Determined design – interview with celebrated inventor Sir James Dyson

28 Jun 2012

Renowned inventor Sir James Dyson: 'We look for a problem-solving invention. Irish entries to the James Dyson Award have always been impressive'

Inventor Sir James Dyson applauds Ireland’s approach to R&D, saying it is a long-term investment that will pay dividends. But, he warns, we need to increase engineering talent.

In recent months, UK engineer and inventor Sir James Dyson introduced a new generation of cylinder vacuum cleaners, the DC38 and DC39, incorporating a trademarked ‘Ball’ technology, which brought racing-car dynamics to navigating the mundane job of cleaning carpets and hardwood floors.

The introduction of the new machines came just months after the death of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and it became apparent to me how similar Jobs’ focus on designing and engineering beautiful but functional products was to Dyson’s outlook.

Jobs cared as deeply about what was inside devices like the iPad or the MacBook Air as their external appearances. Every screw and component was sacred.

In the case of Dyson’s latest creations, a team of 70 R&D engineers packed more than 100 components inside a small ball, involving 106 patents and 117 related patents.

Everything in technology today is so driven by the virtual – social media, apps and the internet – that we forget that the most exciting things are still happening in terms of the physical challenges of technology. Moore’s Law continues to matter.

To be a part of this challenge, nations like Ireland and the UK need engineers who share both Dyson and Jobs’ obsession with good design, engineering and art.

James Dyson’s background

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Born in 1940s Britain, Dyson originally studied furniture and interior design before taking up engineering. His first inventions in the 1960s and 1970s included the Sea Truck, the Ballbarrow and the Wheelboat.

Frustrated with the diminishing performance of his family’s vacuum cleaner, he became obsessed with the idea of creating a cyclone to replace dust bags. He patented his idea in 1986 and his first vacuum cleaner, the G-Force, won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan.

Zoom forward to 2012, Dyson’s company is a global giant employing more than 3,000 people with revenues of stg£1bn and profits in excess of stg£100m. He has been knighted and his personal net worth in 2011 was estimated at stg£1.45bn.

Dyson sees the increase in engineering talent as critical to a nation’s future and the James Dyson Foundation provides schools in Ireland and the UK with ‘Engineering Boxes’ – protoype kits for use as teaching aids – to increase interest in engineering and invention.

In addition, the James Dyson Award is an international design accolade to encourage the next generation of design engineers, which attracts plenty of entries from budding Irish engineers.

I ask Dyson when he first realised he wanted to invent and if good engineers are born or can be made. “Growing up I was always fascinated by how things worked. Curiosity is the starting point. It’s innate within young children who want to discover ‘why’? Any person who continues to question the physical world around them has the potential to be a good engineer.”

Dyson unconsciously channels Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he puts forward his version of what in Silicon Valley they call hacking.

“People who investigate technology – taking it apart and putting it back together – look to understand the inner workings of the machine. Anyone with a curious glint in their eye has the potential to be an engineer.”

I ask him what schools can do to foster nascent design, technical and engineering talent among pupils.

“We need to foster young imaginations at primary and secondary schools if we want patentable, exportable technology. And to do so, you need to inspire.

“The James Dyson Foundation sends out our Engineering Boxes to both UK and Irish schools to encourage creativity. They include prototyping kits, vacuum parts and engineering challenges to get students thinking like an engineer working in industry.

“On a political level, the Irish Government has the right focus – research and innovation. Research and development will play a key role in securing new jobs and encouraging invention, creativity and entrepreneurship. R&D is not a quick buck. It’s an investment for the future.

“And it’s certainly a long and hard road. But it’s proved successful for the likes of Rolls Royce. They invest heavily in technology: designing, building and creating unique patentable technology the rest of the world needs.”

Judging for the James Dyson Award

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The James Dyson Award sparks a lot of interest, particularly in Ireland. When it comes to judging innovation, I ask him what are the qualities he looks for.

“We look for a problem-solving invention,” he explains. “Irish entries to the James Dyson Award have always been impressive. In fact, the first-ever winner of the Irish James Dyson Award, Patrick Moloney, is now a senior engineer here at Dyson. And recently, a young designer from Limerick, Jonathan O’Toole, who entered his paediatric treadmill invention into the James Dyson Award, joined our team of 700 engineers.

“We have also had a lightweight saddle invention, a hydraulic wheelchair brake and a lightweight ski boot win the Irish James Dyson Award.

“All of these inventors are in the process of bringing these designs to market, which is testament to the engineering talent in Ireland.

“Irish inventions have made the top 15 global James Dyson Award shortlist for the past three years in a row. The common factor? They were all designs that solved a problem. That is the award’s brief in a nutshell.”

Like the late Jobs and as evinced by the recent knighting of Apple’s Jony Ive, industrial design and quality engineering are fashionable again. Dyson says a fluid design is the key.

“It’s not as simple as brainstorm, sketch, CAD model, prototype, manufacture. Sometimes you’ll spend your time going back and forward between design, prototype and test for a while. Perfectionism and frustration are fundamental to successful inventions. Things don’t work perfectly overnight.

“And of course an idea’s ability to be commercialised is important, too.

“An early invention of mine, the Waterolla, was a lawn roller with a large plastic drum instead of a heavy concrete metal roller. This made it lightweight and portable, but fill it with water and you could roll your garden flat with the weight.

“The problem was that by its very nature, Waterolla was ideal for borrowing. It was a pretty nifty invention, but everyone borrowed from a friend, rather than buying it. I learnt the hard way that you need people to buy your ideas to make them worthwhile.”

Where great inventions come from

While a successful inventor, Dyson is still restless and there are technologies and products that have eluded him so far.

“Great inventions are born of frustration with a desire to use the tools around you to improve and invent,” he says.

“The winner of the global James Dyson Award last year was from Australia. Edward Linacre looked for a way to harvest plants in areas of severe drought. And the solution was Airdrop, a crop irrigator, which condenses moisture from the dry desert air and delivers it directly to the roots of plants.

“Offbeat engineering challenges, like the Dyson engineers car challenge, keep the grey matter fresh. Dyson engineers raced their own Dyson digital motor-powered race cars the length of our research facilities using Dyson vacuum parts, but completely re-engineering them into a new machine. It was good fun – but it also reinforced the importance of imagining solutions to a problem in new, adventurous ways.”

He says he is looking forward, in particular, to Irish entries to this year’s James Dyson Award. It is open to any university-level student of product design, industrial design or engineering, or graduate within four years of graduation.

Entries close on 2 August 2012 and entrants can submit footage, images and sketches of their ideas to the website.

“Irish entries to the James Dyson Award have displayed a wondrous array of different technologies. Historically, inventors and engineers from Ireland have developed radical technology like Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres.

“After seeing his son suffer headaches from bumpy rides, Dunlop developed a tough and resilient rubber tyre. Backsides around the world are forever in his debt.

“I challenge Irish inventors to design, engineer and invent new and radical solutions to everyday frustrations.”

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