John Coleman, BSc (Hons) MEng MIEI, MIAM, MI Ref Eng is a former employee of Rusal’s Aughinish Alumina refinery in Co Limerick. During his time there he worked in the area of contractor management and maintenance management.
Coleman is a former chairman of MEETA Asset Management, which is a sector in Engineers Ireland aimed at promoting maintenance. He is also a former chair of Engineers Ireland Thomond Region.
He is a member of the Institute of Refractories Engineers and the Institute of Asset Managers. He sits on the Engineers Ireland Council and Executive boards. His professional experience spans more than 30 years in high volume manufacturing including management positions in planning, maintenance, operations and reliability.
When did you first become interested in engineering?
My route to becoming an engineer is a little different from most. I probably had an interest in engineering very early in life, but did not know it at the time. I had a keen interest in working with machines and 'making' things. This interest took me along the road to serve my time as an apprentice welder. However, where I served my time provide for a much greater variety of work than just welding.
While fabrication and welding of new equipment was the mainstay of the workshop, we provided a repair service to the general farming community as well. This brought a very wide selection of work since many machines would require dismantling to gain access to the damage part and reassembly once the repair was complete.
While it was obviously driving my interest, engineering as we know it had not entered my head even though I often thought that 'things could be better' in the way the machine was constructed.
Having completed my apprenticeship I moved to another firm that specialised in the production of farm machinery. Again, I would put forward some ideas has to how equipment could be fabricated faster and working design improved; however, I still did not recognise it as engineering.
After a couple of years, I moved closer to home to a structural steel fabrication firm and moved to welding using the Co2 process full time on heavy structural fabrications. This continued for about two years.
I then moved to a stainless-steel (SS) fabrication firm which specialised in the production of mobile bulk milk refrigerated tanks for the farming community. During my time there I suggested several changes in the cooling and fabrication systems many of which were taken on board.
However, engineering still never came to mind. A downturn in the SS industry turned my mind to working on the 'ALCAN' project as it was known. It was the biggest site in Europe at the time and there were adverts in the paper every week for welders and many other jobs as well.
Having applied for a welding job I was taken on and spent about 18 months working on the site, welding on a tank farm. It was during this period the term 'engineer' began to be mentioned more.
There were several engineers on the site and the work they carried out looked interesting, so that would be the first time I would have thought about engineering as a topic not to mind a career.
As construction on the site wound down, it was a time of huge unemployment in Ireland. I applied for a job with the operating company Aughinish Alumina as a fitter, since that was the job that had been advertised.
I was hired and started work in the workshop as a welder. During the early years there was a huge opportunity for training for anybody who wanted to take advantage of it.
I began to think that some training might be useful in later years, so I enrolled for the City and Guilds Engineering Certificate parts 1,2 & 3. This was the first real connection to understanding what engineering might be and sparked my interest to learn some more.
Following on from my success, I successfully applied for a technologist’s job on site and was encouraged to continue and complete my degree which I did, achieving a second class honours in BSc and completed an MEng two years later.
Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?
From a mentoring point of view, I would have to say it was the lecturers I interacted with along the way. As I was working full time, assignments and reading time were always under pressure, but without fail all the lecturers would provide support and encouragement to keep going. The support of Sheila, my wife, and my family at the time was tremendous and probably a big factor in ensuring I completed successfully.
Your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?
Harry Ferguson statue near Dromore and Hillsborough
I don’t have an engineering hero as such; however, I much admire the achievements of people who tackled problems with the greater good in mind. Harry Ferguson (1884-1960) was one such person, an Irish mechanic and inventor who is noted for his role in developing the modern agricultural tractor and its three-point linkage system.
Having grown up working on his family farm, his motivation in inventing had been to improve the lot of the small farmer. He felt that improved means of production could obliterate food shortages around the world.
What are your favourite engineering feats?
Engineering feats and what is achieved is always relative to the knowledge, resources, courage and determination of the people involved. Probably my favourite, close to home, is the Shannon Hydro Scheme, which marked the beginning of the electrification of Ireland.
At the time there would have been poor resources and it would have taken tremendous courage to proceed with the expense of it, however the leadership had the drive, vision and determination to push forward. It harnessed the power of the longest river in Ireland and led to the country's Electricity Supply Board.
The scheme was the brainchild of Irish engineer Thomas McLaughlin, who worked for the German firm Siemens Schukert in Berlin. The Shannon Hydro Scheme would bring a reliable supply of electricity to a large area of Ireland. This reliable electricity supply powered the commercial and industrial development, and improved the quality of life in Ireland.
What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now?
With technology such as augmented reality aiding the engineering development process, smart factories are moving into a new era in efficient production. New and exciting opportunities to automate a multitude of tasks while reinventing well-established business models are unfolding using this technology.
Industry 4.0 looks set to be a trend that will evolve into the future. With this in mind, I think digitalisation and sustainability are the defining topics of our time. Engineers need to be at the forefront of this changing environment.
Software has become a sophisticated discipline of its own and is changing the way business is done. For example, the world’s largest taxi firm doesn’t own a car and the world’s biggest accommodation renter doesn’t own any accommodation. What effect is this likely to have on engineering in the future?
While many discussions are all about design and function, it is important to point to the growing importance of sustainability in engineering. The future engineer in any discipline will have no choice but to consider sustainability.
As more of the world adopts a serious focus on the preservation of the environment and biodiversity, it is obvious that engineering can be responsible for significant waste and pollution if not managed well. As the role of the modern engineer develops, they will have to place a much greater emphasis on sustainable engineering principles.
Regarding data centres, how do we continue to attract inward investment in this area while ‘avoiding blackouts or using up too much electricity’?
That’s an interesting and challenging question. To begin – the whole purpose of foreign direct investment is to maximise the benefits while minimising the costs. If the cost is not meeting our emissions targets, then the cost is too high.
On the other hand, studies show that FDI develops local technical and technological skills, contributes to international trade, develops a more competitive business environment and encourages enterprise development. All of these contribute to higher economic growth, which is what any country needs.
'Avoiding blackouts or using up too much electricity/energy' is the big balancing act. Quality innovative engineering and technology itself may be the way forward. There is always a better way – we just have to find it!
Building in planning conditions such as energy storage, minimum renewable required etc may help. Being selective in 'who' is building the centre. Some companies have very tight emission targets themselves, so this may be a contributing factor. I am sure the engineering and innovative skills of the up-and-coming young engineers will find a solution. After all, that’s what engineers do
What are your favourite book/s? And what are you currently reading?
I am not a big book fan and the few I do read come my way by means of recommendation from some friend or other. I would not be out chasing the latest release. I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman at the moment. It is all about how we make choices and has been recommended a few times. I do like gardening books, though, as I try to develop my 'growing' skills.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?
There are probably many things you could say, like work hard, develop yourself, plan your career etc, however the most important piece of advice I would offer is become part of the team you work with and foster your teamwork skills while making good friends.
Once you begin to move about, keep up the contact with those friends as these will prove invaluable as you progress through your career. Teamwork is a big factor nowadays in most jobs and if you cannot work as part of the team, you will get left behind. I have seen many young engineers begin working in my time and invariably it is the good team players that have advanced in their career.
Are there any other measures that we need to take in order to help improve the gender balance within the profession?
We need to stop looking at the entry of young girls to engineering as being 'different' and encourage all to look at engineering as a very viable career. Engineering must strive to become an all-inclusive profession that values, supports and celebrates the contribution of all.
Furthermore, more work is needed in the area of educating parents (especially non-engineering parents) as to what engineering really is. As engineers we need (or maybe we need a PR company over many years) to tell the story about how engineers can make a difference to climate change, develop technology to help combat homelessness, produce lifesaving medicines, or make the world we live in a better place to inspire the next generation.
The education sector is an area that requires significant input to eliminate the gender bias. Students seeking career advice must be better informed of the exciting breadth of modern engineering practice and appreciate the broad spectrum of engineering. I don’t believe there is any 'magic bullet' to bring about the awareness and change. It will take many small changes over time to bring about real change.
Looking back over your career, is there any project, or particular time in your life, that stands out?
I have worked on a variety of projects during my working life, as you can probably imagine. One that sticks in my mind is just at the beginning of my engineer journey. When I began working at Aughinish Alumina the workshop had to take on the job of lining the inside of some very large pipes with a hard surfacing weld material as the contractor who supplied the original decided they would not continue in the business.
This required the modification and construction of various jigs and fixtures to enable the weld lay-down to be carried out efficiently and to the quality required. It was a very challenging job and took a great deal of innovation from all involved. Those machines are still in use 40 years later, albeit with some minor efficiency modifications – so we must have got it right from the first day.
Is there any engineer you wish was better known?
I don’t have any particular engineer that I could or would name, however I spent some time in New Zealand in 2019 and I was extremely impressed at the places where they had managed to build railways, considering the hilly nature of the island which results in extremely steep gradients.
When one considers that these were constructed in days of limited machinery and technology, they are really impressive. One such achievement is the Otira Tunnel, which took 15 years to build ( https://wondersofworldengineering.com/otira-tunnel.html). The Raurimu Spiral is another fantastic feat of innovation and engineering. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raurimu_Spiral)
What is a typical day for you?
As I am retired, my typical day can vary somewhat; I still rise at about six to be in the gym for 6.30am. I am home for 10 and then I have breakfast. Then the day moves with whatever is required in the garden for the time of year, after which perhaps I will embark on a short trip with my wife Sheila to visit some place, have a picnic, or take the train somewhere – especially if the weather is fine.
What are your favourite films/TV dramas?
I watch the occasional documentary if I have an interest, however I would not be a big fan of either TV or films.
What is the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?
Don’t ever reply in anger regardless of the situation – often it is difficult to do, but it has served me well through the years.
Another was 'keep your head regardless of the urgency' – remaining cool and calm when all around you are panicking will always give you an advantage. Again, this can be difficult to achieve, but it is worth the effort.
What do you do to relax?
Since I am retired now, I have plenty of time for my garden, which gives great relaxation and, of course, provides fresh veg for the table. I also like travelling: my daughter and her family live in Australia, so we travel down whenever we can.