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 he 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 ofchis research was to get the cycle
time 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 steel-making process and its unique slag chemistry.
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: his marriage to
one of his undergrad students broke up and Bob 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
was 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.