Professor Richard Folkson is currently President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a passionate educator and an assessor for Innovate UK.

Professor Richard Folkson

Can you tell us about your studies at Imperial?

"When I applied to Imperial and was invited to interview, I was advised to spend a year in industry before beginning my studies for the BSc(Eng) Mechanical Engineering degree. I took this advice on board and spent a year working at Ford Motor Company. This was a great experience and invaluable as I progressed through the years of study at Imperial. I also used my summer holiday periods to gain more industrial experience with different companies. Having had industrial experience before (and during) studying meant that I understood the relevance of the course content – and this, in turn, helped me stay motivated when the academic work was tough. I did find the maths challenging and I had to work hard, but having an understanding of why the difficult topics were important really helped. I went back to work for Ford after finishing my degree at Imperial."

What is your fondest memory of your time here?

"I made really good friends at Imperial, and we had a great time together. I still bump into them occasionally, particularly in my current role as President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. A lot of my friends did not stay in engineering, but went on to careers in the financial sector. For me, though, it has always been important to stay in engineering as I feel I’m doing something worthwhile, and I get a huge amount of career satisfaction from that.

One of my fondest memories of my time at Imperial was playing the trumpet in the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, with a particular highlight being performances of "Messiah from scratch" in the Royal Albert Hall. It was a great experience."

What do you do currently?

"At the moment I have three main commitments.

The first is that I do a lot of teaching at university level. I run a vehicle design course at Loughborough University; and I’m a Visiting Professor in Innovation and Design at the University of Hertfordshire. I’m passionate about giving something back to the next generation and continuing to inspire and motivate young engineers.

Secondly, I’m an assessor for Innovate UK, where I evaluate research project proposals for government funding.

In May 2015 I was elected as President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. I’ve really focussed on encouraging all engineers to inspire the next generation, and so we’ve been working on a lot of education initiatives. I’ve also been encouraging more collaboration between the different engineering institutions, as together we can have a greater impact on policy and society. I’ve had a long standing association with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, right through my career. It provides an excellent opportunity to keep up to speed with developments in engineering, good networking functions, and of course, professional accreditation and recognition."

What have been some of your career highlights?

"Whilst I was at Ford I worked in all areas of product development, all over the world. I worked on some really interesting projects: I was the technical lead for assessing if Ford should buy Daewoo Motors; I had opportunities to work with great teams across brands like Jaguar, Mazda and Aston Martin; and I was also given responsibility for planning the next generation all-new Ford Transit van. Seeing my work on the Transit van approved by the Board and put into practice was a great experience and a real highlight for me.

A recent highlight was having the opportunity to talk to 80 primary school children about cars and engineering. The children were fantastic and really engaged. Afterwards, one of the parents phoned the school to say their daughter could not stop talking about the presentation, and that she wanted to be an engineer when she grew up. For me, that’s really what it is all about!"

How has what you learnt at Imperial helped throughout your career?

"I think the ability to use analytical methods properly and robustly has been essential, and that is something I picked up at Imperial. It’s important to analyse problems from a data-driven perspective and use numbers, not gut feeling.

It wasn’t whilst I was at Imperial, but whilst I was working on the Ford Transit van, I discovered the Boeing Commandments, which I still use today. I think they chime with what I learnt studying at Imperial. Essentially, the principles are: targets drive design; use numerical targets and data-driven decisions; panic early, not at the last minute; and have no secrets - don’t try to hide problems."

What would be your advice for current students? 

"I’ve had a great career in engineering and have had so many fantastic experiences. Becoming the President of the Institution is a wonderful achievement and honour for me, but my whole career has been really fulfilling and satisfying. It’s not all about the money so don’t assume the best jobs are in the City – staying in engineering definitely offers tremendous opportunities."

Do you have a favourite quote or saying?

"Henry Ford was famous for great quotations, and I have two favourites, which really help as you go through life. They are “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”, and “If you’re not going forwards, you’re going backwards”."