Sir James Dyson: It's about solutions, not brands
18 June 2012: With Dyson celebrating 15 years in the New Zealand market and 20 years of manufacturing next year, we caught up with Sir James Dyson in an exclusive Q&A interview.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was, and still is, one of my heroes. Brunel was an outsider; he rubbed convention the wrong way. He understood that great engineering didn’t mean compromising great design.
We should all be fortunate for that. If Brunel hadn’t ignored the so-called ‘experts’, we might not have had The Great Western Railway, the Box Tunnel or the countless suspension bridges that dot our landscape.
What in particular inspired you to start developing consumer products?
I never set out to engineer machines for consumers. I came to it out of frustration. First it was frustration with my wheelbarrow whose wheel would sink stubbornly into the mud in my garden. It was a primitive old thing, and it struck me that the design hadn’t changed since the Stone Age.
Nobody had ever stopped to say, ‘this is a foolish design, can I design something better?’ I set myself on a course to improve the design and landed up with the Ballbarrow.
Bagged vacuum cleaners were another thorn in my side. My own hopeless Hoover Junior would push dirt around the house, rather than suck it up. More an expensive broom than a vacuum. Ripping out the bag I saw that it was clogging even before it was full. That at least explained why it wasn’t doing its job. It wasn’t the bag or the vacuum, it was the whole design.
Fifteen years of frustration and 5,127 prototypes later I had the first Dyson vacuum cleaner (DC01) with Root Cyclone technology – inspired by a large industrial cyclone I had on a chance visit to a local sawmill.
Dyson engineers in our Research,Design & Development (RDD) lab are frustrated on a daily basis. You’ve got to experience frustration to be able to question how to make something work better.
What do you consider your biggest success(es) to date from an engineering perspective?
Engineering is a process, continuously developing, building upon what we have - making iterative changes along the way. To single out one of our machines would be difficult, one leads to another.
What excites me most is the Dyson digital motor. We’ve been developing these for over a decade, and because they’re switch reluctance motors, and have no fixed magnets, commutator or brushes, they’re lighter and much more efficient than competitor motors. Motor technology has opened the door for us to develop technology we couldn’t otherwise have developed, like our cordless machines and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer.
And with the next generation of motors – which we’re currently developing – the sky is really the limit.
And from a commercial perspective?
The Dyson story began with the first bagless vacuum cleaner with no loss of suction. From Dual Cyclone technology to Radial Root Cyclone technology in our latest Ball range – our vacuum cleaners were how we made our mark. But we’ve come a long way since DC01.
Between bladeless fans, heaters, the Dyson Airblade hand dryer and our cordless machines, I think people are coming around to the idea that we’re a technology company. As we expand into more markets (we’re now in over 50) my guess is that we may become better known for our hand dryers than our vacuums.
We will never let our design process be driven by what will be the biggest commercial success. The technology will dictate that.
How has your role in the company changed from the early hands-on days?
I have never been great at business, which is why I have a brilliant management team. My time is better spent with the engineers in our RDD labs. It is also where all the fun stuff happens.
Nothing beats the excitement of trying out new ideas, making mistakes and then trying again. I remain very much involved in the entire design process – I can’t help myself, I am an engineer after all.
Have you had to change the way you like to work to accommodate this?
I am no longer the one coming up with the ideas. We have 700 sharp young engineers beating me to the punch.
How has the volatile global economy affected Dyson?
In a recession companies tend to shy away from risk. They retreat, cut spending and scale back R&D investment. We have taken the opposite approach and increased investment in research and development; spending £1.5 million a week on R&D in 2011.
And we are recruiting – taking on 200 more graduate engineers and scientists this year. Recession is the best time to invest and I would encourage other companies to do the same.
Has it inspired you to devise new types of product or alter their pitch in view of the changing the markets that new products are to be pitched into?
Dyson is all about problem-solving. This requires fresh thinking. I have never believed in market research or identifying supposed "gaps" in the market; this is just business jargon that ignores what people want. We engineer machines that use Dyson developed technologies and offer new solutions to old problems.
Dyson’s Industrial Design Director, Alex Knox, has said that aiming to make a “green” product can lead to an inferior product. Do you agree with this?
Lean engineering is sustainable design, not the other way round. Striving to make ‘green’ products from the outset can stifle fresh thinking. We focus on how a machine works, rather than how ‘green’ it is. Engineering an efficient machine that performs better is not synonymous with using more materials and more energy.
It is quite the opposite. A standard warm air hand dryer emits three times more carbon emissions than the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. The difference is in the motor. Engineering a machine from the inside out, allows us to focus on components - like our motors - making them lighter, faster and more efficient.
You recently stated that you don’t believe in brands. Has Dyson, as a brand, not helped you achieve your success?
We set out to make something better. Something that solves a problem. We started out with that approach and we take that approach today. It has never been about building a brand.
In the technology world you are only as good as your latest product. And as long as there are problems to solve, we will continue making problem-solving technology.
And doesn’t the Dyson brand help the consumer identify a quality product?
I realised a long time ago that people quickly fall out of love with products that over-promise and under-deliver. People want technology that works. And we are fortunate that many Dyson owners are also Dyson advocates.
You’ve designed vacuums, fans, heaters and washing machines. What next?
I cannot comment on the specifics. And much of the time we stumble into new ideas in the least expected places and let the technology guide us. While the engineers were developing the technology behind the Dyson Airblade hand dryer, they observed how fast-flowing air from a nozzle or aperture induced surrounding air into its stream.
We realised that this inducement, or amplification effect, could be further enhanced by passing airflow over an airfoil ramp. It was at this point the idea of a bladeless fan became a possibility. In the world of design and engineering the possibilities are endless.