Chatting with James Dyson
I had the good fortune recently to be offered an email interview with James Dyson, inventor of the now-famous Dyson vacuum cleaner. Since bringing the bagless vac to market, Dyson’s company has gone on to re-image other household stapes, such as the space heater and the bladeless fan. His throughtful responses to several questions made their way onto my Hot Home Products column, but here’s the over-flow of my virtual convo with this fascinating inventor/designer/science activist.
VS: When it comes to re-imaging products, what comes first – an “aha” moment, when you suddenly see it in a new, better-functioning way, and you work back from here — or the realization that there’s a problem with the way it currently functions?
JD: I’m afraid Eureka moments are elusive. Research and development is time consuming, expensive, and filled with failure, but it’s worth it when you get a breakthrough. Thomas Edison famously said ‘I haven’t failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work’.
Dyson engineers take an iterative, approach to developing technology. If it doesn’t work one way, they try another looking beyond existing technology, asking if there’s a better way. But even when you think you’re onto something there are often hundreds of prototypes to build before you get it right.
Some technologies are years in development, and sometimes that research spawns another idea. It was while our engineers were looking at the application of Air knives for an unrelated project that they realised the potential for drying air with high velocity air. After lots of prototyping, the Dyson Airblade hand dryer was made.
VS: You’ve said that you think the next wave of innovation will have to do with making things smaller and cleverer. This seems to be a driving factor in your vacuum designs. When did the notion of the small but mighty ball vacuum first occur to you?
JD: It’s often argued that engineering needs to be ‘green’. The reality is that any good engineer is always thinking about how they can reduce the materials and energy used by their technology. All our machines are built around this notion. You need your technology to do its job first and foremost – but without unnecessarily big motors and lots of excess materials.
The physical size of our machines is also increasingly important. The Japanese for instance have very small homes are like small technology to suit. With this in mind, we’ve developed smaller vacuum cleaners, while maintaining the performance of larger machines.
Nanotechnology is perhaps the most exciting area for future developments. Once the preserve of laboratories and science fiction it’s finding its way into everyday applications like self cleaning glass-thin enough to be seen through but with properties that allow it break down organic dirt when it reacts with sunlight.
VS: Why is conventional design – vacuums with poor suction and clumsy wheel-bases, electric motors with brushes that wear down and emit dust — so slow to change? Why aren’t consumers more demanding about getting well-made, efficient products that last a long time?
JD: I disagree that people aren’t demanding. They can tell you quite quickly what annoys them – whether it’s a vacuum that wheezes, a hand dryer that doesn’t dry or a fan with exposed blades. The difficult part is challenging this. Thinking, I can do it better. And that’s the mindset of an engineer.
Focus groups and market research aren’t a solution; rather it’s for engineers to re-imagine how a problem can be approached. Henry Ford summed this up nicely by commenting that if he had asked people what they wanted; they would have said faster horses. It’s really quite difficult to imagine a different solution.
But as an engineer it’s important to always remember that if your technology doesn’t do its job – or it breaks down after a year or two, people won’t buy from you again. Our approach has always been to invest in research and development (more than £1.5m a week at the moment). Design, test and re-design.
VS: Now that fewer and fewer small repairmen are around to fix the things we break, how important is reliable, responsive customer service, and to what extent does that become important and/or a challenge to a global manufacturer?
JD: By engineering machines that are built to last we ensure that Dyson owners have a long-term relationship with their machine. Dyson machines endure a myriad of durability tests, inflicting years of use in a condensed period of time.
Once it was just me - throwing a DC01 from the steps of my coach house. Today we have specially built facilities to test every possible challenge our technology might face. When you’ve thrown a vacuum cleaner down a set of stairs 2000 times, you can be pretty sure it’s going to last.
But the support we provide to Dyson owners is just as important. Our full size vacuum cleaners all come with 5 year warranties and we provide toll free support 6 days a week in Canada. So if something isn’t working or you have a question about which Dyson is for you, we’re on hand to assist you.
VS: The Air Multiplier is a beautiful example of how engineering can transform an
everyday item. But understanding how it works depends on grasping such concepts as “viscous sheering” and negative pressure, which may be a challenge – given technological and scientific illiteracy. To what extend do you need to communicate those concepts well in order to push sales? Or do people not care about that; do they just care that the product has superior performance?
JD: Once you have perfected a new technology, part of the challenge is explaining to people how it works. With the Air Multiplier fans you can immediately see the difference. The blades are gone. People’s innate curiosity kicks in and makes them want to know how it works. Their first response is normally to stick their arm straight through the middle, but then the more detailed questions come.
VS: What kind of “radical steps” (which Dyson has called for) are needed to promote engineering and science as good career choices, and employment sectors, in the western world?
JD: It’s engineers and scientists that will develop solutions to the world’s biggest problems, so it’s vital we foster a generation of agile minds to take on the challenge. Global warming, growing demand for energy and an increasing number of droughts – the scale is enormous but with the brightest minds we will develop solutions.
Canadian engineers are mitigating effects of climate change. As Canada’s infrastructure becomes vulnerable to more severe weather, assessment protocols have been developed to minimize risk through designing and maintaining resilient infrastructure. It’s a national plan to address the future prosperity for Canada - and the world.
A generation of problem solvers, inspired to develop exciting, high technologies will improve lives. It starts in schools and this is where the focus must be. By fusing the rigours of maths and science with a more practical element we can inspire young people to pursue this important career.
VS: Over the last few years, we’ve seen what can happen when economies over-rely on “assets” that have an artificial or inflated value. On one level, that may be partly responsible for a rise in consumer interest in the “real” or “authentic” – hand-made house wares, appliances that last, things made out of identifiable natural materials, such as wood, metal and glass. In fact, people seem to be willing to pay a bit more for such products. Does this bode well for companies such as Dyson, that make a product that may cost more than others in the same category, but have a reputation for solid engineering and performance? In short, are consumers more aware of the cost vs. value proposition?
JD: People are always careful about how they spend their money, but even more so in a recession. They’re increasingly looking to spend their money on items that are well considered and built to last and for that reason it’s important we remain focused on our technology.
Our investment in research and development has been unflinching despite the downturn. The engineering team has more than doubled in the last eighteen months to ensure that our pipeline of technology remains full.
And of course with increasing investment comes the need to protect the ideas that result. We’re very careful to defend what’s ours, patenting ideas and protecting them through the courts where necessary. The problem we face is that some unscrupulous companies take advantage, imitating our machines but delivering low performance.
VS: Can you give us a hint of new directions or product categories for Dyson?
As ever, it’s a secret. In fact our research and development facilities in Wiltshire recently went into lock-down to ensure that ideas don’t escape. Fingerprint scanners prevent everyone but Dyson engineers gaining access to our research facilities and security glass prevents spying eyes.
That said, it’s a certainty that the Dyson Digital motor will remain a focus. We have a team of around 100 dedicated motors engineers working on the technology that currently sits at the heart of our cordless machines and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. It’s taken fifteen years of research and development to bring us here, but the potential offered by these high speed digital motors is enormous.
VS: And what should readers know about what your foundation is doing these days?
JD: The James Dyson Foundation remains focused on exciting young people about design and engineering, encouraging them to be inventive and to ultimately consider careers in the field. Bringing the subject to life in the classroom will help encourage young people to get the engineering bug. Spaghetti bridges, marble runs, constructing geodesic domes – it encourages them to use both their hands and their brains.
Last year the foundation opened the first engineering lab at Science World, British Columbia. Using a tangle of tall tubes and valves, the exhibit encourages experimentation with airflow. The lab gets hands on with engineering principles like pneumatics and centrifuge, viscose and venturi. It’s an opportunity to quite literally ‘get to grips’ with the theory. There’s also an online engineering lab to inspire and explore, find out how things work, question and be creative.
VS: We really like the look of lighting pieces being made by a young designer by the name of Jake Dyson. Do you have any influence with him, and could you persuade him to get his lighting fixtures into Canada?
JD: I’ll pass along the message, but I’m not sure how much sway I have – I had to order mine just like everyone else! Jake’s focus on technology results in striking and effective lights.