Richard J. Robbins

Richard J. Robbins
Richard J. Robbins
  • From:

    The Robbins Group, LLC | Seattle, Washington

  • Year:

    2009

  • Subject:

    Engineering

  • Award:

    Benjamin Franklin Medal

  • Citation:

    For his imagination and skill in developing a hard-rock tunnel boring machine and its associated systems, resulting in a safe, economical, and efficient method for constructing tunnels.

From man's first invention of gun powder, explosives were used to blast through rock and ground to make tunnels. This dangerous process, used to build new roads or mines, remained largely-unchanged until the 1950s when Dick Robbins helped bring an entirely different kind of rock-cutter to the world's attention—enabling for the first time such massive projects as digging a tunnel under the English Channel. Through the family tunnel drilling company, Robbins produced Tunnel Boring Machines [TBM] that could economically, efficiently, and safely bore through not only hard rock, but also through changing terrain or terrain pressurized with water. While he had competitors, it was Robbins who provided the first truly viable TBMs, ushering in an era of rapid, cost-effective, and safe tunnel construction.

Robbins earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Michigan Technological University in 1956. Just two years after he graduated, he took over the family's tunneling company upon the untimely death of his father. In addition to the difficulty of trying to keep the company running, Robbins focused on refining his father's ideas for a new rock boring machine. He substituted hard disks for the drill bits that kept breaking; he added hydraulic pistons to increase the pressure and help fragment the rock; he developed ways to remove the rock without having to stop drilling; and he ultimately even added maintenance shops and crews' quarters to the giant machines. He gained a reputation in the drilling community for providing machines that could tackle the most difficult projects, safely and inexpensively, and for being someone who could constantly dream up new improvements and then actually build them.

Over the decades, his TBMs (many in the industry simply call it a "Robbins" even if it's a machine built by another company) have enabled projects that would have been impossible otherwise. In addition to the English Channel, such projects include: the aqueduct of Bogotá in Columbia, the diversion of the Yellow River in China, the hydro power plant of the Grand Dixence in Switzerland, the aqueduct of Athens in Greece, the sewage and the aqueduct of Hong Kong.

Robbins was president and CEO of the Robbins Company until 1993, and is currently on its board of directors. He is currently president of The Robbins Group LLC, which focuses on research and product development for The Robbins Company. He holds 11 U.S. patents and 56 foreign patents in underground mechanical excavation. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Information as of April 2009