custom Search within

to under-grad years

 Post-Graduate Years 1970-1971

to faculty years  

Chemical & Engineering Department HOD Professor Alan Titchener (later on President of ESR Engineers for Social Responsibility) was keen to have the department go straight on from having a new undergraduate degree to also have a strong post-graduate program - a record it holds to this day of still being the most prolific research department at the University of Auckland.

Bob's interest was doing applied research, on an industrially-relevant topic. So we worked with Dr. Norm Clark at New Zealand Steel to develop a Ph.D. topic "Expert Systems in Steel-Making" with Professor Graham Wright of the Chemistry Department bring chosen as his supervisor. The C&M Engineering department also supplemented his modest income - as an apartment building superintendent - with part-time funding as a Junior Lecturer.

N.Z. Steel used electric-arc furnaces to make steel from iron-sands. One unique challenge was the huge quantity of slag - even after a magnetic separation prior to charging to a batch furnace that started with scrap car bodies, the slag volume was of the order of 30%. The target of his research was to get the cycle times for charge/melt/lance/additives/discharge down from 75 minutes to 45 minutes. So very much an industrial engineering focus, based on kinetics of the steelmaking process and its unique slag chemistry. (Note in later years - well after his research - that slag became not a waste but a source for titania used in paint-making). 

Lancing was with pure oxygen: challenge was to get the required quantity right in one shot to bring the carbon level within specification range. Similarly with steel additives ferromanganese and ferrovanadium: get quantities to be added right in one shot based on initial melt analysis.

So he conducted a lot of regression analysis, and published "Kinetic Model of Steel Refining for a Batch Process" by R. D. Andrew & G. A. Wright,  in the Proceedings of the Auckland University Engineering Society, 1970. This was all back in the days of paper-tape communications using modem time-share to powerful computers in US, and card-punch to local IBM 1130 mainframe. (Expert systems techniques were useful again decades later, in work he did for OSHA in USA, simplifying complex regulatory language to just that applicable to a given industry situation).

The Ph.D. was unfortunately never completed: my marriage to one of my undergrad students broke up and I chose to leave, since she still had the final year of her C&M degree to complete.

But he was at least able to get the electric-arc furnace cycle time down from 75 minutes to under an hour, by developing simple predictive tools that the furnace foremen could use on the floor. The goal of bringing analysis results more quickly from the lab at that time was complicated by the large electromagnetic fields of the arc furnace which interfered with 4-20mA signal values. (They hadn't been commercialized then, but what we needed were fibre-optic signal cables!)

His teaching duties included giving a set of lectures within the "Introduction to Materials" course required of all 1st Pro engineers. He gave them a broad understanding of what gives engineered materials specific properties required for e.g. civil, electrical, electronic, mechanical or structural purpose. Bob also provided tutoring support to associated metallurgical laboratories for this course, equipped with an impressive range of instrumentation and surface analysis equipment.