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Dr Robin Sham

Dr Robin Sham

Global long span and specialty bridges director, AECOM

Expertise

Design, Project management, Construction, Bridges

Location

Hong Kong
Career highlights

Awarded CBE in 2018 by HM Queen Elizabeth II, for services to the civil engineering profession

Worked on the Kap Shui Mun Bridge, arguably the most difficult rail-road cable-stayed bridge ever built

Worked on 1,088m main span Sutong Bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge to feature main spans exceeding 1,000m

How I became a civil engineer

I am privileged to have studied at Imperial College London and that makes a flying start. I think continuous professional development is essential to keep up with technology. Of course everyone is different and there is no universal pattern to map out the pathways to success. If you’ve got a weakness, think about how you could turn it into a strength, or concentrate on a strength or skill you’ve already developed. 

Yes we need to study maths and physics, but above all, successful civil engineers have a passion to change the world for the better.

Dr. Robin is an ICE Superhero because...

Dr. Robin Sham is a civil engineer passionate about building bridges.

Dr. Robin earned his superhero status and nickname Captain Connector for his work constructing some of the world’s biggest and most difficult to build bridges – helping to connect people and grow economies (creating wealth and better standards of living).

We asked Dr…

A typical day in your life

In my work, I cross vast continents in search of new frontiers in bridge engineering

Apart from tackling tasks which I must do, I also try to use my imagination on activities which will prove rewarding in the long run. I yearn to perfect third-generation (advanced) suspension bridges. I am also in search of a practical and cost-effective means to increasing the limit on cable-stayed bridge spans (the length between pillars). The intellectual challenge is endless.

I also have to anticipate how events in projects may pan out and how they may interact. The key to success in projects I think is like the art of winning a game of tennis (on the Centre Court of Wimbledon when it’s a major piece of infrastructure!) The most important thing is to anticipate where the ball might drop and take action before it drops!

I would recommend a career in civil engineering because

A career in civil engineering offers the challenge of “directing the great resources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” (Thomas Tredgold). There is also, I find, a triumphant sense of accomplishment in delivering a project. What other career can offer this?

What’s the biggest/most complex thing you’ve made out of Lego? How long did it take you?

I designed the world’s longest LEGO suspension bridge for ICE! This project was aimed at connecting civil engineers with the public, and to promote awareness of the achievements of civil engineering.

Since the bridge was built in the ICE Library at Westminster in 2016, that design has been built on several continents across the world. The logistics involved were complex so the planning and execution of the project had to be meticulous.

The engineering properties (such as elasticity, tensile strength etc)of LEGO bricks are not fully understood, and so as part of the design process we did some load-testing. The design was also constrained by how the structure could actually be built – which isn’t unusual because the design of actual bridges in the world are also subject to constructability. 

After working on some of the world’s most significant bridges, is there one that is particularly meaningful to you?

Every bridge is a challenge and also unique so it is difficult for me to pick just one. But if you insist, I would have to go with Hong Kong's Kap Shui Mun Bridge, which was at the time the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world (820 metres), transporting both road and railway traffic, with the upper deck for motor vehicles and the lower deck for mass transit railway.

To my mind, Kap Shui Mun Bridge was, and still is, the most difficult cable-stayed bridge to build but what made it even more challenging were the very tight deadlines and the difficult  environmental conditions. Since the bridge was created to provide an essential link between the new Hong Kong International Airport and city of Hong Kong, it was a race against time to finish it before the handover of Hong Kong to China. Failure was not an option!

To speed-up progress, we had to lay the trackwork and build the railway while the two halves of the cable-stayed bridge were each separately built by cantilever construction. The strong wind conditions and the deflections of the bridge under load led to large movements and my team and I had to invent new techniques to be able to lay the track.

I was on the bridge every day to try to better understand its behaviour; constantly comparing it with the predictions and doing more analysis and predictions. In the end, we met the deadlines and built the bridge in less than four years. It was stressful at times but we emerged with the tranquil confidence that, to quote Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, "You’re specially chosen, and lucky to be there."

Complete this phrase: I’m a civil engineer, but I’m also …

I also have a shrewd understanding of commercial forces, which still leaves room for unfettered passion for creation.

What about being a civil engineer gets you out of bed each morning?

Legend has it that General Omar Bradley told General George Patton, “I do this job because I have been trained to do it. You do it because you love it”. Being a civil engineer, I am driven both by my professional training and by a passion for my job.

Which civil engineering project (past or present) do you wish you’d worked on?

I have no regret that I might have missed out on the action in any project. To quote Dickens: “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us”. Yesterday was experience, tomorrow is hope.

What’s one great thing that you love about civil engineering that you didn’t know until you started working in the industry?

What was once inconceivable is now technically achievable.

Name one civil engineering myth you’d like to bust.

One of the common misconceptions is that ‘much of civil engineering infrastructure that needs to be built has already been built' (so civil engineers will no longer be needed).

The civil engineering industry is constantly evolving and we now have access to technology that enables us to build structures in topographies and environments that were once unthinkable: where waterways were ‘too wide to be crossed’, where the winds are ‘too strong for construction’, where the soil-types are ‘impossible to build on’ and where severe earthquakes once deterred construction.

I believe civil engineering is a human endeavour without frontiers or boundaries. On a global scale technology transfer can help developing countries to improve the quality of life. Also, more infrastructure projects are being financed under public-private partnerships, which I think beckons new development opportunities.  

The key to all this is that civil engineers drive events, rather than let events drive them.  

Has civil engineering helped you overcome any personal hurdles/difficulties?

Civil engineering has changed my views and my skill-set for tackling problems. In my younger days I believed science and maths could solve all the world’s problems but I’ve learned that the arts and the humanities help broaden one’s horizon and inspire creativity. In complex projects, success may not lie in finding the right or the wrong, but the best solution available and that demands a broad horizon and a holistic approach.