The Department of Materials Engineering was the last of the five departments to be established in the Faculty of Engineering. This was in 1970 when it was formed from a small materials group that had been part of the Department of Civil Engineering. In many ways the origins of the department can be traced back to the appointment of Ian Polmear to the Chair of Materials Science in 1967.
Previously he had worked as a metallurgical engineer in local industry, spending two years at a research institute in England and then a further 14 years at the former Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne.When he joined Monash, Polmear was granted $70 000 to purchase a transmission electron microscope and a mechanical testing machine. He was also able to appoint Brian Cherry from England as a Senior Lecturer to initiate teaching and research in polymeric materials.
At this time, the interest in materials engineering at Australian universities was largely confined to teaching and research relating to metals which was carried out at the six existing departments of metallurgy. However, because of the growth of the polymer and ceramic industries, the trend in some overseas institutions was to introduce more general courses relating to materials, and to expand their interests in other areas. With this in mind, Polmear travelled to England and the USA to investigate these developments. Returning to Australia in 1969, Polmear, Cherry and their other colleagues Senior Lecturer Reg McPherson, who had earlier initiated research in ceramic materials, and Peter Thomson decided to recommend that a separate Department of Materials Engineering be established at Monash. They also proposed that a new undergraduate course be introduced in this emerging discipline. As well as the endorsement of the Faculty and the Professorial Board, they also received the enthusiastic support of Vice-Chancellor Louis Matheson.
Polmear was appointed Chairman of the new department when it opened on 1 January 1970. He recalls that the initial staff comprised four academics: himself, Brian Cherry, Reg McPherson and Peter Thomson; two research fellows, Brendon Parker and Keith Kent; a laboratory manager, Bruce Young; two workshop technicians, a typist and secretary Peggy O’Leary – ‘the real chairman’ jokes Brian Cherry. This was an exciting time, a period when much positive support was given to creating new ventures.
An immediate task for the academic staff was to develop the curriculum for the new undergraduate course which was introduced at second year level in 1971. Support was also obtained for its recognition as a professional qualification by the Institution of Engineers, Australia. Emphasis in the syllabus was placed on the secondary aspects of materials; including their design, fabrication, properties and engineering applications. Staff in the new department continued to provide service courses in materials to all the other engineering undergraduate students in the Faculty. A little later the staff also collaborated with the Department of Physics in providing materials science subjects for students in the Faculty of Science with the result that a number of these students moved into the Department of Materials Engineering to undertake their honours year or postgraduate research.
Staff numbers in the department gradually increased to meet the greater teaching needs and the opportunity was taken to recruit specialists with experience in the major fields of materials. Most came from overseas. Much effort was devoted to expanding research activities. By 1972, when Mary Gani enrolled in her PhD with Materials Engineering, there was a feeling of camaraderie, and ‘a good feeling that money was no problem’. Mary Gani was the first female postgraduate scholar in the Faculty. Later she also became the first female to be appointed to the academic staff in Engineering and went on to serve two terms as Sub-Dean. By the end of the decade, the department had a total staff of 12 academics and an equal number of support personnel.
There was no shortage of funds in the early days of the department, and with some additional industry support, it was possible to purchase an impressive array of equipment for both teaching and research. While funds, talent and enthusiasm were plentiful within the department, the difficulty lay in building up the numbers of undergraduate students. The discipline of materials engineering was not well known throughout the secondary school system, despite the efforts to bring it to the attention of future students. Brendon Parker remembers 'times when the enrolment of 25 new students in one year caused delight whereas, on another occasion, there was concern when less than 10 commenced'. Fortunately the department’s strong research profile and substantial service teaching commitments sustained its operations during this period.
Many of the former staff and students from Materials Engineering agree that it was the department’s extensive research output and performance that kept it safe and operational. Like Chemical Engineering, Materials Engineering had a small, but strong academic staff committed to teaching and research. ‘It was mainly a very young group’, remembers Mary Gani, ‘and I think we all enjoyed ourselves.’ Brendon Parker also remembers everyone as being very enthusiastic. What made Monash stand out amongst other universities at the time, not just in the Department of Materials Engineering, but within the whole Faculty of Engineering, was the strong emphasis on research.
Like the other departments within the Faculty of Engineering, Materials Engineering was encouraged to engage with industry on a number of different consulting projects, which assisted in developing strong ties with local industries such as BHP, Comalco, ICIANZ, as well as bodies like CSIRO, the Australian Welding Research Association, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the State Electricity Commission. International connections were also developed and in 1982, the department served as host to the 6th International Conference of the Strength of Metals and Alloys. A number of distinguished overseas academics also came to spend periods of sabbatical leave in the Department.
When Polmear accepted an invitation to become Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Monash in 1987, staff member Paul Rossiter was appointed Professor and Head. Shortly afterwards, the department was awarded funding to establish a Key Centre of Advanced Materials Technology (CAMT) which was involved in a range of activities, particularly acting as a point of engagement with industry to undertake smaller and larger consulting jobs. The department remained research active, moving in new directions such as in the growing area of biomaterials. More traditional materials remained important, and in 1989 the department played a key role in a number of Cooperative Research Centres. In particular, CRC’s in Polymers (CRC-Polymers) and in Light Metals (CRC-CAST) provided long term funding and activity which have lasted more than 20 years and continue to involve many academics and researchers. Many of these Centres involve various divisions of CSIRO located across the road from the department, and many other active links between Materials Engineering and CSIRO researchers remain.
When Rossiter moved to Curtin University in 1996, Barry Muddle became the Departmental Head, also taking over as CAMT Director. While maintaining existing strengths, new areas were developed – in particular functional materials and tissue engineering, the latter forging a link between biomaterials and the strength of stem cell science at Monash, a research strength that remains to this day. Between 2000 and 2004 the department became a School of Physics and Materials Engineering falling under the Faculties of both Engineering and Science. Barry Muddle remained as the Head of School. This entity ultimately reformed back to separate departments under their respective faculties. Muddle completed his term as Head of School in 2004, and was followed by George Simon as Head.
Muddle obtained a Federation Fellowship and became the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Design in Light Alloys which he applied for, along with other departmental members. Based in the Department of Materials Engineering, this gathered together expertise in light metals research in Australia and was involved with the CSIRO Light Metals Flagship. The department was also part of another ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science (ACES) with the Department of Chemistry at Monash.
In recent times, the department has maintained and expanded strengths in areas such as light metals, with a continuing emphasis on physical metallurgy combined with surface engineering, corrosion and modelling. Xinhua Wu became Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Design in Light Alloys after Muddle retired in 2010, bringing expertise in advanced processing of light metals. Functional materials has continued to grow, in particular in relation to energy-related materials (solar energy, fuel cells, various nanomaterials), as has the effort in modelling, other forms of processing and biomaterials engineering. In 2010 a new CRC in Energy Pipelines commenced, the Monash Materials Engineering involvement largely driven by Nick Birbilis.
In 2011 the Department of Materials Engineering remains one of the few engineering departments in Australia covering such a wide range of materials. Three of the six former metallurgy departments across other Australian universities have been closed down and the other three have adopted the materials approach. Areas of current departmental interest include: metallurgy, biomaterials, tissue engineering, ceramics, nanomaterials, corrosion, modelling of materials, energy-based materials and polymers. Recent new initiatives involving a range of staff members include a centre in the area of architectured materials. Staff are increasingly engaged with synchrotron facilities around the world, and particularly the Australian Synchrotron across the road from the department, which commenced operation in 2007. In 2011, the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication was at full strength, providing facilities for advanced manufacturing which will be important in years to come, for example, in areas such as solar energy and organic electronics.
Recent undergraduate numbers in Materials Engineering have been substantially increased by the establishment of the 2+2 program with Wuhan University of Technology and Central South Universities in China. This program allows students from China, after completing two years of their degree, to transfer to Monash University to complete their degree in the Department of Materials Engineering, and thus graduating with a degree from both China and Australia. A high proportion of these students, once completed, have gone on to do postgraduate research studies within the department. The breadth of the curriculum has changed, as for all departments in the faculty, particularly with the great range of combined degrees, with commerce, science and new combined degree with biomedical science being the most popular.
The department currently has more than 85 postgraduate students and approximately 15 academic staff. Over the past twenty five years a total of twenty new professors have come out of Department of Materials Engineering. A large number of them remain at Monash, while several others have moved on to other universities in Australia. Of these twenty professors, seven of them were former undergraduate or postgraduate students in the department and six of them are now at universities in Singapore and South Korea.