Comment: Engineering inspiration - from LEGO to saving lives


For several decades, LEGO has sparked fascination in the minds of countless young people, often providing them with their first experience of basic problem-solving.

For an engineer with 38-years’experience in the design of long-span and speciality bridges in the UK and around the world, I recently had the unique opportunity to go back to this time, albeit on a much larger and more complex scale. I was asked by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) to design a Guinness World Record-breaking suspension bridge made entirely out of LEGO bricks for its Bridge Exhibition, which opened to the public last week in London.

The world record-breaking LEGO suspension bridge

Standing over three metres tall and spanning more than 30-metres, the LEGO bridge is almost the equivalent of three London Rootmaster buses parked end-to-end.

I am used to building bridges with materials such as concrete and steel, so delivering a suspension bridge using only the materials you would find in a child’s LEGO toy box proved to be an entirely different challenge. It also reminds me of our work in the early 1990s on the Aberfeldy Bridge in Scotland, the world’s first all fibre-reinforced composite cable-stayed bridge.

The LEGO bridge posed additional challenges because the engineering properties of LEGO bricks are largely unknown. The finished structure weighs three-quarters of a ton and is made up of over 200,000 individual plastic bricks.

By using materials that children are familiar with, the project helps to demystify and showcase the work of engineers to the wider public. My hope is that this will help inspire the next generation of engineers. I am sure many young people would be excited by the prospect of creating their own structures at a much larger scale.

For me, I cannot pinpoint a particular moment or project that opened my young eyes to engineering. For as long as I can remember, I always knew that I would become a civil engineer.

I am often asked why I chose to specialise in bridges and the answer comes easily – there is a real sense of achievement that comes from creating such massive structures, particularly when these structures make such a positive impact on people’s lives. That is the raison d'être.

That is why initiatives like the ICE’s LEGO bridge are so important. They help to introduce engineering and the vital contribution the profession makes to society to the wider world. The LEGO bridge is at the centre of the new exhibition, which celebrates the civil engineers who have created some of the world’s greatest bridges.

AECOM's Dr Robin Sham - bridge designer and LEGO engineer 

Made possible with the support of leading UK engineering and construction companies, the exhibition tells the human story of bridge building. Throughout my career, I have seen first-hand just how important bridges can be for the communities they serve. The Second Severn Crossing, for example, which I worked on in the 80s until its opening in 1996, significantly cut the journey time between England and South Wales. The bridge provides an all-weather crossing – even in high-wind conditions – that helps connect economies and people.

One project I am currently working on that really stands out is the Padma Bridge in Bangladesh. Never have I been so convinced of the significance and positive impact that a single project will make on local communities. The country knows all too well the destructive force of nature, which can be extremely damaging and costly to infrastructure.

More resilient infrastructure prevents communities from being stranded after a natural disaster occurs and facilitates the movement of vital aid. The engineering team behind the project is using state-of-the-art technology and innovative disaster prevention and mitigation solutions to tackle some very serious challenges. As an engineer, one of the most important aspects of my job is making a tangible impact on the lives of people in greatest need.

Looking to the future, I hope to continue to work on life-changing projects and to help encourage more young people into the profession. While I am committed to refining the design of third generation suspension bridges, I also hope to be able to contribute to the invention of the fourth generation suspension bridge, as well as efficient ways of increasing cable-stayed bridge spans. There is still so much more that I want to achieve.

The profession continues to evolve and push new frontiers in bridge engineering. For those inspired by the LEGO bridge in London, a future career in the profession provides unimaginable opportunities.

Dr Robin Sham, Global Long Span and Speciality Bridges Director, AECOM


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