Foundations for success: the partnership between industry and research

UniSA’s inaugural Industry Professors, Peter Murphy and John Fielke. INSIDE UNISA
UniSA’s inaugural Industry Professors, Peter Murphy and John Fielke.

UniSA’s inaugural Industry Professors, Peter Murphy and John Fielke, say cultivating strong links between industry and research will create new jobs and enable South Australia to become a hi-tech, innovative state.

Their new titles recognise their ability to translate the demands of industry into practical products within the research environment.

It is these skills that saw Prof Murphy lead the development of the first plastic car mirrors for mass market, while Prof Fielke’s innovations in agricultural machinery have led to the development of new tillage and seeding equipment for local manufacturer Horwood Bagshaw and new methods for processing dried fruit and almonds in Australia.

Most recently Prof Murphy has played a pivotal role in taking the knowledge acquired in developing plastic car mirrors into the renewable energy sector, through the design and manufacture of heliostats for concentrated solar thermal arrays. The heliostats are highly reflective mirrors able to focus sunlight onto collectors, which convert the sun’s energy to electricity.

“Car mirrors must survive temperatures ranging from -40°C to +80°C, which is typical for objects that must survive in the extreme climatic conditions of the real world,” Prof Murphy says.

“Mirrors for heliostats, whilst comprised of different materials, must survive in harsh, often arid environments, characterised by extremes in temperature, potentially severe storms and massive doses of UV light, which can cause major degradation to materials.

“Working heliostats reflect sunlight onto a tower and via a heat transfer process they can create electricity. The more light that is reflected the more efficient they are, but they get dirty and contaminated in the field – if you can stop airborne contamination sticking to them you can improve their efficiency.”

In addition to his important role at UniSA, Prof Murphy is also director of research at Heliostat SA, an Australian company that uses next-generation technology to harness renewable energy power. The company recently delivered an order of heliostats worth almost $1 million to Mitsubishi Hitachi in Japan.

“We are in the process of engaging a broader research plan with funding that will take us on a journey of creating more innovative products and get us into a niche in the marketplace,” Prof Murphy says.

As a mechanical engineer, Prof Fielke was one of the first research-only staff to join UniSA's antecedent institution, the SA Institute of Technology, and he has now been at the University for more than 30 years.

Through industry consultation he began to understand that the agricultural machinery industry needed stronger and more efficient design to suit Australia’s unique agriculture practices.

Prof Fielke’s research revolutionised dried sultana production in Australia, after he identified significant improvements to existing agricultural processing machinery which had not been modified or improved since the 1920s.

“New high-capacity separation equipment was employed to remove more contaminants, such as stems and stones, from dried fruit. The cleaner and less-damaged fruit now meets the expectations of dried fruit consumers,” Prof Fielke says.

“The almond industry is also growing and this is what we are involved in now – looking at current equipment and finding ways to improve it so that we can get cleaner, less-damaged almonds through the processing system.

“The project is at a stage where we are beginning to demonstrate new equipment to the industry. We use impact threshing, a different technology, and we can get 10 to 20 per cent more recovery of undamaged almonds with this new technology, which flows on to improved production rates.

“Our key goal right now is to develop equipment that can process and dehydrate earlier-harvested almonds, to avoid seasonal damage.”

Both professors believe that end-user engagement – a process of really getting to understand the client’s challenges and needs – is the key to making research relevant.

“Listening to what customers want and being able to interpret that to what you can achieve and what’s practical, taking a risk and not being scared about trying something new, and having the confidence to find a solution for a market need – this is what builds relevancy,” Prof Fielke says.

“It’s also about reading the trends and demands ahead of time.”

Prof Murphy agrees and says that being able to translate research from an original idea into a commercial product signifies achievement.

“I view success as creating small start-ups that become successful companies, which in turn create jobs and places for our PhD students to go and work,” Prof Murphy says.

“With the current state of the automotive industry and the imminent closure of the GM Holden factory, South Australia is a state that’s in a major transition, from the manufacturing and mass production lines of the past to high-tech, high-value-add industries of the future.

“From a research perspective it’s important that our students develop that industrial awareness. Our PhD students have industry co-supervisors – it exposes them to the real world and business, it gets them to meet with people from industry and opens their eyes to what working in industry means.”

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