Turning mechanics into high culture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Engineering is a bit of a passion in the Lam family. Josh Lam Hiu-man, 27, is the youngest of three brothers who have all found inspiration in the subject.

'When we were young, we all liked playing with toy cars, like most children,' Lam says. 'But then we would do some modifications, take them apart, rebuild them.'

Now that he's grown up, Lam is a PhD research student at Chinese University. His two brothers before him also studied at the Mechanical and Automation Engineering Department. One now runs a company at the Science and Technology Parks, while the other is a professor in mechanical engineering at City University.

As for Lam, he has combined his love of mechanics with his heritage: his main area of research has been working on a robot that can paint calligraphy and Chinese art. He writes the calligraphy and the robot follows his brushstrokes.

'This kind of art is an important element of Chinese culture,' he says.

When Lam started on the project, his two other teammates had already set up a robotic system: a robot with three motors that could control a brush in only three directions.

'At that time we could only consider doing some line drawings, not calligraphy,' he says. 'But after I entered the lab I thought, wow, it could do Chinese calligraphy. So I had many discussions with my supervisor, Professor Yeung Yam, to see whether we could develop the robotic system.

'So we added three other motors to it. These three are for rotation, so that we can control the brush this way.'

The system could have an industrial application. A professor from Norway who works in industrial engineering came to see the project.

'He was quite interested in it,' Lam says. The don suggested using the robot to paint calligraphy on bowls or other curved surfaces, which, Lam says, would be difficult for a machine to do. Even if it could be done, the quality would not be very good. 'In robotics, we can say there are two sectors of people,' he says. 'One group will think that we want to do something very practical that can be used in industry, and the other will think we want to develop the robotics technology.'

In tandem with the robot, Lam and his colleagues have developed what is called a brush motion capture system.

'With this system we have three infrared markers and four cameras looking at the infrared markers, where the brush moves. So they capture both the position and orientation of the brush. The robot then takes the signals from this computer input device and redraws the calligraphy.

'This kind of thing can be applied to industry in terms of a computer input device to be used, for example, in computer animation,' he says.

Lam began his PhD programme in 2008 and is now writing up his thesis, after which he will graduate early next year.

And right now in the calligrapher-robot project, he's going it alone. 'We had three guys, but the other two members have graduated. When I entered the lab, they were in their final year.'

While there are distinct challenges to taking on a research PhD programme, Lam loves what he does. He wants to continue his research after getting the doctorate.

'There are many ways of actually doing this,' he says. 'One way is to study abroad as a researcher, or to study further at a research institute here.'

Lam has been a part of the department at Chinese University for eight years, having also done his Bachelor of Science and Master's degrees there. He receives support to continue his research work and says the 'salary' is very liveable.

But students have to work very hard, he says.

'The most challenging thing is how to manage your time, because I think it is a bit different from those working in industry,' Lam says. 'They are doing technology, but we are creating technology. They are working on something based on technology that already exists. What we are doing must have innovation.

'And if we talk about innovation, we must spend time thinking and have many discussions and read a lot of literature. We have a bunch of things to do every day, so time management is a challenge.'

Lam praises Chinese University for the amount of academic freedom he has been given. He would like to do postdoctoral research before becoming a professor.

'There aren't that many professor positions available; it's quite hard,' he says.

His advice to those contemplating a research PhD is that they should have a clear idea of what they want to do with it afterwards, and yet be prepared to be flexible with that goal.

'You build up techniques, you build up the knowledge. You also grow up mentally' in the course of the research, he says. 'You find as you go along over the months that sometimes your expectations change with that newly acquired knowledge, so you might want to reconsider the nature of the job you want to do in the future.'

Lam grew up on the Sun Tin Wai public housing estate in Sha Tin, 'only two train stops away from Chinese University'. He says: 'We still live in the same estate, but we have a bigger flat now.'

His parents had a big influence on him during his childhood. 'They always told me and my brothers, you are not from a rich family but you can change your lives through learning. That inspired me to learn as much as I could.'

When he's not in the lab working, Lam likes to run in his spare time. And his other hobby? 'Oh, working with electronic things,' he laughs. 'Engineering things. There's a word they have in America for me. Geek.'