A Lower Hutt student has stunned technology experts by developing a world-first machine for commercially producing a high-tech material that could prove a significant boon for the local economy.
In November 2011 WelTec Bachelor of Engineering Technology student Lachlan Clelland was briefed on pioneering superconductor research as part of a two-year internship at Industrial Research in Gracefield.
The Crown-owned research institute, now called Callaghan Innovation, had previously succeeded in producing Roebel cable, the world's first commercially viable woven superconductor.
Mr Clelland was allowed to work on his own project to design and build his own machine to make commercial production of the woven superconductor more practical.
"They (the institute) suggested a way of doing it which was a different way of approaching the problem to the [original test machine].
"So I took the suggestion and and thought about it a lot - a lot of sleepless nights, and lying awake at two o'clock in the morning - and figured out a way to make it all work."
No-one, including Mr Clelland, thought he would succeed in cracking the difficult problem.
"It really was a dream project. They pretty much almost let me run free and guided me only when I needed to be. I was able to apply what I was learning at WelTec into a practical industry application.
"It pretty much stretched me in every field I'd done at polytech."
Mr Clelland spent much of his summer holiday on the project, breaking it down to its simplest elements, developing a process and beginning the design of the machine, then continued developing and testing the different components throughout the year.
"When I built the prototype it looked like it would work - the basic idea looked valid. But that was a very small prototype doing a fraction of what the full machine had to do."
Once assembled, Mr Clelland spent a long time fine-tuning the software so the complex mechatronics and automation would run precisely. The machine was finally assembled in September and worked on the first go.
"It was like 'wow!' It doesn't normally happen; you normally turn it on and see what has to be tweaked."
The project was kept top secret as the client, Lower Hutt company General Cable Superconductors, scrambled to get a patent to protect the new intellectual property.
General Cable chief executive Andrew Priest said Lachlan's work was to an extremely high standard and is internationally significant.
"The Continuous Flexible Winding machine designed and produced by Lachlan is a world first.
"It has made the manufacture of cable more efficient and the process is less complex as a result."
All production of Roebel cable is Lower Hutt-based. Mr Priest said and it has potential to be a significant earner for the local economy.
"Roebel cable is a high-value knowledge-intensive product with addressable global markets in the billions of dollars."
While production has started, work is still being done to "scale up" production, and develop prototype machinery such as transformers and generators that use the product.
Earlier this month Mr Clelland topped his class - the first graduates of WelTec's new Bachelor of Engineering. He was also presented with a special award by General Cable Superconductors in recognition of the contribution he had made to their research.
Mr Clelland has since returned home to Nelson and found work as an engineer with hydraulics and pneumatics specialists Fluid Power Solutions.
Looking forward to a blossoming career in engineering with the Roebel cable machine project to his credit is an exciting time, he said.
- Hutt News