Peter Stepien

PhD, FIEAust, SMIEEE, CPEng, NER, RPEQ

Principal Engineer

ResTech

Peter is a Principal Engineer at ResTech providing consultancy services to industry. Also holds the position of Conjoint Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, teaching as a Casual Academic at the University of Newcastle, the University of Sydney and overseas. He is Chair of the Engineers Australia Electrical and ITEE Colleges Branch, Newcastle.

Peter received a B.E. degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Newcastle and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Sydney and is registered as a Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng). He is a Fellow of Engineers Australia and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).

Most notable achievement in recent years is the work on electrical safety for the mining industry which resulted in a patent and a national Engineering Innovation Award from Engineers Australia.

Earlier this year, Peter was also awarded Engineers Australia’s 2019 Professional Engineer of the Year, Newcastle.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I have been a member since 2009.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
The main influence to become an engineer was my father, who was a cabinet maker by trade. He was technically very astute and gave me an appreciation of what can be achieved.

While all areas of science, technology and engineering fascinated me, I had an interest in electronics even at an early age, inspired by my older brother who was an electrician. This then led to an interest in digital systems design, computer design and programming.

I was fortunate to have enthusiastic maths and science teachers whilst at school and am very grateful to my parents for their encouragement and support. My parents also gave me the opportunity to study engineering at university, something that they were not able to do growing up in Europe during the Second World War.

While the technical aspects of engineering appeal to me, another important aspect is that a career in engineering provides tangible benefits to society.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
A safe work environment means that everyone goes home to those they love at the end of the day. Electrical safety is especially challenging in underground mines, where electrical equipment is used in a confined and wet environment.

I have helped keep people operating electrical equipment safe through my work to understand earth leakage currents and touch potentials that can occur during earth faults in the mining environment, especially with the introduction of Variable Speed Drives (VSDs). This work has resulted in a patent and is embodied in earth leakage protection relays that are currently being used in the mining industry. It has also been acknowledged by a national Engineering Innovation Award from Engineers Australia.

My work on committees and working groups with Standards Australia is helping to provide new information on electrical safety that is being incorporated into relevant Australian Standards. This ensures best practice into the future and a safer working environment.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
There have been many challenging and interesting projects, from designing a tracking system for geostationary satellites, to designing advanced industrial controllers, and working on electrical safety in the mining industry. I also enjoy teaching at University and developing teaching resources for new courses.

Some of the most challenging projects in recent times are investigations into electric shock incidences in mines which have occurred on equipment that is otherwise in perfect working order. This has led to ongoing research into understanding the methods by which an electric shock can occur and developing methods to avoid them into the future, making for a safer working environment.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
One of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession is the increase in worldwide energy demand. This increase is having a negative impact on the planet, mainly due to the current fossil fuels being used. The shift to renewable sources of energy has already started, although there are still challenges, such as energy storage.

Various renewable generation technology have already been explored, along with storage methods and infrastructure for distribution. Solutions for renewable energy need to meet the requirements of diverse applications, such as industrial, residential and transport. There will be other renewable methods for energy generation and storage that will emerge before the world completely moves away from fossil fuels.

The transition to completely renewable sources of energy will be a natural progression and just needs time. It is not unlike the transition from horse power to the internal combustion engine. The transition was probably over about half a century, with horses still used on farms even though they were replaced in cities. While the internal combustion engine removed the manure and smell from cities and made transport more convenient, it did rely on a source of energy that was not renewable. It solved one problem but created another. Similarly, it is important that methods used to extract and store energy from renewable sources do not create an environmental issue in themselves.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
Everything about the future excites me and there are many opportunities for the future. The engineering profession continuously reinvents itself as technology evolves, creating opportunities.

Who would have thought that we would have computers to allow finite element analysis of structures, yet engineers do this routinely. Who would have thought that communications would play such a big role in modern society, yet now it is used by everyone, with engineers specialising in information and communications technology.

The future is exciting as engineers help develop new technology and create future opportunities.

Who is your engineering hero?
Throughout history, there were many scientists and engineers that have made fundamental contributions to the modern world in which we live. Looking at colleagues around the workplace, customers and volunteers at Engineers Australia, they are all making a contribution to society now. Looking at my students, they have the willingness and skills to make a positive contribution to society as engineers into the future.

They all inspire me and my hope is to be a similar inspiration. They are my heroes!

Image: courtesy of Peter Stepien.