From a young age Tom was always wondering why. He wanted to know how things worked and would be taking things apart and putting them back together. This lead to an interest in science and really into problem solving. And he liked the idea that engineering was applied science.
His dad also had an influence on him. His dad was a periodontist – you know, doing teeth implants and such. His dad was running a conference and asked Tom to be the tech support. This conference really opened his eyes up the real work his dad was doing. The merging of materials with the human body.
Now, all this coupled with a self-confessed sci-fi fan….
my observation of them was that they could do anything that they wanted
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: Engineering in the health sector is going to explode
the number of different health areas that engineers are going to be working on will continue to grow
Advice: Be curious
don’t be satisfied with the current solution to things
Crash Test Dummies!
It’s really decades of research going into each body part
Colonel Strapp – an engineer who did a lot of pioneering work on the effects of deceleration on the human body.
He was willing to put his body on the line to answer these questions that needed answering
Tom is an injury biomechanics engineer with specific expertise in the mechanical impact response and tolerance of the human body, the design and testing of injury protective systems and motor vehicle crash investigation.
He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia and Deputy Director of the Transurban Road Safety Centre where he leads road safety projects using a state-of-the-art crash test sled.
Prior to this, he spent two years at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada working on defining the tissue mechanics and tolerance of the brain and spine as well as designing and testing helmets for preventing injury.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 4 Episode 16
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Tom Whyte
Tom: [00:00:00] I chose biomedical engineering and I’d have to admit that it was probably influenced a little bit by some science fiction movies.
[00:00:08]I liked the interface between a human and machines, so bionic limbs and bionic eyes and things.
[00:00:15] I got into engineering just to understand things in the world and hopefully make some improvements to some of those things for the better.
[00:00:22] Mel & Dom: [00:00:22] Wow. It seems like everything was going around you to point you in this direction, but I particularly love, and I’m sure it’s singing with Dom as well, in that what you were saying about problem solving, how that’s, what took you, because that’s something that you’ve spoken about a few times
[00:00:38] It is something that, I think there’s kind of a fundamental Driver for most engineers out there. I always feel as though that problem solving side of things, I think is something like that’s really key to engineering. do you remember the first project you worked on when you graduated from engineering?
[00:00:54] Tom: [00:00:54] I graduated from Sydney uni and joined a small consulting company in impact injury biomechanics, and that was small projects looking at injury prevention. So the design of injury protective devices. And in that company as well, we did a lot of expert witness work. So applying the principles of injury biomechanics to real world problems that were being resolved in the court.
[00:01:21] So that sort of peaked my interest in research because in doing that work, I sorta realized that there was still a lot of things we didn’t know about um, how we’re injured and how to prevent injuries. So whilst I was working at that company, I started a PhD and the topic I chose was looking at motorcycle helmet design.
[00:01:42] Mel & Dom: [00:01:42] Did you make any changes from that?
[00:01:43]Tom: [00:01:43] That was the intention. So it started with a crash investigation. So we, we investigated a hundred crashes across the Sydney area. Yeah,
[00:01:54] Mel & Dom: [00:01:54] That would not been pleasant. No..
[00:01:56] Tom: [00:01:56] No, these are all riders that ended up in hospital, so you can see how serious some of their injuries were. And yeah, as I said, I was primarily interested in the helmet.
[00:02:06] And so out of those hundred cases, what I found was that on their helmet. The vast majority of riders were sustaining an impact to the face area, but the way helmet was tested and designed the impact protection was only being offered, sort of eyebrows and above. So my PhD looked at using a number of techniques using crash test dummies, and again, some more computer models to see the best way to design the facial part of a full face helmet, because that’s the type of helmet most people were wearing and they were wearing it because they thought it offered more protection, but there was really no control over how that chin bar structure was designed.
[00:02:45]Mel & Dom: [00:02:45] Did you make are helmets changing because of the work that you did?
[00:02:49]Tom: [00:02:49] Well, a part of my work evaluated a standards test that was in the European motorcycle helmet standard and found that it was quite suitable in assessing the facial structure of full face helmets. And now that European motorcycle helmet is accepted in Australia. So, um, there are helmets out there that meet that likely have good protection.
[00:03:11] Mel & Dom: [00:03:11] okay. So your first role really put you in place with looking at impact and the effects on the body and how you can actually mitigate that with like a helmet or, uh, some sort of engineered design. whereabouts are you now?
[00:03:31] Tom: [00:03:31] So now I work at Neuroscience Research Australia. I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow there and also the Deputy Director of the TransUrban Road Safety Center. And so the main piece of equipment we have, there is a crash test sled, and that’s where we do most of our work. So we simulate car crashes in the lab and try to design solutions and safety systems to prevent injury in the event of a car crash.
[00:03:57]Mel & Dom: [00:03:57] Do you focus on any particular segment? Like, are you just throwing crash test dummies at walls all the time?
[00:04:04] Tom: [00:04:04] How we are doing that, but we have a lot of different folca I guess. one of the main ones is for children. We do a lot of work in child safety seats and the design and testing of child car seats. We’ve also done a number of studies looking particularly at older occupants. So we recently ran a study.
[00:04:25] How, because we noticed a lot of older vehicle occupants were taking comfort accessory into the car, like a cushion or a back support, but no one had ever tested if they have an effect on the seatbelt. So what we found was that some of these cushions and backs supports can influence how the seatbelt works in a negative way for an older occupant.
[00:04:46]And we’ve also done some more testing on injury risk for motorcyclists. So again, from that study, I mentioned that I was involved in with my PhD and another characteristic injury we saw in a motorcyclist was injury to the pelvis in a frontal crash. So we’re actually Taking that into the lab and recreating a frontal crash and studying the interaction between a rider’s pelvis, and the motorcycle fuel tank with the idea that potentially motorcycle fuel tanks could be redesigned so that there’s a lower risk of injury to the rider. And there also maybe the potential for protective equipment to the rider in that area.
[00:05:25]Mel & Dom: [00:05:25] Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of the back supports that have come out on the market. Those are spinal braces sort of thing. I don’t know what they’re called the skeletal thing. Yeah. That’s an exoskeletal thing. I’ve seen that in jackets and even just like backpack sort of looking things. But I haven’t thought about the pelvis
[00:05:44] and Neura’s located next to Prince of Wales.
[00:05:46] Isn’t it?
[00:05:47] Tom: [00:05:47] that’s right. Yeah. We’re connected to the Prince of Wales hospital and the University of New South Wales.
[00:05:52] Mel & Dom: [00:05:52] Okay. So do you collaborate a lot with the hospital and the university as well? In regards to a lot of the data and a lot of the information that can be exchanged
[00:05:59] Tom: [00:05:59] Yeah, definitely. We have contacts particularly the children’s hospital here as well. I’m looking at our child injury studies. so yeah, we have connections with academics at UNSW and also clinicians at Prince of Wales.
[00:06:12]Mel & Dom: [00:06:12] from an engineering perspective, with your role that you’re trying to find the problems with existing equipment. And if you do say for instance, that motorcycle example with the fuel tank, would you be responsible then for designing a fuel tank or some sort of protective equipment or a new modified?
[00:06:32] Was that, is that something within your role as well?
[00:06:35] Tom: [00:06:35] Yeah, for sure. in the first instance, are just looking at changing different parameters. To see what does affect pelvic injury risks. So we’ve looked at changes in the angle the fuel tank makes with the vehicle seat, as well as the posture. Because if you ride a different style of motorcycle, the way you sit on, it can be very different between a cruiser type bike versus a sports style motorcycle.
[00:06:59] So in the first instance, we’re just looking at those type of things and how they affect pelvic injury risk. But yeah, the plan is for us to make changes to the fuel tank in terms of materials, how they’re constructed, and maybe if you could strategically place some sort of energy absorbing material on the tank that may be able to reduce the risk of injury and in terms of protective equipment we’re lucky enough to be collaborating with a manufacturer protective equipment in Europe.
[00:07:30] And they use a whole host of different materials to make protective clothing. And they’ve sent us some prototypes, which we’re testing in the lab. And so it’s a collaborative effort working with them to try and find solutions that the rider would buy the accept and would be protective.
[00:07:46]so I guess in my role, as an engineer for safety, one of the first things that come to mind is just to keep innovating and keep on improving on current solutions and inventing new solutions to problems that may already have a solution because technology keeps advancing and we also get new understanding of a problem that lead to new and better solutions.
[00:08:08] So I guess as an easy example of this would be seatbelts. And that it’s one of the most important inventions in road safety ever. And I think they say that it’s saved more than a million lives, but the seatbelts we use today are nothing like the original seatbelt design. We’ve had many additions like what’s called a pretensioner, that can sense when a crash is about to happen and pull the seatbelt really tight. So it’s Intention on the occupant as the crash is happening and really allowing the occupant to benefit from the seatbelt. And another technology would be a load limiter. So whilst that pretensioner pulls tight at the beginning, a load limiter allows the seatbelt to Let go in a controlled fashion so that the load, the belt is placing across the chest is controlled.
[00:09:00] So it doesn’t cause fracture of your ribs in the crash.
[00:09:04] Mel & Dom: [00:09:04] Yeah. Having driven a few classic cars in my time. I do know of the advancements in seatbelt technology has going to come a long way from those manually adjusting ones where you, you know, you get in there and it’s like, Oh, my dad was in it. So you have to bring it down. So it’s a bit tighter against you and stuff.
[00:09:23] So it’s come a long way, even just the current seatbelts, like without all the fancy bits and pieces. But I love that that point you make, it’s like never stop innovating. I actually have a side podcast that that’s the slogan. Yes.
[00:09:39]Tom: [00:09:39] we may think we have a good solution to these things, but injury’s still the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 1 and 44. So we really do need to keep being conscious of that and seeing how these events are happening and see if there’s a better solution with new technology or with something completely new.
[00:09:59]Mel & Dom: [00:09:59] I’m almost out of that injury phase. Yeah. I’m sure that the other reasons for what?
[00:10:08] Tom: [00:10:08] Yeah. They are probably no better.
[00:10:11] Mel & Dom: [00:10:11] Yeah, that’s very true. With what you were saying in regards to continual innovation and that sort of iterative process. Is it also a case that every once in a while you need to try and step back and go, okay, this is great, but are we looking at this the completely wrong way? And we probably should try something different. As engineers, do we need to, also every once in a while really have a look at where we started and whether or not there was fundamentally something else that we could do.
[00:10:38]Tom: [00:10:38] Yeah, I think definitely. what comes to mind for me is the helmets aspect again, in that, That was sort of informed by a new understanding of how head injury happens. And so the original helmet was primarily designed to prevent fractures to the skull, and that has done a huge amount to preventing death and serious injury.
[00:11:00]But with that achievement made it’s definitely worthwhile stepping back with a new understanding of how head injuries that are occurring now. And so having prevented all the serious skull fractures, we still see brain injuries occurring in helmeted head impacts. So yeah, that ability to just step back and understand.
[00:11:24] So what do we know about how these injuries are occurring and brain injury biomechanics now. And is there a better solution that we can apply? I think it is definitely something we should always be considering. Yeah.
[00:11:38] Mel & Dom: [00:11:38] And you mentioned that there were a few challenges for engineers in the whole safety area.
[00:11:43]Tom: [00:11:43] I think another challenge is to keep anticipating where things might go wrong. So in road safety, we have this vision zero, which is looking towards zero deaths and serious injuries on the road some time in the future. And that philosophy sort of sits within.
[00:12:03] Acceptance that people are human and they’re going to make mistakes, but we need to engineer a system around that so that even with these mistakes there’s no potential for a death or a serious injury on the road. So that’s a interesting way to look at a a safety problem and it’s, and it’s certainly a big challenge.
[00:12:24] in that space, things are definitely going to change from what’s currently happening on the roads. And we see that in the lab, thinking about how the road system will change with the introduction of autonomous vehicles. So as the vehicles set up now that might be completely turned on its head when the vehicle can drive itself.
[00:12:44] So that means we have to go back to the drawing board on thinking about how to protect an occupant in a car crash, because. Whilst we have this idealic view that autonomous vehicles will never crash. There is certainly going to be crashes, particularly in the transition where these
[00:13:01] Mel & Dom: [00:13:01] You got
[00:13:02] Tom: [00:13:02] the road system.
[00:13:03] Exactly. So that’s something that we’re thinking about in terms of how do we protect an occupant in these new types of vehicles, how we’ll be sitting in different directions or even trying to go to sleep as the car drives us to our destination.
[00:13:20] Mel & Dom: [00:13:20] Yeah, it’s it ties very nicely back to your original one is never stop innovating because the landscape is always changing.
[00:13:29] Tom: [00:13:29] Yeah. Well, I guess they are related. Certainly trying to take one with the other. In anticipating what might happen, I guess there’s a bit of creativity and innovation in that itself.
[00:13:39]So in the safety space Traditionally safety systems were developed for just a mid midsize male occupant. So a hell of a lot of work went into developing a crash test dummy, but that crash test dummy, the first one that was developed was representative only of this mid sized male occupant.
[00:13:59] And so cars ended up being very safe for this one type of occupant, but much less so for the whole variety of occupants that sit in vehicles. So that’s why we need things like child, car seats, and child restraints to give a child an appropriate restraint for their size and for their tissues. And I think the challenge is that originally the underlying biomechanical data that informed the development of his crash test dummies was focused on male tissue because I think it was an attempt to try and control the variability that already exists in biology and in human tissues.
[00:14:39]So the challenge is to not shy away from this variability in human tissues and embrace it and understand that we are all different and we want to be protecting all of us.
[00:14:49] Mel & Dom: [00:14:49] Yeah, cause on the one hand you can’t build a crash test dummy that will represent every single person. Cause there’s this, as you said, there’s so many variables, but on the other hand, You can’t just have one
[00:15:03] Tom: [00:15:03] that’s right. Yeah,
[00:15:04]Mel & Dom: [00:15:04] yeah, it’s interesting that you’ve said that they’ve known for a long time. Are you using multiple crash test dummies in your slide experiments?
[00:15:14] Tom: [00:15:14] Yeah. In the lab, we have three crash test dummies that we own. And so we have one representative of a one year old child, a six year old child and a small female occupant. And we work closely with The center for road safety and transport for New South Wales and they have a full suite of different dummies of different sizes and genders, and for different uses, whether that be an occupant in the car or standing dummy to represent a pedestrian.
[00:15:43]Mel & Dom: [00:15:43] So these problems that we’ve been talking about how can engineers rise to the challenge and find the solutions for these problems?
[00:15:50]Tom: [00:15:50] So in terms of safety devices and always looking for innovative and new solutions, I think most of the control of these comes from product safety standards and regulations. and it’s really the job of the engineer to understand how these safety devices are going to operate and to create a test that the product has to go through so that these safety devices do what they’re meant to do. So, really these are safety systems that people use every day, like putting on a seatbelt and don’t think much about it. But an engineer has put a hell of a lot of work in the background to devise how these things should be tested and think about all possible scenarios that could happen, that the device needs to operate well for.
[00:16:37]Mel & Dom: [00:16:37] so how would engineers be constantly thinking of that sort of thing?
[00:16:41] Tom: [00:16:41] so in my field, it’s not just coming up with the solutions that’s the important part. It’s also in how you test something. So that’s understanding what is happening in the real world and devising a test that’s simple and repeatable, but measures everything that you need to so that the test represents what’s happening in reality.
[00:17:05]and then once you can simplify a test so that it doesn’t have to be a full scale crash of a car every time, but you can simplify it down to a test that can be conducted in a lab anywhere in the world, then it can. Be put into product safety standards or regulations and be controlled, in an easy way.
[00:17:26]Mel & Dom: [00:17:26] Yeah. It’s a lot of pressure there on the engineers to get that right. And to be able to roll it out globally for those high level of standards. So yeah, definitely.
[00:17:35] I do like what you were saying before as well, where there’s so much engineering that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t even think about the, you hop into a car, you put the seatbelt on and just off you drive and you don’t even think about… forget about all the engineering that went into the car, just that seatbelt in itself, just the amount of time and the amount of effort, the amount of testing that’s gone into that is just phenomenal.
[00:17:58] Tom: [00:17:58] Yeah, exactly right. I think people would be really surprised. if all the airbags in the car inflated at once to just to see that cocoon that covers a person in the car by these, these air bags, these days, and they’re all just hidden until they’re needed.
[00:18:12]Mel & Dom: [00:18:12] Yeah, definitely. So, what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
[00:18:16]Tom: [00:18:16] So in my area of engineering and health, I think engineers are going to continue to play a bigger and bigger role. so as I mentioned, I studied biomedical engineering, but the course I took was mostly a mechanical engineering degree. But I think since I studied the field of bio medical engineering has grown and is even more diverse than when I studied. Yeah. There’s people now working in fields like tissue engineering and bio materials and neural engineering and cellular engineering. and I think, just the number of different health areas that engineers are gonna be working on will continue to grow.
[00:18:55]and you can even say it in a response to the pandemic in that engineers have played a huge role, and it’s often behind the scenes, but engineers are involved in data analytics and tracking, tracking the virus and where it’s spreading as well as in things like innovative ways to produce personal protective equipment and testing and diagnostic devices.
[00:19:19]So I think in health the future for engineering is really bright and at the core of it, engineering is a way of thinking to solve problems. And I think that will always be needed.
[00:19:32]Mel & Dom: [00:19:32] Yeah, definitely. I’ve looked into some of the research they’re doing and I’m like, you can do that? You’re growing bones.
[00:19:40] How’s that? So, yeah, it is definitely a big area in the future that’s going to have a massive impact on humanity.
[00:19:48]Tom: [00:19:48] Yeah, well, very much breaks that science fiction style thing that I think I was looking at at the beginning of choosing my degree.
[00:19:56] Mel & Dom: [00:19:56] I’ll just be happy when I can start growing teeth. Yeah. Instead of having to get clients and stuff, you pull, dad would be out of business though. So,
[00:20:03] Tom: [00:20:03] I don’t think we would mind, I think, yeah. I think that would be a good result,
[00:20:06]Mel & Dom: [00:20:06] so what would you say to people just starting out in engineering?
[00:20:09]Tom: [00:20:09] I guess I would just say to be curious and keep asking questions and to not be satisfied with the current solution to things. So really interrogate whether you think that that’s the best way to do things, or if you think that there’s a better way to solve a problem.
[00:20:28]Mel & Dom: [00:20:28] I do like that answer. just a couple of questions to finish up. Is there a piece of engineering that impresses you?
[00:20:36] Tom: [00:20:36] How I’m lucky enough to work with pieces of engineering that impressed me every day in that crash test dummies really impress me because. It’s really decades of research going into each body part to understand how it moves, how it responds to an impact, what you have to measure in that body part to related it to injury, and then understand like what level of that measurement.
[00:21:03]does an injury occur. So that’s just been decades of research in itself. And it’s often this worldwide collaboration with different labs to understand all these factors. And then at the end of it, you have to build this humanoid thing out of mechanical components to incorporate all of that information.
[00:21:23] So yeah, every day I get to walk into the lab and set up this crash test dummy into a vehicle seat or a child car seat instrumented with accelerometers in their head or a chest compression sensor and undertake a car crash and then analyze what comes out of it and feel confident that that relates to what’s happening in a real crash and using that information to design systems and strategies for preventing injury.
[00:21:48]Mel & Dom: [00:21:48] What do they like to move around? Are they
[00:21:54] the same weight as what they representing? There are dead white, too sure. Are they really cumbersome to move anywhere?
[00:22:03] Tom: [00:22:03] They are! me and the lab manager at the Red Safety Center joke that we’d be terrible, had a, moving a dead body because they’re very heavy and very cumbersome. And yeah, a dead weight is hard to maneuver. Definitely.
[00:22:19]Mel & Dom: [00:22:19] And are you seeing crash test dummies, are they constantly evolving? Like I imagine with sensor technology being what it is and IOT and even what you were saying about the accelerometer, like how that’s advancing even just in your phones, but to put that in a crush test dummy… are you seeing that they’re evolving quickly, they’re becoming smarter, so to speak.
[00:22:40]They are, they are evolving. Tom: [00:22:41] The problem is that in regulation, a certain type of dummy gets entrenched in testing standards. So that seems to persist even if we have more advanced dummies now. So we’re lucky as a research lab, we can use the most advanced test dummies. Whereas in car crash regulations, they may be still using a dummy that’s a few generations older, but we get to use the newest stuff and we have the most advanced child dummies in the lab downstairs. But even beyond crash test dummies, there’s technology now to build computer models, mechanical models of the human body. So just to not even consider making a computer model of a dummy, but an actual human.
[00:23:27] So it’s a finite element model where the body is broken down into different elements and then each element relates to the, the anatomy of the human body and is given the mechanical properties of different tissues. And so on the computer, you can simulate how the human body might react to any sort of impact.
[00:23:48]the field is sort of moving in a way that soon cars might be certified in a computer environment first, and then we’ll have to do a physical crash test just to prove what’s being shown on the computer is accurate, but there may be far less physical testing going on in the future.
[00:24:07] Mel & Dom: [00:24:07] Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah, the virtual crash test dummies thing of the future now.
[00:24:13]Tom: [00:24:13] exactly.
[00:24:14]Mel & Dom: [00:24:14] Just to finish up. Is there an engineer you admire?
[00:24:17]Tom: [00:24:17] There is. Colonel Stapp is a engineer who did a lot of pioneering work on the effects of deceleration on the human body. And that led to a whole bunch of developments in the space program as well as car crash safety. So there’s a car crash conference now that’s named after Colonel John Stapp.
[00:24:35]So what was remarkable about him was that a use himself as a test subject, say. Yeah. He was willing to put his body. Exactly. Yeah. He was willing to put his body on the line to answer these questions that needed answering. So he actually strapped himself into a rocket sled and fired this sled. It got up to more than a thousand kilometers an hour and then stopped.
[00:25:01] And he survived decelerations of 38 times gravity. Not. Not completely unscathed in that he broke, he broke ribs. He
[00:25:14] Mel & Dom: [00:25:14] in the right spots.
[00:25:15] Tom: [00:25:15] he broke ribs and his wrist a couple of times. And he was blind temporarily cause his retinas were bleeding, but he survived and yeah, these experiments were how we learn a lot about the tolerance of the human body to deceleration and. There’s another interesting thing about Colonel Stapp in that he helped popularize the use of Murphy’s law, which is anything that can go wrong will go wrong because he worked with the guy who that law is named after Edward Murphy. And I think the story goes that Edward Murphy was responsible for some of the senses on the sled and Colonel Stapp strapped himself in protest and was shot in the rocket sled.
[00:26:01] But the sensors didn’t work. So he subjected himself to this deceleration for nothing. Yeah. But I think what I like about Colonel Stapp is he used this Murphy’s law in a different way in saying that they never had any really catastrophic incidents in their experiments because they always took Murphy’s law to account and plan for it.
[00:26:24] I think that’s, that’s a good way to think about it. about experiements and safety. So yeah.
[00:26:31] Mel & Dom: [00:26:31] Oh, thank you. I’m going to, I’m going to be Googling the origins of Murphy’s Law. I thought it went further back than that, but I love that connection.
[00:26:38] Tom: [00:26:38] I think it is, it is actually used earlier than that, but it’s named after this guy, Edward Murphy and in this circumstance. Yeah,
[00:26:47] Mel & Dom: [00:26:47] Yeah. Oh, well, thank you so much for joining us tonight. Thanks for that. It’s been great.
[00:26:53] Tom: [00:26:53] no problem. Thanks a lot for having me.
And thank you for listening to Engineering Heroes as we present the new dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia. Your hosts have been Melanie and Dominic De Gioia. You can view this episode’s show notes or learn more about our podcast by visiting our website, www.engineeringheroes.com.au
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