The agriculture sector has had to embrace adaptability and innovation as it navigates new technologies and the climate crisis.

Today we’re diving into agriculture and discovering how engineers are developing solutions for a better future in the sector. We hear about their impressive sustainability efforts and how AI and automation are playing an important role.

Our experts today are Associate Professor and Vice Principal for Internationalisation in UCD College of Engineering & Architecture, Tom Curran, Mechanical engineer with Agrigear, Niall Pigott and Agricultural Inspector with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Robert Leonard.

Listen below or on your podcast player!


01:12 How the Department Of Agriculture uses engineering

04:12 Engineering in agriculture machinery

07:30 Current research in agriculture

09:26 Application of robotics and automation

14:22 Collection and analysing data from farms

15:31 Smart farming

17:03 Adapting the farming industry to new tech

21:40 The Ploughing Championships

23:01 Climate change challenges for the sector

24:48 Sustainability efforts in agriculture


Tom Curran is an Associate Professor and Vice Principal for Internationalisation in UCD College of Engineering & Architecture. He leads the Horizon Europe project, BioBeo, on innovative education for the bioeconomy with 15 partners across 10 European countries. He is the Director of the UCD MSc Environmental Technology degree programme. His research interests include waste management and air quality. He is a graduate of UCD's Engineering programme, holding a BE (Ag & Food), MEngSc (Environmental Engineering) and a PhD in Biosystems Engineering. He worked in production and environmental management in the food industry for a number of years before joining as faculty in UCD School of Biosystems and Food Engineering.


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Niall Pigott is a chartered engineer with extensive experience in mechanical design and manufacturing engineering, with strong quality compliance exposure. Comprehensive knowledge of Solidworks 3D CAD (computer aided design) and Lantek Expert CAM (computer aided manufacturing) software.


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Robert Leonard holds an honours degree in Agricultural Engineering and a Masters in Mechanical Engineering.  He completed his PhD in UCD, the focus of which was looking at the development of decision support systems for spraying potatoes against late Blight and spray drift reduction techniques. Robert joined the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in July 2002.  His role is to provide technical specifications, to support agricultural industries, that meet required standards (including legal) in respect of Construction, Health and Safety, Animal Welfare and the Environment. To promote and implement specific measures supporting environmentally sustainable agriculture and to provide specialist expertise to various divisions and offices that are charged with implementing schemes associated with grant aid for agricultural and forestry related industries.


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The research touches on the environmental impacts of the whole chain from the farm to the fork from getting the herbs out of the fields or foreign buildings, right through to processing of the food so that it's ready for consumers to eat in a safe manner, but also in the most sustainable way as well. - Tom Curran

The applications of robotics within agricultural engineering is really in its genesis mode and this sort of engineering will blossom in the very near future. This technology will not take away people's jobs, but it will actually enhance people's jobs. - Niall Pigott

There's a lot of technology coming from the fertiliser and pesticide application side looking at identifying weeds, diseases, and applying pesticide just to the points of where it's at using vision control. All that information can be fed into a higher level of AI to actually get them to understand what way to apply crops and to get the best return while having the least inputs. - Robert Leonard

I think the farming community in general is quite adaptive, they have to be. - Niall Pigott

In the future there's going to be a lot more robotic controls, but you need to be monitoring what's going on. It's not a case of just watching and letting the robots take over. The farmer needs to understand the information they're getting. - Robert Leonard

Farming is such a long standing industry, we all need farmers to produce our food. It's like everything else, some people are resistant to change naturally. I grew up on a farm and I’m currently a part time farmer. In speaking to and engaging with farmers, a lot of farmers are probably the most innovative people I know - Tom Curran

If we do a certain action, we have to take into account so many different factors; climate, nature, water, air, etc. This is a message I think that we need to communicate to the general public, how engineers and scientists are working to be more environmentally sustainable, but also to take into account changing weather patterns for the future. - Tom Curran


For your convenience, we include an automated AI transcription

Dusty Rhodes 00:00

Make yourself comfortable because we're about to find out some of the very high-tech engineering behind agriculture.

Tom Curran 00:06

I speak to a lot of farmers and in engaging with farmers as well, a lot of farmers are probably the most innovative people I know they have tight budgets and have to be realistic on what to do. And they use the resources available. And so I would say, you know, farmers are some of the most innovative people that I know.

Dusty Rhodes 00:25

Hello there. My name is Dusty Rhodes, you're welcome to AMPLIFIED the Engineers Journal Podcast. Today, we're diving into the agricultural sector and discovering the differences and commonalities with engineering in general. We also hear how it's being impacted by sustainability and where AI is playing a part in its future. Joining us are three engineers who are passionate about creating a better future for the sector through innovation and sustainability measures. They are Associate Professor and Vice Principal for internationalisation in UCD College of Engineering and Architecture, Tom Curren. Tom, thank you for joining us today. 

Tom Curran

Good to be here. Thanks. 

Dusty Rhodes

Mechanical engineer with AgriGear Niall Pigott. How are you?

Niall Pigott 01:08

I'm very well thank you very much for having me. And agricultural inspector

Dusty Rhodes 01:12

with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Robert Leonard thanks for giving us your time today. Good to be here. Robert, can I start off with yourself because the Department of Agriculture has got a terrific overview. How does the department view engineering specifically within the sector of agriculture,

Robert Leonard 01:32

within the sector, as well as it were a small team in the Department of Engineering from an engineering point of view, but it was it is very important to ensure I suppose quality buildings are coming from the ground side. And to ensure that the department grant aids for farm buildings and farm structures is to ensure that what we're granting provides good quality structures for farmers so that they will have the right longevity while balancing cost and also protecting the environment. So it's important to look after the environment. We're working with the latest technologies, having that input to the engineering input to ensure I suppose looking at correct arrays of concrete, correct steel sizes for buildings, but then machinery and equipment is suitable for the proposed projects and the work that needs to be undertaken agricultural sector so it's a very broad-ranging area in some ways. And while we're focusing on the grounds, it does feed out and is also used from a structural point of view for the storage of all slurries whether they're getting granted or not farmers have to follow the department's specifications and requirements.

Dusty Rhodes 02:41

Do you find it hard to push the engineering angle within the department? Or is there an openness to it?

Robert Leonard 02:46

There's an openness to us to ensure that I suppose it's pushing as far as the quality and the needs and the balance of what's been going on. As well as people ask: well why do we need some more steel in buildings... It's there to ensure that the building will be structurally sound it will last in improving animal welfare actually, animal welfare is right from ventilation making sure the air quality is right. So the bomb does see the need for all of this to make sure it is all correct. And because it has an impact on the welfare and to make sure his structures are correctly built to ensure that it protects the environment, protects water quality, the very important aspects in the department sees the need to follow those and make sure they're right. There's a lot of legislation around that as well.

Dusty Rhodes 03:32

Can you give me any kind of example or a particular project that demonstrates that

Robert Leonard 03:36

I suppose it's a few years ago, but we we continually develop our concrete specifications we brought in the use of what they call a ggbs count of cement. So as the ground granite slags to reduce the carbon emissions from concrete so that has been brought in was fully allowed within the department concrete specifications with the concrete we need to ensure the correct durability and the use of novel Alice's actually helps to improve that so ensures we have good quality concrete that's going to last while Bama ongoing basis.

Dusty Rhodes 04:12

Niall kind of came across to you and asked you about engineering and how you see it differing in the agriculture sector.

Niall Pigott 04:20

Specifically in the machinery section, which is my forte you feel like we deal as an aggregator with a lot of the agricultural engineering manufacturing companies in terms of the likes of Mike Hale over in male IBM machinery down in Tipperary, we manufacture wheels for a whole variety of customers, and we develop solutions for people to enable them to meet and contend with the challenge of the different climate that is going to be hosted upon us. The issue of, for example, slurry spreading, which has become very almost politically motivated in terms of the influence of the likes of Dutch practices which are very restrictive in terms of the timelines and the quantities of effluent that can be spread throughout the spreading season, the application of engineering to promote and safely handle the likes of that manure going out in terms of its making the nutrients available to the growing plants, the ongoing engineering input into that is determining and helping farmers and contractors deal with the application in terms of getting more minerals at the right time, but also, conserving the soil so that you're not compacting the soil, as previous generations would have done in terms of heavier machinery is now being used. So larger tyres, larger wheels, to enable more application to go out, but conserving the soil. And it's it's an ongoing issue in terms of labour requirements as well, because the farmers and contractors are getting such a big problem. Now with labour, people want to sit at a computer all day every day, rather than sit on a machine all day every day. So in terms of the engineering input, certainly from an aggregator perspective, we're seeing a lot more larger equipment requirements, not just in Ireland, but Europe-wide. And also, we also supply customers to Costa Rica and New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. So the engineering in pores to wash farmers and contractors are doing at the moment is the machinery is getting bigger, but you have to be able to cope soil-wise with the conservation of your productive land at the end of the day because the soil is the key, you have to preserve us conserve it and make sure it is fit for purpose else, nothing will grow.

Dusty Rhodes 07:30

These are engineering problems that we don't hear of often on the podcast. And I mean, really is eye-opening to hear how you have to think about that about the machinery and the land and the quality of the soil and everything. Tom, can I swing over to you because you're with UCD? And you're kind of more looking at the research side of things what kind of research is going into agricultural engineering today?

Tom Curran 07:51

To see I think, going back to what Robert and Niall were saying they're very much the research touches on the issues that they've raised there. And in terms of the environmental impacts standard those to the whole agri-food sector, it's not just at the farm level, buildings that Robert was referring to, and ventilation, HVAC submissions to the soil, Niall was referring to nutrient management, all those issues are covered in terms of research. And I would say it's across the whole chain from the farm to the fork from getting the herbs out of the fields or foreign buildings, right through to processing of the food so that it's ready for consumers to be in a safe manner, but also in the most sustainable way as well.

Dusty Rhodes 08:37

You let the horizon euro project BioBeo be that it's a tough one.

Tom Curran 08:40

Well, let's say the Irish partners called us file Bill file is referring to the fire economy and Bill beating the the Irish word for live our lives. So that's really all about it's a European project. I'm the coordinator of this. And again, it's a European project with 15 partners across 10 European countries. And we're developing education lesson plans in primary and secondary schools. And it's all about the bioeconomy the living economy around us, which includes farming, food production, forestry, and the marine. So we're trying to get the message out to younger people and to highlight opportunities for in their later career as well that they could go into engineering and science careers.

Niall Pigott 09:26

I would like to add to the previous comments in terms of the application of robotics under horizon scanning that is going on, in particular to crop production and crop protection with the application of robotics in agricultural engineering this is an industry now that is coming really strongly on there's a lot of research going on, particularly in the UK, where I hate to refer to the Brexit word because they have had rate issues, sourcing at seasonal labour that previously would have gone across from the likes of Eastern Europe to harvest fruit crops, for example. So now the UK is putting a lot of work into the likes of robotic harvesting, to solve or potentially solve a lot of their labour issues. But the applications of robotics and its application within agricultural engineering is really in its genesis mode, the application of this sort of engineering will blossom, I think, in the very near future, to cover a whole host of more applications, because this technology will not take away people's jobs, but it will actually enhance people's jobs. So you will have robotic manufacturers, you will have robotic programmers, and then you have people who will actually maintain the robots in the field. People are scared of technology, when they hear of robots, for example, the likes of robots manufacturing cars, but out in the field, it's a different thing. Because you have to make them weatherproof, and waterproof, they can work 24/7, they don't need tea breaks, they don't need cigarette breaks, and they can work unsupervised to get the job done. So from certainly my background, reading in the journals, the scientific journals, and also the general price and farming media. This is an area that will grow.

Dusty Rhodes 11:36

Robert, I see you nodding your head, there, is the department kind of looking at automation and even advanced robotics?

Robert Leonard 11:42

We're seeing a lot we're seeing a lot of it already coming through as far as one of the older technologies now, if you call it that is actually robotic milking of cows. So that's becoming quite commonplace. Now, you have mundane tasks, when taken over a scraping of animal housing by robots are also saying that in the horticultural sector, it's coming in is automatic weeding, and planting fully, robotically controlled systems. So to reduce pesticide usage, reducing fertilisation, so you're placing fertiliser, just where it's required. These are technologies that are actually in the fields already as it is. And there's a lot of technology coming on from the fertiliser and pesticide application side looking at identifying weeds, diseases, and applying pesticide just to the points of where it's at using vision control, to actually decide whether or not to actually apply the pesticide to a particular plant. And it is developing also then going on into full control of machinery in the field, steering control the machinery, these are things that are actually they are now being used by farmers, to assist them to maximise their output, minimise inputs really to get that high return. All that information can be fed into a higher level of AI to actually get them to understand what way to apply crops and to get the best return while having the least inputs.

Dusty Rhodes 13:12

And here at home, how do you see automation and robotics affecting engineering and agriculture?

Tom Curran 13:20

Wealth is definitely a growing area. As Robert and Niall gave examples there, there are pieces of equipment already like robotic milking sensors, right through the agri-food chain, I think you will see a lot more of the use of sensors and real-time information going back to the users, it may well be a case of in the future that there will be sensors used for compliance issues. So for example, as we know, climate change and biodiversity crisis is upon us. And I could see that you know, sensors could be used to show that the farmers are actually doing a good job in reducing their impact on the environment, improving water quality, reducing emissions of gases as well, going right into the food industry as well. There's a huge potential there for the use of inline sensors in the process in factories, let's say in dairy milk processing, making systems a lot more efficient, reducing their energy and impact on the environment.

Dusty Rhodes 14:22

So you've mentioned automation, we've mentioned robotics, you've brought in sensors. Tom, can you tell me a little bit about AI? And you've given great examples of what we could do with the data. But from an engineering point of view, who analyses the data, and how?

Tom Curran 14:37

Well, I suppose it depends on the application. There's a lot of research going on in terms of how the data could be used in the most efficient way possible. And because you're getting so much data, let's say harvesting if you like you could be generating like 1000s and millions of data points, but it's actually no good to you unless you analyse it properly, and that's where we get on to machine learning, like artificial intelligence, how can we actually use that data and a user-friendly manner so that they can actually take actions or decisions make decisions on that basis. Now, some of those decisions could be made automatically by, let's say, as was mentioned earlier by Robert in terms of weeding, but also could be sending a message to a farmer, let's say on a dairy farm, say this cow has a lameness problem, you need to check this cow, as the case may be moving away from artificial intelligence just a little bit.

Dusty Rhodes 15:31

Niall, have you kind of seen the introduction of smart farming I'm thinking of, like drones and sensors and the Internet of things is that becoming part of your world,

Niall Pigott 15:45

certainly, for example, the likes of the harvesting equipment that's out there. And now I'm thinking of a combine harvester that's used for harvesting cereals, wheat, grains, barley, oats, et cetera. So the technology that is available to harvest and monitor on the move, and also to direct a machine that doesn't need input for staring, for example, down a field to tell it where to go, it's satellite driven, the material that the machine is harvesting, is being continuously monitoring the terms of, for example, moisture content, so the farm manager, he can then tell his grain drying operation back at base, does the grain need to be dried to a specific moisture content and how much rain is coming through from the machine. So it's the entire process of the field produce going into post-harvesting technology, the stream of information being generated, is of immense value to the farmer on the farm manager in terms of what they need to do with that product to get it fit for purpose to the fork.

Dusty Rhodes 17:03

Can I ask I was certainly for Niall, and also to Tom, and to Robert. Farming is a very traditional industry, do you find that farmers are resistant to these new changes?

Niall Pigott 17:16

I think the farming community in general is quite adaptive. I now think they have to be, for example, milking robots. I know of several people around, Jimmy where I am that have installed robots over the years. Now it takes the drudgery out of milking cows. And they have seen benefits in terms of brim. Of course, the yield does increase because the cow can choose when to melt. But it doesn't replace the good herdsmen shift our herd woman's ship in the farming business, because for example, that robot one won't tell you when a cow was laid, it will tell you the fat content and the protein content, for example of the milk. But it won't tell you when the animal has an issue with a sore foot. So you still need the input of a good farmer, a good contractor, and a good operator to make the most of the technology that they are embracing.

Dusty Rhodes 18:23

Robert, it's a huge amount of technology that we're talking about and very technical, and what when it comes to the future of the industry? What kind of obstacles do you think the industry is facing?

Robert Leonard 18:36

I suppose from a firing point of view, it's a certain amount was the scale of some of the smaller farmers to get them to take up this technology that is there. You have a lot of the larger dairy or tillage farmers who have the funds or have had the knowledge they are, they're rapidly taking it up. But it's I suppose it's a fragmented industry in a lot of ways as well. And that can take time to develop as well as bringing through younger generations who understand computerisation as well. In the future there's going to be a lot more monitoring, I'd say a lot more robotic controls, but you need to be monitoring what's going on. It's not a case of just watching and sort of using it letting the robots take over farmer needs to understand the information they're getting. And actually apply that information. It's down to us from an engineering point of you'd be able to translate all this data and say, Look, this is what this means, you need to be able to combine which pieces of information you need to bring together to combine and to be able to highlight those bits for the farming community.

Dusty Rhodes 19:44

Tom, you want to jump in?

Tom Curran 19:46

Yeah, just on the point of your question about whether there is resistance to change from farmers much. Farming I suppose is such a long-standing industry. We all need farmers to produce our food. Yeah, I would say it's like Everything else, you know, some people are resistant to change naturally. But I think I would also say on the other hand, like I grew up on a farm and am currently a part-time farmer as well. But I speak to a lot of farmers and in engaging with farmers as well, a lot of farmers are probably the most innovative people I know, for example, I've been running a module and new city, a biosystems, engineering design challenge or applying engineering to the agri-food sector effectively. I've been running this module for 20 years now. And it's open to any student in use to take it. But I find the students who are the most inventive are the students who have grown up on firm, they just have this innate ability that they look at what the resource they have available to them, and make something of it. And I think there's that natural innovation spark in local farmers, they have a tight budget, and they have to be realistic and what to do with it. And they use the resources available. And so I would say, you know, farmers are some of the most innovative people that I know that there is a wilderness with a lot of farmers to adopt new things. And I would say going back to Roberts Department of Agriculture as well, there's a new scheme and now in operation called acres, and I think that will really drive further innovation in terms of climate change, also helping with the biodiversity as well. I hear now farmers discussing their biodiversity scores, they're comparing each other's performance and see what we'll do for next year to improve those scores which will be financially rewarded as well by the department scheme.

Dusty Rhodes 21:40

You're saying they're about you know, farmers are comparing scores of that other haven't chats and stuff like that. Can I ask you about the kind of engineers who are working in the farming sector heard about events like you know, the ploughing Championships which we have every year? Is that important for engineers to get together and share ideas and inspire each other?

Niall Pigott 21:58

I would say yes. Going around picking tyres. It's always an interesting exercise to see what the fellow next door has come up with within the last 12 months. And there's always, you know, always done it that way. Oh, that's interesting. Yeah, absolutely. It's, it's your shop window, the ploughing championships. And we always look forward to it. And I agree, here, we have an enormous display with an enormous amount of wheels and tires on it. It doesn't stop you going around looking at what other people are doing. Everybody's trying to improve. Every engineering industry is of a continuous improvement nature, you have to be involved in sustainability, number one. But competitiveness number two was, well, the pollen show, it's the main show for agriculture and engineering on the island of Ireland. So it's a huge sharp window. And it's an opportunity to demonstrate and broadcast what you're doing and how you're doing it.

Dusty Rhodes 23:01

Let me just get into one or two final questions with the All eyes because I want to ask you about sustainability. And we've mentioned climate change. I mean, it's such a huge thing at the moment. What challenges from your point of view is the agriculture sector facing due to climate change, the engineers need to work on

Robert Leonard 23:19

This a huge, I suppose there's a huge range of areas to focus on is the changing climate changing weather patterns. So you're looking at changing harvests plant planting seasons, machinery needing to change, and how to look after livestock in the changing climate. Weather can do weather patterns. For more extreme weather events, it's protecting farm yards, but also I suppose ensuring land is correctly drained, the drains are going to the correct level of drainage, but also then putting in areas so wetlands to actually slow down water movement. So it's not just okay, if you move all the rainwater off the land too quickly, you're gonna cause problems further downstream. So it's, there's a tricky balancing act to be put together in terms of how water is managed, how biodiversity is managed, the application of pesticides, fertilisers, and how to do it, without them being washed away. And where the crops are actually getting the correct return. You're getting what they need. And then I suppose looking at how to harvest crops can potentially wet weather are additional drying or maybe irrigation, which we haven't had to use before. To a great extent.

Dusty Rhodes 24:34

Tom, can I ask you kind of about climate change and sustainability because it is happening all over the world? What innovations are you seeing through research abroad and here in Ireland that are being explored by engineers to address those challenges?

Tom Curran 24:48

Well, I would think, part of the reason for bigger machines and with more, let's say sensors on them as well, would be that you have probably a shorter time window to do certain jobs throughout the year like planting or harvesting. It's very much tied to the climate and weather patterns as well. And going back also to the point of smart farming, is there such a thing as smart farming? Well, it's well established now because everybody has a smartphone in their pocket. They're looking at their weather apps to see if they're making decisions on their farm based on the weather forecast. And I think that that will develop further into the future that will be more automated messages coming back from maybe service providers in the agriculture sphere, that now's a good time to do ABC, whatever the job is. It'll be more tailored messages. And I think there's a lot of work being done as well in terms of lifecycle assessment, looking at the actual carbon footprint of various actions throughout the farm in terms of both in terms of nutrient management, how crops are harvested, how animals are managed, how buildings are managed, conserving energy, and nutrients throughout the whole agri-food chain, and I think everything is interlinked. And we see this, there's a message that we are promoting through our European project on BioBeo in connecting students in primary and secondary schools Well, we have teams such as food glue, Life below Water, Forestry, outdoor learning, and interconnection is. So it shows if we do a certain action, we have to take into account so many different factors climate, nature, water, air, etc. And this is a message I think that we need to communicate to the general public as well, how engineers and scientists are working to be more environmentally sustainable, but also to take into account changing weather patterns for the future. Well,

Dusty Rhodes 26:50

Can I throw a question out to all of you have any of you seen any particularly good innovations or examples of how other people are addressing these issues of sustainability and climate change?

Robert Leonard 27:03

I suppose one of the areas of seeing this poses in the slurry spreading technology is, a couple of companies, they're putting together sensors to actually evaluate slurry as it's being spread in terms of its nutrient content. So actually adjusting the spreading of slurry to maximize the output. So as it goes around the field, the actual tanker is actually adjusting the application rate. So you're getting a known level of nutrients applied per hectare, to reducing the amount of artificial fertilizers that will be actually used. So you're really getting a very accurate reading of what's been applied where so as you say, you got that good control of in terms of protecting the environment, and then actually, really benefiting from the nutrients that are in in the slurry as well.

Tom Curran 27:52

Yeah, just to highlight another project I'm involved in it's been funded by Enterprise Ireland and some of the dairy companies as well. It's Jerry Krause and Technology Center, combining the research of a number of third-level institutes and charges, etc. And the dairy industry are involved in as well. So it's looking at the whole chain of milk production coming through the factory gate and how that's encouraged in an environmentally friendly way and it's looking at things like the milk characteristics coming in from different firms and how that will impact on the process itself inside in terms of producing different products and trying to do that in the most energy-efficient way and reducing carbon footprint, water use, etc. In washdown. Also looking at the wastewater coming out of that process, and what can be done with that, because I performed that's, that's a cost to the companies, because potentially in the future, that wastewater could be converted into a fertilizer product or biofertilizer, which thing could be marketed as in terms of organic farming. And I see that not just in the dairy industry, but in other sectors as well. And that's an opportunity I think, for the farming community and the food industry as well to produce these bio-fertilizers and it would tie in with some of the things that Niall and Robert have been saying as well but nutrient management on firms how manure can be sprayed on these bio properties biofertilizers will be part of that picture to make farming more sustainable in the future as well. Oh guys, after

Dusty Rhodes 29:26

I'm not from a farming background myself, so I was kind of I didn't know what to expect on our podcast today. But I can tell you, you've definitely given me a whole ton of food for thought. Tom Curran from UCD Niall Pigott from AgriGear and Robert Leonard from the Department of Agriculture. Thank you so much for your insight, and for sharing with us today. Thank you. You're welcome. Thank you. If you'd like to find out more about Tom, Robert, or Niall and some of the topics that we spoke about today, you will find notes and link details in the show notes area on your podcast player right now. And of course, you'll find more information and exclusive advance episodes of our Engineers Ireland AMPLIFIED podcast online at Our podcast was produced by for Engineers Ireland. If you'd like more episodes, just click the Follow button on your podcast player to get access to past and future shows automatically. Until next time from myself Dusty Rhodes thanks for listening.