Otago Polytechnic
ABE profile MattKing 004
Courts welcome simulation

Dr Matt King

“I’m the guy that gets called in when there is a disagreement about the cause of an accident,” says Matt, “Often both parties claim they’re blameless and I get to examine the physical evidence, apply the appropriate physics and determine who is right.”

Doctor Matt King, Principal Lecturer on the Bachelor of Engineering Technologies (Civil and Mechanical) programmes has over 16 years’ experience in forensic accident investigation. He has worked on over 2000 litigation and insurance cases for and against municipalities, attorneys and insurance companies, including the United States government, the French government and cases in New Zealand. 75 per cent of his work involves automobile crashes including those involving trains, big rigs, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians.

In 2014 he was invited to share his expertise at the Independent Forensic Practitioners Institute annual conference held at the University of Auckland.

His presentation focused on a $20 million multiple car accident case he worked on in California and how a multi-modal scientific presentation of his analysis of the physical evidence (involving physics equations, 3D models and computer simulation) to the jury in court vindicated an innocent party, and demonstrated the multiple failures of one driver. A key aspect of the analysis was the data gathered by downloading the ‘blackbox’, or airbag controller, in one of the vehicles.

Matt believes multi-modal presentations are the most effective way to present the result of scientific analysis for complex cases where multiple events are occurring simultaneously and will become much more common in the future inspired by television shows such as CSI:

“Accidents can be highly contentious issues that have a major impact on a person’s life. Often no one wants to admit fault. Sometimes the people involved don’t know what the cause was, but their perception of the incident differs from other involved parties. Line drawings or videos can only present one perspective of an event, but 3D computer simulation software can be used to demonstrate a time sensitive engineering analysis from multiple perspectives for a single event.”


King, M. D. (2014). The Pro's and Con's of Multi-Modal Scientific Presentations Independent Forensic Practitioners Institute 2014 Conference, University of Auckland, NZ, August 2014.

ABE profile StuartAllen 008
A burning passion

Stuart Allan

“People could die otherwise,” says Stuart Allan, Lecturer and Programme Manager within the School of Engineering, reflecting on the importance of his research and 16-year career as a fire cause analyst. With more than 120 residential fires occurring every week in New Zealand, and around 20 avoidable human fatalities by fire per year, Stuart’s work is of critical importance.

Stuart has solved just under 400 cases in total – everything spanning from tractors combusting, power line failures and appliance faults, buildings and equipment not up to code, and arsons. He has worked under contract for the New Zealand Fire Service and the New Zealand Police, and has worked in conjunction with lawyers bringing cases to trial. He is also frequently asked to share his opinions and knowledge overseas.

Describing his method of working as “methodical, patient and concise”, Stuart has a Sherlock Holmes approach to his work. “There’s a thrill associated with solving a problem. Some cases are very quick and easy; others are much more complex. I enjoy the challenge of going where no one has gone before so to speak – there is no answer until you go through a process of elimination.”

Sometimes, as Stuart recalls, the cause of a fire can be seemingly small and innocuous. In a house fire in North Otago, a concave microscope mirror sitting on a windowsill in the sunlight reflected light and heat onto the back of curtains and the house caught ablaze. All evidence was covered by debris from the ceiling which collapsed in the fire, and previous investigators had been unable to determine the cause.

The hardest part of his job is seeing the bodies of fatalities. He soberly recounts a case where three children died, before commenting, “I don’t ever regret the work though – if I can find the cause I can prevent further incidents from happening.”

Stuart is currently working on researching aspects of smoke alarm reliability. He is also keen on working in collaboration with others to hopefully develop some case law around line failures to lead to cost recovery.

ABE profile WilliamPhipps 004
New electricity scheme design

William Phipps

Located deep in a semi-arid area of South Africa known as the Karoo, amid roaming springbok and Angora goat farms, is an electricity substation responsible for supplying power to over 5000 homes.  “Within the substation are switched capacitor banks necessary for maintaining network stability. However, a few years back the capacitor banks started tripping intermittently with no obvious cause,” reflects William Phipps.

Phipps, and his Masters student Warick Minkley at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, were brought in to investigate the substation (and its issue) which is part of the ESCOM (Electricity Supply Commission) Transmission Network,  due to the university’s long standing relationship with the company. ESCOM is a company owned by the South African government which supplies 95 per cent of the country’s electricity and employs over 33,000 people. 

What William Phipps and Warick Minkley discovered, using software simulation, was that the earth fault relay was tripping due to inrush currents flowing into the discharged capacitors during turn on.  This resulted in high voltage transients passing across the capacitor banks. By commissioning a new scheme design for the plant using a special filtering circuit that would filter out the voltage transients, and by additionally adjusting the previously incorrect relay settings to their correct standards, William and Warick were able to assist ESCOM to fix the fault. These new understandings of transient waveforms can assist electrical engineers across the globe in diagnosing and fixing similar substation faults. “This problem with the tripping due to voltage transients could occur anywhere at any substation, resulting in blackouts in extreme cases. This research therefore has worldwide applicability,” says William.


Minkley W, Phipps W, Harris R.T, Roberts A.G., (2014). Restricted earth fault relay application on shunt capacitor bank design with synchronised switching. IEEE international conference on industrial technology, ICIT, pp. 941-946, Cape Town.

CORP staff TomQi 006
Industry-oriented engineering teaching strategy

Associate Professor Tom Qi

“Many students have very good maths skills but lack practical hands-on engineering skills, and vice versa.”

Discouraged by the New Zealand engineering industry skilled workers shortage, despite the numbers of engineering graduates being produced each year nationwide, Tom Qi set out to investigate how to close the gap between current teaching and industry need.

Tom’s Ako-funded project worked with potential employers to create real-life case studies that students would have to use maths for in the real world to help blend theoretical knowledge with industry application to meet the same learning outcomes. Examples included measuring and predicting water flow rates through three successive water tanks on an industrial reservoir, and calculating the structural integrity of a load-bearing beam in a commercial build project. Tom’s research is a New Zealand-first mathematics/engineering research collaboration between Polytechnics – with input from Metro group members including Waikato Institute of Technology (WINTEC), Wellington Institute of Technology (WELTEC) and Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) as well as Otago Polytechnic.

As Tom reflects, the current results open up more questions and challenges that need consideration: “If we accept that existing teaching is not really linked to industry, then if we need to change, how do we do that?”

“Obviously we want to meet IPENZ and NZQA regulations, but we also want students and parents to understand what engineering really is, as well as produce the kind of graduates that the industry really wants.”


Qi, Z. T. (2014). An industry-oriented math teaching strategy for the Metro Group BEngTech program Ako Aotearoa Southern Hub Projects in Progress Colloquium II, 21 Nov 2014, Ilam Homestead, 87 Ilam Rd, Christchurch.

351x244 RES story NajifIsmail
Retrofitting research

Najif Ismail

Ever since the Christchurch earthquakes, more than one Dunedinite has viewed the city’s beautiful historic buildings with a nervous appraising eye.

Doing more than wondering how safe they are is the Polytechnic’s Dr Najif  Ismail, an expert in retrofitting unreinforced masonry (URM) – the kind that graces more than 700 buildings in Dunedin.

Retrofitting is not a new concept but there is limited reference material, especially for New Zealand. Najif aims to fill that gap.

 After finishing his PhD at the University of Auckland, Najif joined the School of Architecture, Building and Engineering at the Polytechnic where he has been working closely with the Dunedin City Council and local engineers to assess and review the local building stock.

A study led by him and his team identified and recorded the characteristics of unreinforced  buildings in the central business district (CBD) area and assessed their seismic vulnerability. The council’s earthquake-prone building policy is based in part on this study.

“We have estimated that, out of the 750 URM buildings in Dunedin, 680 are likely to be earthquake-prone. Additionally, numerous unrestrained parapets present the largest risk to life. The risk is increased by the concentration of these buildings in the CBD area, which has the highest foot traffic.” 

But seismic strengthening of URM buildings and parapets is a not well understood, nor are its design parameters, explains Najif. That’s why he is keen to share research expertise with the local community and district councils.

“These buildings, which were built without any consideration for earthquake loading prior 1930s, are a major tourist attraction. If the city experiences an earthquake on the same scale as what Christchurch experienced, then there will be drastic changes in the city and will affect the economy of our community.” 

351x244 RES story TomQi
A dream fulfilled

Dr Ziming (Tom) Qi

This is the brainchild of Dr Ziming (Tom) Qi, Programme Manager and Research Coordinator for the School of Architecture, Building and Engineering, and it’s nearing realisation now.

An ongoing collaboration with Taiwan National University of Science and Technology and China’s Shenzhen Polytechnic with Chinese Government funding, the ongoing project to develop a commercial electric car is also part of an overall programme overseen by Tom to lift the research profile of his department.

“The traditional car was designed using a centralised engine and steering,” Tom explains. “This model uses four in-wheel motors as well as all-wheel steering.  The wheels can be controlled to move sideways making parallel parking possible. You can also take a U-turn without taking any extra space. 

“It’s quite an exciting vision. The main research question was how can we automise the control of all the wheels at one time? It was quite a difficult task, but we did it,” he says.

An improved version of the car arrived recently from China and was reassembled with help from visiting Chinese technical staff. The car has unique advantages: it’s simpler in design, and even if one or three of its engines shuts down the last one will keep the car running. The design will also pave the way for cheaper cars in the future, Tom predicts.  

“Right now, the car is not that different to look at, but the School of Design will help us design a unique model here in our campus workshop.

“I would like to see this newly designed car running on the campus first, and then on public roads. I want this project to be more visible to the world. That is my dream,” he says.