Reflecting on an esteemed career spanning more than six decades in electrical engineering and manufacturing, the 2022 Engineers Australia Peter Nicol Russell Career Achievement Award recipient Peter Cockbain AM said big achievements start small, and have teamwork at their core.
“Well, that was the case for the four of us that founded Ampcontrol,” Cockbain said.
“We started out the same way lots of start-ups do today. The four of us were young, working in a rusty, old tin shed with a dirt floor. We were doing everything we could to build some starting capital before going into business for ourselves.”
Before his start-up days, Cockbain left school at the age of 15 to work to support his elderly parents, and started out in a five-year electrical apprenticeship in 1955, followed up with an electrical engineering certificate, and then further university-level study.
Now one of the founders of Australia’s leading electrical manufacturing company, Cockbain has had no shortage of recognition for his commitment to the field, including being appointed a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to electrical engineering in 2015.
But founding Ampcontrol was motivated by a fleeting opportunity in the market that developed in the 1960s – one which Cockbain said became apparent to him and his colleagues after working first in industry.
“During that time, I was working for a British company that was independently manufacturing all different types of electrical engineering equipment here in Australia. But they were bought out by another company,” he said.
“We were told that they would be shutting all of the Australian manufacturing facilities down, and fully importing from the UK.
“The four of us had all been through our studies together and we all worked for this company. We decided that if they were going to shut down all the manufacturing, then we had a real opportunity to start up a company of our own here in Australia.
“And so that’s what we did. Ampcontrol was founded on April Fools day in 1968.”
Despite the opportunity to fill a gap in the market, Cockbain said it was the experience he had gained from working in the coal mining sector that sparked the motivation to develop electrical mining equipment for the future.
“I served my apprenticeship in a coal mine. Coal mining really was the last mining operation to become automated,” he said.
“The type of electrical equipment we were using was very last generation. I saw the opportunity for us to develop modern equipment that was not just evolutionary, but, in many cases, revolutionary electrical engineering design.”
Since its early beginnings, Ampcontrol has now grown to having about 1,000 staff members, an achievement that Cockbain is very proud of, but he said the businesses success comes down to the people.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that every day I put meals on the table for my employees and their families. But while I’m proud to be able to employ them, they are the ones that make the company happen,” he said.
“Everyone from the cleaner to the clerical staff, to the engineers, to the purchasing officers – everybody plays their part in the success of the company. Individually, we’re only capable of so much, but collectively we can take on the world.”
Meeting today’s challenges
In terms of where electrical engineering is going next, Cockbain said climate change is the greatest challenge facing engineering today and there’s much work needed to curb further damage by becoming much more sustainable in every area of design, development and manufacturing.
“We are the only species on the planet that consumes non-renewable resources. We need to minimise pollution and get to work cleaning up the rubbish we’ve already generated in the past thousand years as humans,” he said.
“Recycling and the recovery of materials considered to be waste is one of the most crucial things we can be doing as engineers to help mitigate this problem.”
Cockbain said engineering through these issues effectively requires a sustainability mindset.
“The reality is that if we don’t start to reuse some of the material we’ve been applying to create new products, we’re going to run out,” he said.
“We haven’t been paying enough attention to recycling in the designs of a variety of products, whether it’s the latest digital gadget, the best TV or solar system. The ability for materials to be recycled is of paramount importance for everything we design and develop from here on.
“It may be that we need to think more analytically about our needs and wants, and help the next generation do the same. We know we might want certain goods and services, but do we need them?
“And if we want to have them anyway, then we must be designing these things to be completely reusable. This is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity.”
While the stakes are certainly high for engineering moving forward, Cockbain said the most important advice he can give to engineers today is to ensure that they love what they do.
“I took a job once because it offered twice the amount of money I was used to being paid. I liked the money, but I hated the job. I only lasted nine months,” he said.
“When we enjoy the work we are doing, we automatically do it well. And, in doing it well, we progress. Job satisfaction is the most important part, not only for individual happiness, but also for the good of the industry, as well.”