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
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
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.