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5 minutes with Alastair Donnelley

24 August 2017
From behind the camera to manufacturing it

Alastair Donnelley decided that it was time to get back on the side of the disruptors after a decade in filmmaking.

Alastair Donnelley

Alastair Donnelley’s career path has not been typical for a mechanical engineer. While he initially considered engineering upon leaving high school, the creative industries won him over. After completing a media studies degree, Alastair went on to win awards in Australia and internationally for short films he shot and co-produced, including one which was shown at the Cannes International Film Festival.

However, after witnessing first-hand the disruption of content industries by tech startups and finding that he enjoyed designing and building camera rigs and trick optical devices as much as using them, Alastair decided that it was time to get back on the side of the disruptors. After a 12-year hiatus, he returned to tertiary study by enrolling in the Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Mechanical) at the University of Sydney.

Alastair was admitted into the Advanced Engineering stream and developed an app as part of his honours thesis to help engineering students visualise numerical methods – an approach later incorporated into a unit of study with Dr Nicholas Williamson. On the Dean's list from 2014–16, Alastair received the University Medal in 2016, along with other faculty prizes and awards.

What are you currently working on?

I recently completed a stint at a startup called Tzukuri, which makes high-end smart eyeglasses. They contain a chip that talks to your phone, to let you know where your glasses are if you misplace them. Currently I'm working on a couple of very early stage products. One is a humidifier mask for frequent flyers, using 3D facial scanning, geometric clustering and rapid prototyping techniques to ensure a comfortable fit. The other is a self-contained continuum robot kit that snaps together like a jigsaw. Continuum robots are like tentacles or caterpillars – quite unlike the typical robot form that you might imagine.

What's most enjoyable about working in the startup space?

There’s usually lots of flexibility to define your own role. You really need to be creative in how you leverage your engineering mindset to solve problems, and often do so outside of core engineering areas. I've designed and built jigs and work holding devices, production tracking systems, mass finishing systems, adhesives and frame trimming machines. But I've also been involved in implementing lean management and communications systems, working out how to fabricate product displays for company events, brainstorming marketing concepts, and even writing and proofing website content. The variety and pace of the work is pretty invigorating.

What career opportunities are out there for a mechanical engineer?

I've got graduate friends working in consulting, finance, big data analysis, med-tech, automation and sub-sea exploration, as well as more traditional mechanical areas like rail and of course in startups. I think we're more in need than ever of graduates who have the ability to form an accurate mental model of the world, and I think a wide range of employers see that value in engineering graduates.

How are the mechanical engineering skills you learned at university applied in the real world?

Sometimes what you learn can feel a bit abstract. But just this week I had to manipulate a 3D printer to truly print on three axes (rather than along horizontal slices) and ended up using more vector algebra than I ever thought I would. This is not an isolated example; how you use what you learn really is only limited by your creativity.

I've probably found the skills I learnt in the Advanced Engineering program the most professionally applicable, such as communication, project- and time-management, and formulating actionable approaches to complex, open-ended problems.

What exciting job opportunities do you see becoming a reality in your field of expertise in the next 5 years?

The mass-market availability of brain–computer interfaces may bring mind-controlled systems and robots out of the realms of med-tech and prosthetics and into the world of wearables and consumer goods. I find that pretty exciting; what engineer doesn't want to build thought-controlled robots?

Essentially, if you've ever pulled anything apart to see how it works, you should definitely consider a career in mechanical engineering – especially if you got it back together without losing too many screws!