Dyson’s Simon Cross: ‘It’s about the air you breathe and the light you see’

16 May 2019

Simon Cross. Image: Dyson

Dyson design lead Simon Cross tells John Kennedy how the company is investing in science and technology, including AI and robotics, to improve the quality of people’s lives.

In recent weeks UK electronics giant Dyson unveiled three new machines that epitomise the company’s growing research and investment into wellbeing technologies for the home environment.

They included: the Lightcyle task light that continually adjusts its colour temperature to give you the correct light for the right time of day using a unique time, date and location-driven algorithm; the Pure Cool Me personal purifying fan that absorbs particles such as pollen and bacteria to release streams of pure air; and the new V11 Absolute cord-free vacuum that intelligently detects brush bar resistance, and communicates with the motor and battery’s microprocessors to adjust suction power for best results and longer battery life.

‘It’s about not throwing information at people for the sake of it’

This new generation of products – when added to a litany of products such as hairdryers and a forthcoming electric vehicle – indicates how Dyson has gone beyond being a mechanical engineering player to a company that is using hardware and software to create intelligent machines that can do everything from killing bacteria in the air or water, to preventing hair damage.

A new engineering mindset

For Dyson design lead Simon Cross, that evolution has been gradual, but at the same time jarring when you consider hardware engineers now working alongside data science experts and programmers. “It’s increasingly all about the air you breathe and the light you see. I joined Dyson eight years ago and at the time came from the mechanical design side. Back then we outnumbered the electronics engineers – in both hardware and software – and as well as that we didn’t have a connectivity team.

“We’ve gone from that to the complete reverse. We have a complete connectivity team and we are working on projects where very much both hardware and software development is the biggest part of some of the products, really.

“Still very much we are focused on the aerodynamics side, such as filtration and airflow. A lot of teams are working on analysis, but what we can actually do with software-centred connectivity to take us to the next level of intelligence. In fact, we have a whole division just on machine learning and equally on robots. So there has been a big drive to upskill the company in that sense. Because clearly that is the future; that’s where it is going.

“We have a lot of experts in each of those fields and we are working collaboratively on each of these projects but with much more emphasis on those areas than historically.”

Digital automation meets customer experience

But Cross added that there is still a delicate balance to maintain in terms of providing useful information and being useful rather than intimidating.

“What’s important for us is, while there is this push to go more down the digital automation route and make things intelligent and feed things back to the customer, we are very aware that it is easy to take that and go too far with it and start providing useless information for the sake of it and connecting products that don’t need to be connected.

“We are really focused on, yes, embracing that and trying to lead in those areas, and also not throwing information at people for the sake of it,” he added.

“For example, the V11 has an LCD screen on it but what we’ve not done is just provided all the information we possibly could from all of the information that the machine is logging. It’s about adding value, such as what sort of runtime the user will get in a certain mode based on the information being fed back from the machine head through the battery’s processors, to give the user the best runtime information and ensure that the runtime anxiety goes away.”

A key part of the V11 is its dynamic load sensor, a torque sensor that can sense different floor types, such as whether it is on a hard floor or a carpet, and recommend the best setting to get better battery life.

Another aspect of the changing Dyson to watch is the use of application programme interfaces (APIs) and apps.

This can be seen in the Lightcycle, where personalisation (such as the user’s age) via an app helps inform the machine to provide optimum brightness based on the time of day. “As you get much older, you need more light to perform the same task. A 65-year-old, for example, needs four times as much light as a 20-year-old. The Lightcycle will calibrate the light output and tune the LEDs to match the colour temperature of the local area and the time of day/year. A relax mode lets you enjoy just enough light to read but also set your body for sleep.”

According to Cross, the evolution to intelligent machines creates a new mindset for engineers.

“While we are moving into these new areas, we are still focused on the initial vision of delivering the maximum performance and adding to that usability. We are always focused on the physics of maximising all of the airways, improving the motors, maximising the suction output and filtration ability. But now we also have a team focused solely on user experience and interaction with the product who also work closely with the people who are designing the physical parts.

“It’s now all about designing the experience as well as the product.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years