Diversity in engineering: ‘I think it’s shifting, but it’s shifting slowly’

31 Aug 2018

3D printing is one of the facets of advanced manufacturing at IMR. Image: FrameStockFootages/Shutterstock

Dr Ann O’Connell is helping to usher in some of the latest advancements in manufacturing in what is typically a male-dominated field.

If you ask the average person what they associate 3D printing with, they might think of small trinkets or possibly even a lethal weapon.

But the technology has developed rapidly over the past decade or so, to the point that it is envisaged it will become a fundamental part of major engineering projects, aircraft in particular.

In fact, estimates suggest that by 2021, 75pc of commercial and military aircraft will fly with 3D-printed engines, airframes and other components.

This is just one aspect of the advanced manufacturing technologies being developed at Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR), an independent manufacturing and industrial energy-efficiency research organisation focused on delivering solutions to manufacturing.

One of those heavily involved in promoting the latest developments in this area is Dr Ann O’Connell, an industrial researcher also working in business development and EU collaborations at IMR.

Headshot of Dr Ann O'Connell.

Dr Ann O’Connell, an industrial researcher at IMR. Image: Ann O’Connell

The rapid pace of change

Having spent 15 years at Intel, O’Connell led the establishment of the company’s chemical analysis labs both in Leixlip, Co Kildare, and Israel as the US-headquartered company sought to develop new technologies outside of its native country.

Holding a PhD in chemistry and chemical biology from University College Dublin, O’Connell honed her business development and collaboration skills with the Tyndall National Institute in Cork.

Now with IMR, she is helping SMEs and others to see the benefits of advanced manufacturing through European initiatives such as the Manufacturing Industry Digital Innovation Hubs group. This includes being involved in a steering committee to develop the car of the future, most notably autonomous cars through the Connected and Autonomous Vehicles Ireland group.

So, is it fair to say that a lot has changed in advanced manufacturing over the course of her career?

“It has changed dramatically,” O’Connell said in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com. “We’re in the area of advanced manufacturing, but without advanced materials you really can’t have develop it.

“Nanotechnology, graphene and all those materials have become a really, really key area for [advanced manufacturing] technologies.”

Noticing the elephant in the room

Perhaps changing at a slower pace, as O’Connell would admit, is the diverse representation of people found in the more engineering-focused careers.

“I think it’s shifting and I think it’s shifting slowly,” she said, referencing back to a meeting she held last year that included her and 15 men discussing why there weren’t more women getting involved.

“Nobody noticed the elephant in the room,” she said. “I was sitting there going: ‘Hello?’”

Changing this won’t happen overnight, she admitted. It requires the work of educators to include women and minorities from an early age, something which she has encouraged in her own children.

There is then, of course, the continuing issues surrounding maternity and paternity leave, and O’Connell has seen this influence the careers of both men and women in different ways.

“I would have been on the same career path as some of my [male] colleagues,” she said, referring to her peers earlier in her career.

“They had babies, but it didn’t affect their careers because they were men,” she said. “I was out for nine months and I was more than happy to do so, but it takes a hit work-wise.”

A sign for the National Science Park in a field in the foreground, with the IMR research lab in the background.

The National Science Park in Mullingar where IMR’s research lab is based. Image: IMR

No fear of a robot takeover

IMR is particularly focused on the workplace of the future, given that it is developing the latest hardware, software and technologies as part of its advanced manufacturing remit.

One of its biggest focuses right now is the area of collaborative robotics – otherwise called ‘cobotics’ – where the manufacturing facilities of the future will see human and robot work side by side, rather than the latter simply replacing the former.

“Everybody has the fear of robots taking over,” O’Connell said, “but what we’re implementing … is a collaboration to make the environment safer for the person using heavy machinery.

“It’s selling the story that it’s not taking jobs, but actually producing more jobs and also [boosting the] wellness of the person working these [robots].”

It isn’t just hardware such as robotics or 3D printing that take up a lot of the IMR researchers’ time, as O’Connell cites one technology currently under development simply called the Workplace Knowledge System (WKS).

Developed by one of IMR’s principal investigators, Fearghal O’Hare, WKS is a peer-to-peer platform for the sharing of tacit knowledge among various industries.

“The first question I asked [when I heard about it] was, what difference was there with this and Google?” O’Connell remembered.

“But it’s actually like going into another room and the person who has all the information you need being there. Google might give you the specific info you want, but there’s lots of other relevant information around it.”

Safe to say, the future of advanced manufacturing looks promising.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic