A chat with Bessemer Medallist – John Beynon

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2015

This year’s Sir Henry Bessemer Gold Medallist is Professor John Beynon. He talks to Natalie Daniels about winning the award and improving the links between university and industry. 

Tell me about your background.

I studied an undergraduate degree in Physical Metallurgy at the University of Sheffield and a PhD in hot working in aluminium, followed by my postdoc in steel, in Germany, which was a good way of balancing my knowledge of metals. I became interested in applied mechanics, which continued when I became a lecturer at the University of Leicester. I moved into mechanical engineering materials, including considerably more computer-based modelling. Then, in 1995, I returned to Sheffield as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and later a Professor of Metallurgy and holder of the POSCO Chair in Iron and Steel Technology. 10 years ago I moved to Australia, where I spent seven years at Swinburne University of Technology as Dean of Engineering. After which, I moved to the University of Adelaide.

What has been the biggest highlight of your career to date?

My research highlight was the success of IMMPETUS – the Institute for Microstructural and Mechanical Process Engineering at the University of Sheffield, which was founded by Mike Sellars, Derek Linkens and myself in the late 1990s and produced many great results for industry from a multidisciplinary team of more than 50 people.

Congratulations on winning the Bessemer Gold Medal. What did you speak about at this year’s Bessemer Lecture?

Thank you, it was a surprise and a great honour. I actually took a quote from one of the leading steel figures in the industry – Harry Brearley – who wrote in his first autobiography, 'It is a grievous mistake to suppose that what the university faculty does not know cannot be worth knowing.' He saw a problem that people in universities simplified everything too much and, although interestingly, their results could not apply to industrial circumstances, as practice is much more complicated. I used that as the basis for discussion, using some examples I have been involved with to inform on how you can best work together with universities and industry to push boundaries that couldn't be done alone – certainly not as quickly, anyway.

How can universities and industry work together? 

There are various ways. Firstly, it's a partnership. Both sides have to reach out to the other in order to make it work. Then, mobility between the two sides is key so they can spend time together to help understand each other. I believe that diversity helps, bringing different types of thinking to new problems. From the point of view of the universities, some of the most fascinating problems come out of industrial issues and, of course, we have the satisfaction of finding a solution to a problem, rather than an abstract. 

What have been your particular areas of interest recently? 

I am just coming to an end of a two-year term as Chair of the Global Engineering Deans Council – an international network of universities and industry with more than 500 members. We work on engineering education and research at universities, such as creating mobile global engineers. This includes new ways of teaching. I have become much more involved with improving engineering education through my involvement with the Deans Council, where we are active in developed and developing world issues, the latter with the World Bank. We are also active with the Organisation of the American States, and help them with the promotion of engineering education for economic development. Another issue of great importance to us is diversity. We work a great deal on this in partnership with Airbus and celebrate with an annual diversity award, where the winner of the prize encouraged diversity in the classroom, which will lead to a more diverse industrial workforce.

How does engineering education vary in different countries, and do you notice a difference in education standards?

First of all, the quality of engineering needs to be the same wherever you live. You need secure and safe water and power supplies, and healthcare needs engineers to support medical practitioners. We need to have the same quality of engineers graduating wherever. One of the big problems in the developing world is resources. Some countries simply don't have the same resources as those in the UK, for example. In some countries, they have been slow to modernise, so there is a reluctance to transform education into what it needs to be and that really comes down to government – how do you persuade people to change? So we support activity to encourage change, providing a network of experts to advise development projects, many run by the World Bank.

What is the biggest change since you first started your career? 

Lecturers were involved in transferring the knowledge as their main role and, to some extent, explaining it. Nowadays, the knowledge is very easy to find, so the exercise is more for the lecturers to help students understand it and apply it. Now there's much more emphasis on the applications of what students are learning – they are less tolerant of knowledge for its own sake. Lecturers are still responsible for filtering through all the possible information in an area for what should actually be taught. Lecturers have always considered the wider range of information and selected what is good for the students to learn and, still today, it remains a big issue, given the huge amount of information that is readily available. And, not forgetting education methods have changed, the role of an academic to help a student to understand and then be able to apply the information – that has become more prominent, as has students tackling multidisciplinary projects, and learning to work in teams, as they will need to do this when they join the workforce