Emeritus Professor James Trevelyan is an engineer, educator, researcher, and has recently become a start-up entrepreneur.
He is CEO of Close Comfort, a tech start-up introducing new energy saving, low emissions air conditioning technology to Australia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and other countries with a vast potential global market.
Between 1975 and 2016, James led teaching and research at the University of Western Australia on robotics, mechatronics, landmine clearance methods, and later engineering practice.
How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
Since being a student at the University of Western Australia in the 1960s.
Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
It was my passion for as long as I can remember.
How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
First, our air conditioning technology opens up opportunities for electricity cost savings and greenhouse emission reductions for most Australians.
Second, my ongoing research on engineering practice is providing new insights on engineering performances. My books and publications, working with Engineers Australia, can significantly improve early career education for engineers and help lift engineering performances across the profession and internationally.
Third, I have a new initiative, to provide financially sustainable community-based systems to bring safe, piped drinking water to homes and workplaces in developing countries.
What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
Understanding why engineering services are so expensive in developing countries, relative to Australia. It was a shock to realise that in so many countries like India and Pakistan safe drinking water costs 10-30 times more than in Australia, per litre, in cash terms. It took a decade of research to understand why, and another decade to figure out how to overcome this huge cost difference.
Before that, creating sheep shearing robots and solving landmine clearance problems.
What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
There is an overriding need to lift productivity worldwide. Even though engineers are extremely influential in productivity improvement, this is not taught to engineers, and this oversight also contributes to sub-par value contributions by engineers. We can only overcome sustainability issues worldwide by improving productivity, yet at the moment productivity improvement has stalled, everywhere.
A connected issue is the need to improve performances, especially on large projects. My research shows that the root cause of poor engineering performances lies with inappropriate value perceptions that lead to inappropriate prioritising of collaborative activities, also a reluctance to learn effective collaboration methods. Hence engineers eschew routine checking and inspection work, resulting in failures like Opal Towers and Mascot Apartments on a smaller scale and, on a large scale, huge projects where only about 30% manage to return at least half what investors were promised. That has deterred investors from coming back. Hence the extraordinary low interest rates. With such low rates, all engineers should be flat out building. Not so. Investors are now reluctant to undertake big projects. We can fix that.
Also, connected with this is the lack of public visibility for engineering, and inability to explain engineers’ value contributions.
What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
The possibilities of restoring engineers’ reputations and lifting rewards by helping engineers understand how to generate commercial for clients and social value for communities.
Who is your engineering hero?
Charles Yelverton O’Connor.
Actually there are six more as well: William McQuorn Rankine, Ernst Dickmanns, Fazlur Rahman Khan, Robert Bosch, Grace Hopper, Liang Jianying.
Read about them and C Y O’Connor in my new book 30-Second Engineering, due out in October.