The future of materials engineering has a Monash University address. Housed in the Clayton campus’ New Horizons building, the Woodside Innovation Centre, part of the Woodside FutureLab network, is the result of the largest corporate philanthropic gift in Monash history.
The A$10 million over five years granted by Australia’s largest independent oil and gas company enjoyed headline-grabbing significance – but the work the centre has undertaken since its launch in June last year is just as remarkable.
In the words of Woodside’s senior vice-president and chief technology officer, Shaun Gregory, the immediate purpose of the centre is to deal with the “real-life challenges” faced at Woodside through a process of open innovation and creativity.
“Our vision for our Monash centre is to rapidly advance commercial opportunities through materials engineering, additive manufacturing and data science,” he says.
“One of the grand challenges for a company like Woodside is, if something breaks down, how do you fix it quickly?” says Professor Nick Birbilis, the Woodside Innovation chair and head of the Monash Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
“Often you have to wait for parts to come from overseas. At the moment, most oil and gas companies have an inventory of spare parts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which is a problem we can solve by deploying 3D metal printing to create spare parts on demand – in addition to allowing complete design freedom.”
As well as producing spare parts, the centre also focuses on improving existing parts to increase operational efficiency and reduce capital costs. The centre boasts one of every type of 3D printer in the world, including printers for carbon-fibre composites and soft rubbers as well as a selective laser melting 3D printer capable of manufacturing intricate alloy parts.
Another focus at the centre is machine learning, or artificial intelligence, used to deploy engineering solutions such as algorithms for detecting corrosion.
“When you think that a company such as Woodside might have a plant the size of 30 football fields, inspecting it is costly and time-consuming,” Professor Birbilis says. “If you can automate the process, using photos, drones and a supercomputer, you can potentially reduce the cost, reduce the time and increase the efficiency.”
Hub of transformation
Certainly, the Woodside Innovation Centre is well-placed to deal with the day-to-day exigencies of the gas giant – to “answer industrial problems in quick time frames”, as Professor Birbilis puts it.
But its ambit goes much further than the corporate brief, and into the very future of materials engineering, additive manufacturing and data science. The centre’s meta-story posits it as a transformational hub for technological innovation, part of a global collaboration network to keep Woodside, Monash and Australia at the forefront of new and emerging disruptive technologies.
“Some of the work done in the centre is going to be very important, not just for Woodside and Monash, but for where engineering is heading into the future. One reason Woodside joined us is so they could become leaders in additive manufacturing, but it’s a two-way street, so it’s really helped orientate our research focus to some of the grand challenges facing industry.”
It’s also a true cross-disciplinary collaboration, bringing together the engineering and IT faculties on matters not confined to the oil and gas industry. The centre has been working on modelling to predict flood risks in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Elwood up to the year 2066, for example, tying in not only with the IT faculty, but also social and environmental sciences.
“We’ve been able to devise technologies that weren’t even conceived of a year ago when we started engaging with Woodside, ” Professor Birbilis says. “A lot of it is what we like to call creative interruption. One line we throw around is ‘making the unmakeable’.
It’s a real relationship, not just a regular research engagement where they need researchers to solve a problem. In a way it’s a new paradigm for Monash.”
Professor Birbilis says the opening of the Woodside Innovation Centre heralds the move of materials engineering from the shadows into the limelight – a statement supported by recent major initiatives in which international aviation and aerospace companies such as Safran and COMAC have engaged with Monash materials researchers.
Materials science is evolving at a rapid rate thanks to emerging technologies, and the themes of the centre are at the core of this manufacturing frontier, he says.
“There’s so much doom and gloom about the death of traditional manufacturing, but … now Australia has been accelerated to the forefront of future manufacturing,” he says. “We have an opportunity we’ve never had before to become leaders in the space. We genuinely have the opportunity to craft the future.”