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Practising and studying the art of partnering: Ir Ken Chan

Published on Friday, 05 Jun 2015
Practising and studying the art of partnering: Ir Ken Chan
Practising and studying the art of partnering: Ir Ken Chan

By Angela Tam 
Source: The HKIE’s Monthly Journal – Hong Kong Engineer May 2015 Issue

Ir Ken Chan discovered his vocation early in life. Learning different trades at pre-vocational school, this year's winner of the Young Engineer of the Year award attended pre-vocational school from the age of 11 and found a liking for electrical works. This affinity deepened in secondary school, when he made a motor from scratch for the first time.

"It didn't work at first when the teacher tested it but it was only because it wasn't switched on. When it started working I got really excited," Ir Chan recalled. "Electricity is something we can't see, touch or smell, but we can feel its presence in different ways. I find that very interesting; it's not like other trades, which are more concrete."

This interest solidified into a career choice when he turned 18, when he realised that all the trades have one thing in common: they all need electricity in order to work. He graduated with a BEng (electrical energy system engineering) and an MSc (electrical and electronics engineering) from the University of Hong Kong in 2003 and 2005 respectively. 

Ir Chan entered the job market in the midst of SARS. Like many of his classmates, he decided to apply for different types of jobs in order to secure work, but on the day he was due to be interviewed by the Police for a job as an inspector, he was offered one as a graduate trainee with CLP Power. 

After two years of training, he remained with the engineering department, where one of his main projects was to design a new substation for Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, whose power demand was expected to increase as a result of a larger intake of students arising from the switch to the 3-3-4 education system. 

Commissioned in 2010, it was a project that Ir Chan counted as an achievement because the substation was built taking into account the presence of fung shui trees in the vicinity as well as the need to minimise the impact of low-frequency noise from the facility on the campus. After stints handling contract management and publicity work, he was installed in his current position, with responsibility for leading a team of engineers to handle the construction of electricity distribution networks on various outlying islands. 

One project that gave him an opportunity to appreciate engineers' role in society was the restoration of electricity supply to Tai O village on Lantau Island, which had been affected by fire in 2013. To meet the wish of elderly villagers who wanted to move back by the Mid-Autumn Festival of 2014, he decided to install temporary overhead lines so electricity would be restored while permission to lay underground cables, which typically took four months, was being obtained. 

Another project involved interaction with other professional engineers: a Water Supplies Department (WSD) project to upgrade a reservoir, which would involve the suspension of electricity supply from one of two substations. The department was concerned that, without backup during the four-week period of suspension, the district would run out of freshwater supply within four hours should supply from the operational substation be interrupted. Using the problem-solving skills of an engineer, Ir Chan broke down the works procedures, inserting steps to be completed before restoring supply within four hours should WSD make the request, thus successfully persuading the department to agree to the works.

His invention of an earth mat, which involves incorporating an electrical facility into a civil structure - that is, the pipe piles - of a substation to save cost and time and minimise disruption similarly involves collaboration among different parties. It won him a Certificate of Merit at the HKIE Innovation Award (Category II) in 2009.

"The new generation of engineers should ask whether there's room for improving existing practices, especially in these changing times," Ir Chan said. 

Given his interest in collaboration, with the community as well as engineers of various disciplines, it is not surprising that Ir Chan is currently pursuing a PhD at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Department of Building and Real Estate, on the subject of partnering in project management. His aim is to develop a partnering implementation framework for the industry by overcoming the resistance of frontline staff, who, he said, often only pay lip service to the concept.

Overcoming resistance is a favourite theme of Ir Chan's, not only in his PhD, but also in the many school talks and public talks he has given to promote the engineering profession.

"When I share my experience with students, I like to use a light bulb," he said, pulling one out of his pocket. "A light bulb is able to transmit light only because of resistance from the light filament, so resistance is a good thing. That's what gives me a positive outlook on life."

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