck hitting a tree and how can that be used to help design new safety cabins and things like that.
[00:02:01] So it was sort of a baptism of fire, but it was a fantastic learning experience to work with senior engineers in that environment for a very unique case that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a lot of engineering firms.
[00:02:12] Mel or Dom: [00:02:12] no, it would have been fascinating too, because it would have been, I can imagine it’s almost like detective work coupled with engineering, to sort of work backwards in relation to what had happened and then what you can apply from that.
[00:02:25] Matthew: [00:02:25] Exactly. And I got to learn a whole heap of new skills that use, you know, like finite element analysis. Just general structures of how things are built, heat treatment of metals, things that from an aerospace degree, I wasn’t really exposed to that. There was a sort of, you have that foundational skill set we can take and apply . And that actually went to a couple of accident reconstruction and roll over analysis where you use your dynamics, use your statics, use your physics, all those types of skills where you just have to be creative in bringing them together to solve a problem that there was no textbook solution for.
[00:03:02]Mel or Dom: [00:03:02] Matt, you’ve had a long journey in your career so far, so before we get to where you are now, what’s something that you’ve worked through too that’s really interesting for you?
[00:03:14] Matthew: [00:03:14] Well, there’s been a lot, and I must admit it’s always one of those things where I’ve been learning so much throughout my career that where I am at the moment is really trying to apply engineering with biology with ecosystem reconstruction to actually rebuild coral reefs.
[00:03:33] So we’re actually using robotics systems to rebuild coral reefs. And this is something that it’s not my career path. Yes. I started off in aerospace. I moved to trucks, actually moved to mining robotics, and now I’m sort of in this area, which I like the term environmental robotics. It’s where we can bring together different groups of people to solve problems that we now have the technology, we now have the materials, we now have the know-how to start to address that we couldn’t do even five years ago. Let alone when I started my career. So I find engineering is a right way just to keep learning. I learn on a daily basis new things from different people, whether they be from engineering or they be from other disciplines.
[00:04:16] Mel or Dom: [00:04:16] That’s great to hear that. Cause it was when we were speaking with Bronwyn last week, that was what she was actually talking about was the fact that we as engineers need to keep learning. It’s such a critical component of our careers and that it should be a fundamental part of our careers so that we can not only further our own knowledge, but then also apply that knowledge to lots of other fields.
[00:04:35]So where are you actually working right now? You’re at QUT..
[00:04:38] Matthew: [00:04:38] Yes I joined QT in 2013 and prior to that I was with the CSIRO and I’ve been doing robotics probably now for about 12 years. And at QUT my role is in environmental robotics, and in particular I what we like to call transdisciplinary research, where we bring engineering with other disciplines, whether it’s , biology, geology, hydrology, all these types of other disciplines that aren’t traditional engineering to solve big problems.
[00:05:08] I have a role of being a connector because I have a background in engineering, but I also have embedded myself within these other disciplines. I try to bridge that communication gap between these different disciplines so that a biologist can talk to an engineer and an engineer can talk to a biologist.
[00:05:25] I find it quite easy to communicate and make linkages between the two disciplines
[00:05:30] And it’s actually one thing I find is engineers find it harder to communicate their ideas potentially to these other groups because we like to be very structured and very focused on the solution generalization, of course. I think that’s an important skill that we need to be training our engineers, is this ability to communicate ideas and also actively listen to some of the big problems so we can then try and find solutions.
[00:05:53]Mel or Dom: [00:05:53] You’ve mentioned yourself as being a role of a connector, and we’ve completely had episodes where fellow engineers have said that they’ve really struggled with the communication side of things, and that is something that needs to be worked on. How did you fall into this role is this a natural strength and talent that you’ve built on over time or is something that you actively work to improve upon?
[00:06:14]Matthew: [00:06:14] I always like to think I have a bit of time, it’s actually something I had to work quite hard on. And it actually came about because I have this natural curiosity to work with disciplines that I don’t know anything about, whether it be marine science and things like that. So I actually had to learn and I’ve made some fantastic friends just by interacting. I go out with them when they’re doing their surveys just to try and understand their problem. And I think one of the strengths is this idea of active listening, just listening to the way they talk, what they mean, the problems that they come up with and just active observing just to see, well, maybe I can do this a bit better or a different way. And that way we can come up with some really cool solutions. And I think that’s just the way that I’ve naturally progressed into this ability to communicate
[00:07:03] Mel or Dom: [00:07:03] That’s really cool. Yeah, that’s, that’s great. It’s like building on your natural ability that your interest. Do you tend to find that by being from a different role, that it actually gives you a unique opportunity to sort of look at things in a different way, in a different light.
[00:07:19]Matthew: [00:07:19] Absolutely. I think, I can’t remember the exact term that people use, but that’s it. The whole idea of having that helicopter view of the world, you know. I still remember the first time I went to a seagrass conference and it’s when I first got into Marine robotics. I knew absolutely nothing about it, but I went to every session and I just listened because a. it was totally new… every word was totally new to me there. And it’s like with engineering, you pick up the lexicon and you pick up the terms that people are using, the, the key challenges that they face and the general idea. So then you just. Naturally filter the information that becomes available and it’s just been, yeah, that ability just to sort of stand back and listen as well as talk.
[00:08:01] And I think that’s a key role that engineers just need to have and a lot of them have it and they’re trying to teach it at universities of course. But it’s also up to the person to have that genuine interest in knowing the subject matter and being able to interact with people like that.
[00:08:15] I think what I’ve observed during my time at particular university where I’m exposed to a lot more students than I probably would have had in the past is…. you get a couple of groups of people, some that are total introvert, some of the extroverts, but a lot of those introverts are incredibly gifted people and they understand the subject matter brilliantly, they’ve got great ideas. They just don’t know how to communicate or maybe have that lack of confidence to really go out. And I think that’s something that we need to be able to sort of reinforce and. You know, giving the students the opportunity to do that is a great way. So I myself, I actually lead a student competition for robotic boats, and we go to Hawaii every two years, and it’s an international competition.
[00:08:59] And one of the great things is the competition organizers make the students present. They have to present, every student has to do it as a part of a team, of course. They have to present their role on the team, their solution. They’re given a timeframe. So they have to be succinct.
[00:09:15] They have to be descriptive. And it’s actually been a fantastic wake up call for me, particularly when I’m trying to mentor these students to address that. Because what I’ve noticed is, particularly in the US, the students there…. I don’t know if they get their training during high school. They have this natural charisma and confidence that comes out of it, but our students that I take it went a lot just by listening to the way that they speak, the way that they present themselves.
[00:09:45] And I think that’s been a great learning experience for these students. And I think that’s something that we need to promote more at all levels, whether it be high school or during university and engineering training.
[00:09:57]Mel or Dom: [00:09:57] Do you find that it’s not just unique to engineers? It’s something like that’s a bit of an issue across most of the science sort of fraternities.
[00:10:05]Matthew: [00:10:05] Not necessarily. I find that some sciences are naturally very social. They communicate quite well, and particularly like Marine science and biology, you know, people would get out in the field a lot they tend to have…. this ability to communicate and understand each other and do what they want. Whereas I think particularly in engineering, you can actually isolate yourself a lot into a problem and if you’ve locked yourself away on a particular problem, you’ve come up with an awesome solution.
[00:10:33] But then how do you sell that to your boss? Or how do you sell it to your client? sometimes you’ve sort of lost that ability to think about too much in the details.
[00:10:41] Mel or Dom: [00:10:41] going to say it’s very much the case of you haven’t brought your client on the journey with you as you’ve solved the problems, you really need to bring them on the journey so they understand how A equals B, that kind of progress.
[00:10:55]Matthew: [00:10:55] yeah, so absolutely. And it’s not just, you know, taking the, client on the journey, but also understanding the client’s needs properly. Having that ability to communicate and understand what they want. Because often we make a lot of assumptions we think what they want without actually asking what they want.
[00:11:11] And I think that’s a skill that good engineers have. You know, they really try to understand the problem. Some guide to the nth-degree of absolute specificity in the solution before they even start. Whereas, in my particular field, we do a lot of research where we don’t know the answer, so we have to ask enough questions to understand the problem space and the client needs, but also have that freedom to explore and promote ideas to the client and bring them on that journey.
[00:11:38] As you just mentioned.
[00:11:39]Mel or Dom: [00:11:39] It’s almost as though you need uh, a sales component to your arsenal in regards to, you know, what you can do as an engineer. Cause I was actually going to say like, how do we put this into the curriculum? Like is it a part of the curriculum from a high school that they need to be presenting?
[00:11:56] Like what can we be doing to improve that standard of communication with engineers and that connection with engineers to other areas.
[00:12:07] Matthew: [00:12:07] Yeah, well, I’m starting to see it now. I’ve got a son that’s in middle school now, and what I’m very delighted by is. I think schools are realizing that students, particularly with social media and things probably aren’t communicating as much as they used to and they’re actually bringing in presentation skills.
[00:12:23] They’re bringing in group assignments where they actually have to communicate, they’re doing scenario matching that type of, they may do that in the university as well. You’re giving them opportunities to communicate and be part of a team and when they have to present as one they have to understand each other and make sure that they have communicated.
[00:12:41]But we can always do more. And I think that’s not just the role of the universities, but typically when you’re doing your engineering degree, you go out and you do your, your work experience as part of Engineers Australia to get that accreditation. I think employers should be also, sort of, giving opportunities to the potential graduates or new employees, the ability to, to communicate with the rest of the staff. Even if they’re not talking with clients to listen to the client’s needs and those types of things, just give them that, that well rounded experience of what it requires to be a good manager or good engineering manager and a good engineer in general.
[00:13:14] Mel or Dom: [00:13:14] Yeah. I agree completely. Cause it’s one of those things particularly with, junior engineers that they need that experience and sticking them in a corner and just giving them repetitive tasks isn’t getting the help they need to be there to go to the meetings and to go out onto site and to experience what it is they will be experiencing when they’re a senior engineer, or when they’re running projects. And the more knowledge that they can absorb, the more rounded an engineer they’re going to become.
[00:13:43] Matthew: [00:13:43] Absolutely. And I try to be a mentor, particularly for my students. As I mentioned I do a competition each year. I have a lot of honors projects that I try and mentor students. Even though, I mean university now, I have worked in consultancy and I try to actually make it more like a…. like a business scenario, when they’re doing their project with their weekly meetings and things. So it’s not just me supervising to make sure they’ve done their, their project. It’s more, you know, giving them feedback, making them present, making them relate to me. I, I’m essentially their client.
[00:14:10]And I can provide that feedback. And I think that mentoring role is something that industry can provide a lot of. There is some absolutely. awesome engineering firms, engineers, that can provide general mentorship to a lot of students.
[00:14:22]Mel or Dom: [00:14:22] Are you finding the teaching of the soft skills is across the board with other universities as well?
[00:14:29] Matthew: [00:14:29] I can’t speak for all universities, but I think communication it’s becoming a bigger topic. we’re giving them, the students, more opportunities to present in groups. I’m seeing group assignments more. I’m seeing promotion of extracurricular activities, whether it be the motor sport clubs, whether it be the robotics clubs, those types of things, where they’re entering competitions they have to present, they’re developing their skills as teams. So I think that giving students more opportunities to develop those skills. And I imagine it’s something that is foundational to a lot of curricular that these students get exposed to?
[00:15:08] Mel or Dom: [00:15:08] And so if this is b eing increased within the curricular that the engineer’s are studying or the future engineers are studying, what would you say the future of engineering is going to be like?
[00:15:18]Matthew: [00:15:18] Personal. I think it’s going to be super exciting. I actually really enjoy going into work each day and trying to solve the big challenges. And I think there are a lot of big challenges that we are facing and our engineers are going to have a foundational role in dealing with those challenges.
[00:15:35] And it is going to require this whole idea of communication. It’s going to require new ways of addressing problems. you know, we’ve got a technology pace that is incredibly hard to keep up with. New ideas. But then we actually find it, we can revisit old problems back from, you know, centuries ago, the engineering problems that are solving new challenges.
[00:15:57] And I think it’s that ability to sort of look at the bigger picture, seeing where we’ve come from, where we’re going, bring all that together with different disciplines because it’s not just the engineering, the hard engineering problems, it’s the soft social environments. And that’s why we have so many different degrees, whether it be engineering, computer science, social sciences, creative industries, because in essence, they’re all part of being creative.
[00:16:22] But how do we bring those together to make a better society? And I think that’s what the future of engineering will be, essentially being able to think outside the box, be part of that team, come up with innovative solutions. There’s going to be new focus that we’re seeing in, you know, we’ve already seen from the recent challenges with COVID that if we might think sustainable or we have less influence on the environment, we’ve already seen parts of the world that have been… air quality been claimed, seen water quality been cleaned.
[00:16:49] So maybe we can use this as a learning experience to change the way we engineer systems to be either more friendly on the environment or do things a different way. You know, we have that opportunity now, so it’s gonna be very exciting.
[00:17:04] Mel or Dom: [00:17:04] So what would you say to engineers that are just starting out?
[00:17:07] Matthew: [00:17:07] Something that I really enjoyed doing is learning something new about every three years I tend to just take a bit of a tangent in the general direction. I think just opening your eyes to beyond your current degree. You just get these foundational skills of engineering that allow you to really diversify. And if you have an interest in a particular area, you can just sort of take that bit of a road and just explore. You gather more skills, become a more not just a well rounded person, but you become a more employable person, potentially. You can diversify your abilities. we’re now in a global market and I think just having that ability to, to look around beyond your immediate surroundings to the bigger world of engineering and the bigger world of challenges that we face. I think is going to be pretty exciting.
[00:17:54]Mel or Dom: [00:17:54] We’ve spoken about it a few times before that it’s such a wonderful career because you start in one spot and you look back on your career after 10 years and think I know how I got here. And the journey to get here, it’s been so enjoyable because I’ve learned all these wonderful things, and you just gathering knowledge along the way.
[00:18:11] Matthew: [00:18:11] absolutely. And I mentioned, I started off in aerospace. I’d love to do a second doctorate in Marine science, but I actually like the fact that I bring an engineering perspective to Marine science. And I think that’s where the new solutions that are coming from. I diversified my general thinking and general knowledge base to include biology, to include those types of things.
[00:18:32] But I’m still an engineer at heart and I can really look at the world in a sort of a different way or the solution space in a different way than what potentially biologists might. And it’s those types of things, when you can bring those two skill sets together that you can really make a big change.
[00:18:46] Mel or Dom: [00:18:46] Yeah. I think engineers that have hobbies can really, really change the world because they bring so much more to the table. But just to finish off, what’s the piece of engineering that really has impressed you?
[00:18:57]Matthew: [00:18:57] Something that’s really impressed me…. I actually didn’t really appreciate engineering to its fullest until the, probably about eight or 10 years ago when I watched a series called Moon Machines, and this was on the US space program. We know a lot about the rockets and those types of things, but the engineering that really impressed me was pretty much three technologies. One was the space suit. You know, nobody’s ever thought of a space suit and they actually combined with textile manufacturing, I think it was Playtex bras to actually come up with a solution to keep people alive in space.
[00:19:33] The other one was . Before that we didn’t have computers , the ability to create integrated circuits sort of came out of that program. And then just general thinking about, well, how do you fold up a Lunar Rover to fit in the little side of a capsule, no bigger than five by five feet.
[00:19:49] You know, and it just astounds me that, that technology is 60 years old. It’s not that at all. and we’ve come so far. And that’s what really impresses me, the ability of people to really think outside the box when there was no solution at all, to come up with something that eventually put a man on the moon.
[00:20:06] But I think just the individual technologies and engineering themselves, a marvels in their own right. So that was really good.
[00:20:11] Mel or Dom: [00:20:11] Yeah. It’s the ultimate playground of problem solving. Yes, definitely. Like you’ve got one big mission, and it’s one of those clear images of what the client wants. The client wants somebody on the moon, and the engineers are responsible from working out and how to get there. And as long as you achieve that goal of that person on that moon, you know, you can make, you’ll make miracles on the way there.
[00:20:33] So it’s, yeah, I definitely love that projects involved just to make that happen
[00:20:39] Matthew: [00:20:39] Yeah. when there’s no solution at all, there’s no, there’s no foundations to build on yes, we had structures from aerospace and stuff, but a lot of it they had to invent even the tools to actually start looking at the solutions. it’s fantastic.
[00:20:53] Mel or Dom: [00:20:53] So just to finish up, do you have an engineer that you admire?
[00:20:56]Matthew: [00:20:56] I always admire, sort of like that moon thing. I always admire people that had no foundations to begin with. And I’m actually going back quite a few hundred years. I actually admire Leonardo DaVinci. Everybody sort of knows him as the painter, or the inventor, but he’s actually an incredible engineer. Some of the ideas… and this is a great example of him being able to communicate his ideas. yes, he was a fantastic artist, but he’d have these ideas that well.. Centuries before they could even be built. The technology was there to be built. He was able to draw them, he was able to communicate what he was trying to do and I think it was just a great engineer to have that creative thinking, that ability to also describe what he’s trying to do.
[00:21:42] And in some ways he also built some of these solutions as well. So yeah. Yeah, that is a great role model.
[00:21:49] Mel or Dom: [00:21:49] it’s a perfect example as well as what you were saying before, I love it. Modern engineering is look to the past to some of the things that he had done so long ago, and they’re still relevant today. They still form the basis of some of the things that we’re doing today.
[00:22:04]Matthew: [00:22:04] Yeah. He’s an amazing guy.
[00:22:05] Mel or Dom: [00:22:05] Yeah. I love how it ties back into the hot topic of the communication element as well. So thank you so much for joining us tonight. It’s been really wonderful. Yeah, thanks so much. It was great speaking with you.
[00:22:16]Matthew: [00:22:16] My pleasure. Thank you.
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