Denis Dowling admires Leonardo da Vinci for being 'so far ahead of his time in the design of bridges and even flying machines', and the Parsons family of engineers, one of whom built an enormous telescope while another designed the first modern steam turbine. And, while kayaking along the Wicklow coast, he loves to look up at the Brunel-designed Bray-Greystones rail line.

Professor Denis Dowling is the director of I-Form, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing, and is actively involved in developing manufacturing research in Ireland through engaging with key stakeholders including industry, national agencies and academic partners and with colleagues at an EU level.

His research incorporates the related areas of additive manufacturing and surface engineering. The latter includes the use of plasma treatments to tailor surface properties.

Plasma processing

He has published extensively in the areas of plasma processing (particularly using atmospheric treatments) and more recently on the processing of polymers, composites and metals by additive manufacturing. 

Since joining University College Dublin (UCD), Prof Dowling has had an outstanding record of scholarship, including more than 180 peer-reviewed journal papers and 13 book chapters.

He has demonstrated expertise in translating research from academia to industry, being very active with the SME sector, as evidenced by his seven patent awards and eight technology licences.

Prof Denis Dowling of I-Form

He was the recipient of UCD’s prestigious Innovation Award (2012) and the Institute of Materials Finishing Gold Medal Award (2013). He is the lead UCD academic on the recently awarded EIT Manufacturing. 

Prior to taking up an academic position, he worked for the industry development agency Enterprise Ireland for more than 20 years in technologically important materials research, while actively supporting company-based research activities. 

When did you first become interested in engineering?

I have always had a keen interest in understanding how things work and in applications of materials technology. While my original qualifications were in chemistry, my research work was largely focused on surface engineering.

Over the years, I became increasingly involved in researching applications of coatings, included engineering coatings for use on medical device and automobile components. I became a member of Engineers Ireland and subsequently a Chartered Engineer.

Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?

My PhD supervisor was Dr Ken Glass in UCD, whom I still meet regularly. I worked for more than 20 years at Enterprise Ireland, which proved a really dynamic place to work, with its focus on both science and engineering, as well as the development of companies.

Within Enterprise Ireland, I really valued the mentorship of Dr Aidan Kennedy. On taking up an academic position in UCD, I received considerable support from Prof Gerry Byrne. I really appreciate the collegiality within the College of Engineering.

What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering?

The application of digital technologies such as data analytics, along with the digital twin ,are of growing importance in all aspects of engineering. These digital technologies are also important for additive manufacturing, which is a focus of my research work.

We use in-process monitoring data, combined with a deep materials and finished part knowledge, to help facilitate predictive process control. This can for example, help to significantly reduce the number of print runs required to develop new part designs, reducing both process waste as well as processing costs.

How important is communication to engineers? 

Good communication is fundamentally important for all aspects of the profession. In the work environment for example, communication is key to the operation of successful teams. Within academia, there is a clear need to explain the importance of our research work to the general public.

This has been recognised and it is reflected in undergraduate and graduate training programmes. For example, as part of our SFI/EPSRC Centre for Doctoral training in Advance Metallic Systems – which links UCD, DCU, Sheffield and Manchester universities – the students take a professional diploma, which includes training by the BBC in London on communication skills.

What are your views on the importance of sustainability in engineering?

I feel that sustainability is of critical importance for all aspects of engineering, in particular, for the manufacturing sector given the scale of its impact on the environment.

Studies by the UN for example, have demonstrated that extractive industries are responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss.

Manufacturing needs a 'cradle-to-cradle approach' whereby products are designed for disassembly. These products can then be returned to manufacturers at the end of their useful life for resource recovery.

Who is your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?

To me it would have to be Leonardo da Vinci who was so far ahead of his time in the design of bridges and even flying machines. In addition to his outstanding engineer skills he was, as you know, one of the world’s most innovative painters.

I spent a holiday in Amboise, France, two years ago, where Leonardo is buried. The town has a park dedicated to Leonardo’s works, including impressive recreations of many of his engineering design structures.

Is there any one engineer you wish was better known

Rather than one engineer I would like to highlight ‘a family’ who, over the generations, have given us a number of outstanding Irish engineers.

I refer to the Parsons family from Birr Castle. In the 1840s William Parsons built an enormous telescope (Leviathan), which at the time was the largest telescope in the world.

The Central Bank’s coin commemorating Charles Parsons

He was the first to report on the spiral nature of galaxies. At the end of the 19th century, his son, Charles Parsons, developed the first modern steam turbine. This had a transformational impact on shipping speeds in the subsequent decades.

What are your favourite engineering feats – either in Ireland or globally?

Within Ireland one of the engineering feats which I admire, is the Bray to Greystones rail line. I have seen this many times from the sea during kayak paddles along the coast. 

The route was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1856. With its four tunnels and steep cliff location, for the 19th century it was a major civil engineering achievement.

What are the biggest challenges facing the materials engineering sector? 

As a society we are using up the world’s raw materials at an unsustainable rate. Metals such as neodymium, cobalt, indium, and niobium are strategically important for components such as mobile phones and wind turbine batteries.

However there are very finite reserves of these metals in the earth’s surface. We need to become much more sustainable in the use of materials by applying, for example, circular economy approaches.

Have you travelled widely work-wise? If so, is there any country/experience and what you learnt there professionally that stands out?

One country that professionally stands out to me is Germany. After visiting teaching and learning factories in Germany, one can only be impressed.

It has been able to hold onto and develop its manufacturing sector, while many other countries have seen large elements of this sector move to the Far East.

Through their ability to constantly innovate, along with their long-term investment in both fundamental and applied research, German companies have maintained their international competitiveness.

If you could, is there any one measure you would introduce to help improve the gender balance within the profession?

I agree that the gender balance in engineering needs to be improved. I would suggest further investment in STEM programmes for primary schools, particularly those where young girls are able to see female engineers as role models.

The I-Form Centre is very actively involved in this area. For example, we are currently working on developing STEM programmes with teachers both at primary and at secondary level. In the case of the latter, one of our 3D printing programmes has already involved more than 150 teachers.

What book is on your bedside table?

Hit Refresh by Satay Nadella – the CEO of Microsoft. In the book he charts his life story from his early childhood in India, to emigrating to the USA, and the development of his career in technology.

The book offers a fascinating personal story as well as highlighting the transformational changes that artificial intelligence technology is likely to have on society. Clearly it is very topical given the transformational effect of digital technologies in all fields of engineering.

What is your favourite film?

The Lord of the Rings trilogy – due to the good storyline, the special effects, along with the amazing scenery of New Zealand.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?

Success is a wonderful thing but never underestimate the value of failure. Failure teaches us many more things that success ever can.

If you weren’t an engineer, what might you have become? 

Possibly a meteorologist, as I find observing changes in weather patterns in the sky as predictors of changes in weather, really interesting. It also fits in with my passion for surfing, where understanding wind strengths and direction are critical to predict when the waves will be just right.

What is a typical day for you?

No day is typical! Between my research work, lecturing, engagement with companies and travelling to meet project partners, my days are generally very varied. I am lucky in this regard as it makes my role very interesting.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Whatever you do, give it 100%’. Wherever you find yourself – at work or in your personal life, do the very best you can do.

What do you do to relax?

I relax by getting out to the sea. I enjoy sea swimming, kayaking with friends, or surfing when the wind is in the right direction!