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Bob Shanks

For three decades Bob Shanks has worked tirelessly to enhance the role of all engineers. He is the winner of the Excellence category in the 2020 IET Volunteer Core Values Awards (CVA).

Bob studied Mechanical Engineering in the early 1960s at Brighton Technical College. “From quite humble beginnings there, one of my lecturers suggested I might be good enough to do postgraduate work at London’s Imperial College, which I went on to do,” he said.

“I was working towards a diploma in Thermodynamics, a combination of taught sessions and research. I felt completely out of my depth because I was far less qualified than those doing the same activities as me, but I soon gained their respect because of the technical knowledge and experience I had picked up at Brighton.

“I was thinking about that recently because these days the focus seems to be more on academia and research than actually teaching people how to run a factory combining relevant parts of academia with the practical pressures. One of the reasons why I volunteer for the IET is that I want to help distribute knowledge to engineers.”

Bob also undertook a business studies research degree at the Warwick University in the late ’60s while working at Rover. Now retired, Bob spent the majority of his career working for global industrial engineering group Sandvik, where he specialised in the design and manufacture of cutting tools used for making automobiles and aircraft.

Exemplary role model

For more than 30 years Bob has been an active member of the Midlands Manufacturing Network, a multi-institution group that includes the IET and the IMechE. He has been heavily involved throughout, including leading numerous sub-committees and chairing the main committee from 2006 to 2010.

Responsible for organising countless prestige lectures over the years, he said: “We try to focus on topics that are at the cutting edge of manufacturing – things that will be of interest to companies, like 3D printing.”

Long-standing colleague David Archer nominated Bob for the CVA with a powerful endorsement of his outstanding contribution as a volunteer: “Bob will always be first to help or to stand in and lead an event if current chair(s) are unable, due to work or other personal demands. We rely on his broad experience, his detailed knowledge of industry and his contacts when putting on events.

“I have worked with Bob on volunteer committees for over 30 years and he has never let us or the team down in all that time. Due to his experience, the younger members of the committees look up to him for guidance and advice, which he is always willing to share and give.”

Gentle guiding touches

In 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bob and his fellow Manufacturing Network members took action to resolve local problems concerning the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We’re dynamic, not static,” he said. “We knew we had the expertise available, so we responded to the supply issue by building an app that allowed companies to bid for PPE in a secure way without disclosing sensitive information and losing competitive advantage.

“My role was very much a supportive one: identifying the needs, getting in the expertise and making sure we retained a focus on quality – we didn’t want something that was superficial or fundamentally flawed.”

Bob is practised in the art of motivation and knows how to get the best out of his fellow volunteers, particularly young professionals. “I like to allow members the scope and headroom to explore opportunities, but I give gentle guiding touches along the way to make sure we don’t end up with something too extraordinary,” he said.

“It’s about letting people come up with their own ideas – although they might not have much substance, talking them through motivates the individual and may well spark new ideas in others. Sometimes you need courage to let things unravel a bit!”

Prime mover

Bob has always been a prime mover. It was Bob who, back in 1999, first contacted Midlands-based members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE) and the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the IET) to see if there was any interest in running regional activities for engineers involved in manufacturing.

“More than 50 people turned up for that first meeting, which astounded me,” he said. “It showed there was an appetite for making a difference. We decided to focus on activities that enhanced the image of engineering and inspired younger people to become engineers, to help plug the skills gap.

“We recognised early on that to get young people involved, there would have to be an emphasis on fun. We came up with the concept of the ‘Imagineering Fair’, with the aim of introducing young people aged between eight and 16 to the world of engineering and technology through fun, hands-on activities.

“We booked a space at Stoneleigh’s annual Town and Country Festival in 2000, which regularly attracted around 200,000 visitors. Jaguar lent us a Formula One racing car for the event and we also received support from Caterpillar and Ericsson. We ended up with our own marquee and succeeded in attracting more than 60,000 visitors. It was a huge success. ”

Inspiring future engineers

Driven by the success of the first Imagineering Fair in 2000, Bob helped set up the Imagineering Foundation the following year. It is an educational charity that targets the engineers of the future and Bob has been its Chairman from day one.

The charity aims to develop and sustain young people’s interest in engineering. Helped by a band of willing volunteers, including many from the IET, this goal is achieved through Imagineering Fairs and fun, hands-on activities at after-school Imagineering Clubs, where children make working models of machinery, learn to use tools and pick up a range of basic engineering skills. The end goal, of course, is to spark interest in an engineering career.

“Within five years we had Imagineering clubs at 20 schools, run by local volunteers who used engineering kits made at a local prison,” said Bob. “At one point we had 150 clubs located across England.

“It’s far more difficult these days to find volunteers and company sponsors, but we still have around 50 thriving clubs. I run some of the local ones, so I know what’s happening at the sharp end. When you’re leading an organisation, you need to understand what’s going on, from top to bottom.”

So far, more than 140 Imagineering Fairs and events have been held around the country. Supported by volunteers from the IET, IMechE and Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology, they continue to draw in the crowds and have opened the eyes of hundreds of thousands of young people to the breadth of possibilities offered by a career in engineering.

In 2009 Bob was awarded the IET Sir Monty Finniston Medal for Achievement in recognition of his phenomenal efforts in promoting engineering to young people. This accolade was followed in 2010 by the IMechE Stephenson Medal.


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