An engineering major

Gisborne man Peter Holdsworth tells the story behind his ‘baby’, Pultron Composites.

Peter Holdsworth receiving his Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from University of Canterbury’s Chancellor Dr John Wood.

BORN AT the beginning of World War 2 and growing up on a farm inland from Gisborne, Peter Holdsworth had to entertain himself.

“There was a large round boulder near our house so I often amused myself by placing live .22 calibre bullets on top of the boulder and hitting them with a claw hammer.

“I would be too nervous to do that today, especially without safety glasses.”

Nobody seemed to bother about the explosions, he said, or notice the stains around his legs from the exploding bullets.

At an early age he was fascinated by electricity. He wired up lights and switches, connecting them to the 230 volt mains.

One evening his parents had visitors for dinner.

“They saw my wiring and told my father. He came and said ‘son be careful, that could be dangerous’ and went back to dinner!

“I already knew that, so was very careful.”

He enjoyed visiting his grandfather, who had a hobby of building radios.

“That inspired me to build my own crystal set, valve radio, telephone system, electric motor and steam turbine.”

He remembers lots of hobbies — photography, carpentry, constructing jetties, model aeroplanes, disassembling gearboxes and making explosives.

“If I wanted a toy, the only solution was to build my own — push cart, canoe, surf ski, row boat — and I learned the fun was in the construction.”

Chemistry has been an enduring hobby.

“As a boy I discovered a way to make a delayed self-igniting fire — which was to pour glycerine on to potassium permanganate crystals.”

Many years later he read about the same technique in a terrorist handbook.

Peter is a renowned entrepreneur, inventor and founder of the internationally highly-regarded industrial technology manufacturing company Pultron Composites Ltd based in Gisborne, New Zealand and Dubai, UAE.

The pultrusion concept

He said the pultrusion concept started when he built a vertical axis wind turbine and investigated pultrusion technology to make lighter and stronger blades.

“I thought back to when as a holiday job I helped construct farm fences and learned how tedious it was digging post holes.”

He made his first pultruded rod by pulling glassfibre impregnated with resin through a heated, polished tube, attached to the farm workshop — with a bulldozer!

“The workshop wall collapsed — but I had my first fence post, and data on how to build a pultrusion machine.”

These posts could easily be hammered into the ground without having to dig a hole and were naturally electrically insulating.

“I invented a clip to attach wires to the pultruded posts, in spite of being warned by the spring maker that every conceivable spring had already been patented and that I was wasting my time.”

However, the patent was granted, securing the sale of millions of pultruded electric fence posts in New Zealand, Australia and around the world for farms, zoos and even anti-pirate fencing on container ships.

Other pultruded products followed, including sail battens, ladder rails, optic fibre cable strength members, power pole X-arms, snowmobile track stiffeners, rock bolts for tunnels and mines, and rebars for reinforcing concrete.

A constant-force pultruded spring mechanism was developed for height-adjustable computer screens to comply with European Union legislation. This led to the development of the SpringFree trampoline mat tensioning rods.

Peter says glass fibre pultrusions are stronger than steel, lighter than aluminium, electrically and thermally insulating, and corrosion resistant with a low modulus, which enables high energy storage when deformed.

50 products and processes

Since Pultron was formed 35 years ago, more than 50 innovative products and processes have been developed.

He says developing a new technology designing and building machinery to establish Pultron has been “challenging and very satisfying”.

“Pultron is now run by specialists in their fields, rather than the Jack of all trades that I needed to be to get the business under way.”

Speaking to engineering graduates this week, he said his advice to young engineers was to be curious, open-minded, tenacious and continue to educate yourself in a wide range of subjects.

“And don’t forget the fun — it is often this that spurs innovation.”

Engineering and Canterbury University have been part of Peter and his wife Dame Bronwen Holdsworth’s lives for a long time.

Dr Peter Holdsworth with his daughter Katharine.

Microsoft in Seattle

Their daughter Dr Katharine Holdsworth also has a doctorate in engineering and holds a senior position at Microsoft in Seattle. Two sons have engineering degrees from Canterbury — Jasper a Masters in Engineering Management, and Zak an honours degree in electrical engineering, after an MBA at Stanford University in the United States. Jasper is now managing director of the family businesses, and Zak has a technology start-up company in San Francisco. Their second daughter Dr Samantha Holdsworth started off studying engineering at Canterbury then changed to an honours degree in astrophysics. She went on to get her doctorate in medical physics from the University of Queensland and is now a senior research scientist at Stanford University in California.

On receiving his doctorate, Peter said he was honoured.

“To me, it is recognition of the productivity of a 50-year working life . . . based on the sound and broad education gained as one of the first electrical engineering students through the new Ilam campus.”

The citation for the award said Peter Holdsworth was an outstanding and innovative engineer.

“These achievements followed a traditional entry point into the profession, when he graduated from the University of Canterbury with a BE in electrical engineering and became a development engineer at Standard Telephone & Cable Company, Australia.”

Peter has close links with the University of Canterbury as a result of his development of materials science and pultrusion technology.

He is also a notable farmer and landowner in the Gisborne area, and innovator in agriculture. As technical director of Pultron, he has run research, design and engineering teams, and been awarded the honour of Fellow of IPENZ for his outstanding contribution to engineering in New Zealand and internationally.


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