Hook, line and original thinker
A trailblazer for professional women in the tough world of mechanical engineering and mining, Sarah Coleman is also saving Australian industries money through productivity improvements. And she’s a fishing champion.
As a child in rural Victoria, Sarah Coleman spent many happy hours helping her grandfather to restore old steam engines. She also shared her parents’ enthusiasm for fishing trips to the Gippsland Lakes.
The hands-on aptitude she showed for her grandfather’s hobby led her to Monash University in 1998 to begin a double degree in mechanical engineering and commerce.
Not one to do things by halves, Coleman has since built an exceptional record of success and accolades not only in the engineering and commercial worlds, but also – true to her roots – in game fishing.
Indeed, she’s founded two highly productive consultancies – working in fields as diverse as mining, health and manufacturing – and holds the Australian and world records for catching Australian salmon on a four-kilogram line.
Moving to the Clayton campus in 1999, she found herself in a tiny minority. “I think only about five per cent of engineering students were female and, of them, only about five per cent were doing mechanical,” she says. “We were literally a handful, although it’s a lot better now.”
Residing at Mannix College, she found a sense of family and developed special friendships. “I loved it; a home away from home for a country kid,” she says. “Most of my really good friends today are ex-Mannix people and we’re all still very close. We’re friends for life.”
Coleman joined Rio Tinto in 2017, travelling weekly from Perth to the booming Pilbara iron-ore fields, leading a business improvement team with outstanding results. One productivity project yielded a 30 per cent improvement in ore loaded onto trains.
Problem-solving in a competitive environment
Spotting an opportunity in the market, Coleman branched out on her own, founding the ImpRes consultancy, a problem-solving group working in a wide range of fields.
ImpRes helped some very large clients achieve improvements in mining and at Western Australia’s Gorgon gas field that were at one point calculated at a “bankable” $2 billion over two years.
Her more recent venture, Sandpit Innovation, has continued that trend, creating innovative applied engineering design and technology, and solutions for industry.
One remarkable Sandpit team invention is a robot – the Spidler – that can travel independently under its own power astride a moving industrial conveyor belt and detect and replace failing rollers without the need to stop production. As Coleman points out, BHP alone has more than 400 conveyors in the Pilbara, so the potential global market at mines, factories and ports is in the thousands – the device is fully patented around the world and has no real competitor.
Coleman believes bringing a woman’s eye to these traditionally male-dominated and machine-driven industries has been the real key to her success: “Everybody is focused on big trucks, whereas women do tend to look more at people and processes.”
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