Interview with James Dyson: ‘Children need a route for invention’

14 Mar 2013

Inventor James Dyson

The UK and Irish school curricula need to be revamped to be made modern and relevant and enthuse a love of invention, science and design if we are to field the engineers of the future, celebrated UK inventor James Dyson told

Dyson is famous all over the world for his unique approach to engineering and design that has resulted in iconic vacuum cleaners, hand driers, fans and heaters. He 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.

Dyson’s company is a global giant employing more than 4,600 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.

As well as the James Dyson Foundation providing schools in Ireland and the UK with Engineering Boxes, every year Dyson sponsors the James Dyson Award, an international design accolade to encourage the next generation of design engineers, which attracts plenty of entries from budding Irish engineers.

Last year, an invention by Paddy Mulcahy, a 21-year-old Limerick student, to prevent the spread of hospital infections, won the Irish leg of the 2012 James Dyson Award. U-neat is an innovative sanitary hospital bed table and locker, designed to minimise the spread of healthcare associated infections (HCAIs).

This year, Dyson is to increase the prize fund for the Irish leg of the awards to stg£96,000 in recognition of the quality of entries from budding engineers and designers from Ireland.

Q&A with James Dyson

Do you feel the penny is beginning to drop in society in that careers for engineers now offer the best opportunities for young people to broaden their horizons or do you feel there is still a long way to go?

There are mixed signs. The number of students taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees in Ireland has increased – applications for science and applied science degrees have risen by 70pc since 2008. But this started from a low base.

In the UK, the number taking engineering subjects is increasing but not fast enough to keep up with our needs – we have an annual deficit of 60,000 engineers. High-technology companies need highly skilled people with the knowledge that will help them grow and they pay high wages for it.

When jobs are scarce students are forced to think a bit harder about what they are going to do when they finish university – a three-year course in media studies or David Beckham studies does not really cut it.

Do you feel engineers are viewed differently today than they were 20 or 30 years ago?

I still think that there is a misconception that engineering is about steel toe-capped boots, oily overalls and power drills. Actually, the modern engineer is much more likely to be found using computer-aided design to create virtual prototypes than he is to be mending a bike.

Engineering needs to be better understood. It is about developing new technologies – taking breakthroughs from the research lab and implementing them to make machines that genuinely work better than anything else. It requires bright minds.

Looking to schools and preparing young people for careers as engineers and scientists, what steps do you think need to be taken to bring this world to life for young people and in terms of school curricula what changes would you like policy-makers to make?

Children need a route for invention. They need an opportunity to use what they learn in science and maths classes in a practical way. Experimenting with materials and prototyping is exciting – it engages young minds and gets them to think differently about everyday problems.  

In the UK, design and technology is not being taken seriously enough – the government is considering watering down the curriculum and combining it with gardening, learning how to fix a bike and cookery classes. This is wrong.

The Irish curriculum rightly singles out engineering but it is heavily focused on planning and process rather than sketching and design.

By making the curriculum modern and relevant, it is possible to enthuse. The James Dyson Foundation has trialled a project in the UK that gives schools routers, laser scanners and 3D printers. It has got the children excited and keen to invent and the number of people wanting to study the subject increased 200pc as a result.

I’m noticing a kind of renaissance when it comes to hardware and invention that is a convenient collision of the times we are in, the internet and the flattening of the world described by Thomas Friedman. For example, young people designing wristwatches and games consoles, going to the crowd to raise finance via Kickstarter and bringing their products to market. Do you see this as a promising time for invention and do you think these models, along with the advent of 3D printing, could herald a golden age for inventors?

It is an exciting time to be an inventor because there are so many problems that need solving. This creates opportunities for bright minds willing to take a risk and experiment with new ideas. Last year’s winner of the James Dyson Award, Dan Watson, invented a series of escape rings that can be retrofitted to trawler nets, which use LED lighting to allow an escape route for juvenile, unmarketable fish. A new solution to the problem of overfishing.

New techniques in design sped up Dan’s prototyping process. 3D printing means scrapbook sketches can be quickly modelled and prototypes printed in a matter of hours. Iterative changes and design alterations can be digitally mapped and printed at the click of a mouse.

Of course, young inventors like Dan are searching for any funding they can get. The credit crunch has forced entrepreneurs and inventors to fight for a smaller pool of capital with banks and investors reluctant to take risks. I know how they feel. The banks didn’t fancy taking a risk on cyclone technology when I started out. I was forced to borrow money against my family home. And I went through 5,126 handmade prototypes before I engineered the final machine.

The James Dyson Award is watched closely in Ireland because of the opportunity it affords young Irish designers and engineers to get recognition and support in their endeavours. I understand you are increasing the prize fund to stg£96,000 this year. What kind of contribution do Irish contestants make to the awards and what have been your favourite inventions so far?

There have always been a disproportionate number of entries from Ireland. High quality ones, too. Last year I was impressed by a young Irish student who came up with a sanitary hospital table designed to minimise the spread of infections. It might not be the most glamorous invention but it could save lives – and make him bags of money as he exports it around the world from Ireland.

We need more of these great ideas. Issues around sustainable living and environmental degradation demand new engineering solutions to old problems. Engineers need to achieve these solutions with fewer materials using less energy.

The increased prize fund is recognition of the fact that developing an invention is very expensive. The prize money is intended to go some of the way the helping with prototyping, patenting and further developing the ideas.   

The 2013 James Dyson Award opened for entries at midnight last night. To enter click here. (Entries close on 1 August)

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