Automation and control is our future

Fingers on the pulse: Engineering students at the University of Newcastle.

Fingers on the pulse: Engineering students at the University of Newcastle.

Today's society faces unprecedented challenges. We need to mitigate climate change, provide food and water security, manage ageing populations and make advances in cyber security to protect ourselves in the digital world.

Where will the solutions we need come from? Automation and control engineering will have a fundamental impact as an enabling technology for addressing many of these problems.

Automation and control is already entrenched in our everyday life. It's fundamental to any system that senses changes in conditions and automatically makes adjustments; your air-conditioning system, cruise control in your car, central heating, the steering system in a ship, or a pacemaker.

Automation processes are evolving as they integrate with artificial intelligence software to enable far more sophisticated functions.

For example, the University of Newcastle is developing an artificial pancreas, a robotic exoskeleton for the rehabilitation of stroke patients, and autonomous boats that can be deployed in search and rescue situations in dangerous environments, without human lives being placed at risk.

Automation and control is also critical for economic security. To keep up with global advances and make the most of growth opportunities, Australia needs to move to the next generation of advanced manufacturing - applying evolving robotics and automation technologies.

Advanced manufacturing is more efficient, safe and environmentally sustainable. To be competitive, we will need to train more engineers with a grasp on the latest automation and control technology.

Australia already has a significant engineering skills shortage and demand for engineers is set to continue growing. The World Economic Forum lists Engineering and Architecture as the number one job family on the rise globally.

Less than half the engineers working in Australia are trained here. We're importing more than 50% of our engineers. As a result, we have the highest average salary for engineers in the world. We particularly fail to attract women to engineering, leaving nearly half of our national talent pool untapped.

In the Hunter region, however, we have healthy manufacturing, mining and defence industries, as well as a thriving start-up culture. We also have expert knowledge in the crucial areas of control systems and automation, giving the region a unique opportunity to grow our economy by staying ahead of the game in the application of new technologies.

Recently ranked eighth in the world for automation and control by the ARWU, the University of Newcastle has established itself as global leader in the field. We are perfectly positioned to address Australia's engineering skills shortage and keep up with global advances in the field. Alongside others, our role now is to inspire the next generation, and help them realise their potential to make a world of difference.

Professor Brett Ninness is Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle's Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment.