Anthony Canfell

Chief Advisor Processing & Technology at Rio Tinto

Anthony Canfell Headshot image
You graduated with a Bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering at UNSW, what initially sparked your interest in Chemical Engineering?

I was good at STEM subjects in high school, and I really liked Chemistry.  I remember coming back after mid-year holidays in Year 11 and my Chemistry teacher told the class  us about the huge tanks, pipes, boilers and reaction vessels, and the massive volumes of product that they made.  It sounded fantastic to me to have this practical application of chemistry, and I remember thinking at the time that this is what I wanted to do!  It took me a while to figure out the best sort of degree to do this, because at the time I didn’t really know what Chemical Engineering meant.  Later at my first vacation role, that was at Caltex Botany I remember walking through the gates and just being in awe of the huge industrial complex surrounding me; even now my favourite thing at work is when I get the chance to be on site; it still gives me goosebumps!

Can you share any specific projects or research during your time at UNSW that were particularly meaningful in shaping your career path?

I was fortunate enough to be a Co-Op scholar which was a fantastic program, actually I was in the first cohort of UNSW Chem Eng Co-Ops that started in 1989.  I really think that the work experience helped me a lot to better understand what a chemical engineer does, exposure to professional engineers, starting to learn how to do work projects and of course going to large industrial facilities.  I also had a couple of big stints in Melbourne and this time away also helped me from the perspective of being open to roles outside of Sydney when I graduated.  This exposure overall really shaped how I thought about chemical engineering and for many years afterwards I leveraged the insights and learnings that I got from those work experiences.

Can you tell us about your current role and what career opportunities you believe exist for graduates?

In my current role I lead a global team of process engineers that help our processing assets improve their productivity.  At Rio Tinto we have about 50 processing sites, and roughly ½ of them are chemical processing (the others are minerals processing).  My team members are typically very experienced and have worked on several different sites and can leverage that experience to help our processing assets.  Over the years I have had roles in operations, studies, decarbonisation, technical advice and technical leadership.  There has always been something new and for example I’m currently learning French because a lot of my team and our assets are in Quebec and French-speaking African regions.

For graduates we have fantastic career opportunities at our processing sites and a formal 2-year graduate program.  Our graduates get to work on multi-billion dollar sites and have an impact to help the sites perform well.  Typically a graduate will apply their university knowledge to process plant calculations / operations set-points but might also use data science, help implement Industry 4.0 technology, or work on decarbonisation projects and environmental improvement projects.  It really suits someone with a sense of adventure and in Australia we have opportunities at our sites in the Pilbara (WA), which are often FIFO from Perth and residential roles at Gove (NT), Weipa (Nth Qld) and Gladstone (Qld).

What did you learn about yourself during your time studying at UNSW, including the impact UNSW’s social culture may have had on your professional career?

I was a country kid and left home to go to Sydney and university.  For the first couple of years, I was in residential college but also had a great circle of friends in my Chem Eng cohort, many of whom I still catch up with regularly.  I absolutely loved the social aspects of university and have great memories of college sports, all-nighters, skipping afternoon lectures because I was at the Unibar and hanging out having coffee at the Roundhouse for coffee.  I don’t know if these things were really useful for my professional career but I had a great time and I am sure it helped shape me as a person!

Do you have any overall advice for current students or recent graduates?

For current students, the only advice I have is to keep at it.  As I am sure you know it is a tough degree and I remember at times feeling like my university undergrad would go forever!  Like all big things in life, it helps to chunk it down in your mind to manageable sections of time and know that eventually it does end, and you will graduate!  I think that one thing this experience does give you is a certain resilience an ability to work extremely hard and a realistic pragmatism about work (sometimes you just need to get a piece of work out, even if it is not perfect).

For recent graduates I always recommend that in your first 5 (or even 10) years of your career, to not even consider the salary when choosing roles.  It is much more important to focus on roles that give you great experience – whether that is working on site, or on a specific field of research or in a specific discipline.  This is both for your own enjoyment and also for your CV; my career has been in mining and it is a cyclical industry and when there is the (inevitable) downturn it really helps if you have good experiences on your CV.

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