John Willis after 1962
From a young age I was keen to study electrical engineering but unfortunately I failed Chemistry in 1962. I would not have been accepted into Engineering at The University of Melbourne, so I repeated the year and improved my performance in all subjects. I got a Commonwealth Scholarship and studied Electrical Engineering at uni. I loved the technology and engineering maths, particularly those associated with machines and power systems. I finished in 1967 and was very keen to apply my knowledge in industry. In early 1968 I started work with Central Engineering Services (later called Minenco Pty Ltd), the engineering arm of Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA, later Rio Tinto). The company provided engineering, procurement and construction management services to the mining industry, mainly CRA group companies. I stayed with the company until my retirement 36 years later. In that period I was fortunate to work on many of the largest and most successful mining projects in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Until the early ‘90s, Minenco had the lion’s share of these projects in Australia and PNG.
I worked with a variety of minerals: iron ore at Dampier, Tom Price and Paraburdoo; uranium at Mary Kathleen; salt at Dampier; copper at Bougainville (PNG); bauxite at Weipa; diamonds at Ellendale (near Broome) and coal in the Hunter Valley and Bowen Basin.
My initial work involved electrical designs in the Melbourne office, followed by site construction supervision. My roles included design engineer, site engineer, project manager, chief electrical engineer, study manager and engineering manager.
Technologies included power generation, transmission and distribution, plant control systems, mineral processing and bulk materials handling. The latter involves very large overland conveyors, stackers, reclaimers, ship-loaders and ship-unloaders. For this equipment I became responsible for all disciplines - electrical, mechanical and structural.
Some of these machines were the largest and most advanced in the world. My largest motor was 12 m diameter (6.6 MW, variable speed) and the largest mobile machine was a 2000 t bucketwheel reclaimer with a nominal capacity of 8,000 t/h. In 1989 we produced the world’s first fully automatic un-manned bucketwheel reclaimer.
After retirement in 2004, I did consulting work, specialising in large mobile machines.
Although I was very enthusiastic about my work, the great love of my life was Larraine. After a whirlwind courtship of 5 years, we married in 1973 and lived in several mining towns. We settled in Wheelers Hill in 1976. We had two sons and a daughter. Our eldest son has three daughters, the youngest of which are identical twins.
Unfortunately, Larraine died in 2009. She had lung cancer, most likely caused by exposure to asbestos dust as a child when her father built a sleep-out. I have been devastated by her death.
I am still working part time, lately doing feasibility studies for iron ore and bauxite plants. Most of these studies have been shelved. Their capital value was about $4.5 billion.
I am also busy refurbishing my property at Blairgowrie.
Next year I will re-start volunteer work at Marysville, helping people who are still suffering from the Black Saturday fires. I also aim to see a lot more of Australia, Europe and USA.