James Dyson with air multiplier

Sir James Dyson and the vacuum in development

Sir James Dyson, famed British inventor, entrepreneur and engineer, talks about the need for R&D, why the Government should do more for engineering and why he swears a lot.

A rural upbringing in Norfolk amongst a family of academics and clergy might not appear at first glance to be an obvious route into engineering, but James Dyson has shown an unconventional and obstinate streak from the start: the long-distance runner with the determination to do things differently.

At school Dyson followed in his father's footsteps, studying classics and earning a place to at the Byam Shaw Art School in London, where he studied art. Here he found himself increasingly drawn from art to design. Next stop was the Royal College of Art where Dyson took the leap from furniture to industrial design - a chance to get his hands dirty, working with plastic and stainless steel. And so began a lifelong passion for functional design.

After graduating from the RCA, Dyson got a job with local engineering company Rotork, where he designed his first project - the Sea Truck - a high-speed landing craft. Working alongside Jeremy Fry, he adopted an Edisonian approach to design: making prototype after prototype until he got it just right.

For Dyson, frustration as well as necessity has proved the mother of invention: a wheelbarrow that sank in the mud was the inspiration for Ballbarrow. Ballbarrow had a large inflatable ball instead of a wheel, which, along with chunky feet, gave it stability. The barrow itself was made from plastic, which, unlike conventional models, didn't rust or dent walls.

In 1979, when Dyson bought a top-of-the-range vacuum cleaner, he became frustrated with how it instantly clogged and began to lose suction. He emptied the bag to try to get it going again, but to no effect. At this point the engineer's instinct kicked in. He ripped open the bag and noticed a layer of dust inside, clogging the pores: a fundamental flaw with vacuum technology, undetected and unchallenged for almost a century. Dyson became determined to develop a better vacuum cleaner that worked properly.

During a chance visit to a local sawmill, he noticed how the sawdust was removed from the air by large industrial cyclones. Could that principle work on a smaller scale, in a vacuum cleaner? He took his vacuum apart and rigged it up with a cardboard cyclone. He then began to clean the room with it. Amazingly it picked up more than his old bag machine. The world's first vacuum cleaner without a bag was born.

But that was just the beginning of Dyson's battle. One by one, short-sighted multi-nationals rejected his idea. Even when they were satisfied that the technology worked, none of them listened. They were more interested in protecting their own product and in doing so protecting the profit from the lucrative bag market, worth at the time $500m a year worldwide.

By the mid 1980s Dyson was heavily in debt, but doggedly determined to continue his one-man licensing tour. Eventually, he received a call from a Japanese company, Apex. An Aeroflot flight and several all-night meetings later, Dyson had signed a deal and in 1986 production of 'G-Force' began.

It took 15 years of frustration, perseverance, and over 5,000 prototypes, before he could finally launch the Dyson DCO1 bagless cleaner under his own name. Within 18 months it became the best-selling cleaner in the UK.

Dyson continues to produce new and different technology, such as the Dyson Digital Motor, the Dyson Airblade hand dryer and the most recent innovation, the Dyson Air Multiplier fan in 2009.

Today, Dyson cleaners are sold in more than 50 countries, and in the UK one in three households now has a Dyson. The designer continues to work alongside his team of engineers and scientists, developing new technologies to overcome everyday frustrations.

E&T: You say we are suffering from innovation inertia, while science and engineering are woefully unsupported. Are there some glaring examples?

James Dyson: Culture. We need to hold engineering and science in esteem. In Britain 32 per cent of girls want to be models but only 4 per cent want to be engineers. A recent US poll put scientists and engineers ahead of lawyers, athletes and entertainers. We need that kind of recognition here. As it stands, young people think engineers are all metal-bashing factory workers. A change in perception will inspire the next generation of Whittles or Brunels.

E&T: How can the government back British engineering and inspire new talent?

JD:There's no magic bullet. Government needs to actively back engineering, encourage greater collaboration between business and universities and support high-tech and start-up companies. That's how we remain internationally competitive. In France, people with an engineering degree hold many of the leading positions in government and business. Quick commitment inspires the public. Thirty years on and here, we're still wide-eyed at their TGV trains. Backing large-scale infrastructure projects shows confidence. Less dithering and more conviction. The route taken might not necessarily prove to the best one, but at least one has been chosen. Visible science and engineering encourage an understanding of science and technology. And their value to the economy.

E&T: Can you see the government backing your recommendations?

JD: I'm encouraged that the government has listened. The Research and Development tax credit is still on the table. It didn't fall victim to the cuts so the government recognises its value. Cuts are necessary, but so is sowing the seeds for growth.

E&T: If the universities are brimming with fantastic R&D, how can it be exploited?

JD: With a few exceptions, we are not world-class at taking ideas out of university and into the market. One way is to offer universities more autonomy with a less bureaucratic assessment system that provides incentives and space for them to pursue their own research strategies.

Another is linking business with university research. Britain is world class at R&D. Alan Windle's nanotechnology laboratory at Cambridge is pushing science, technology and possibilities forward. Nanotechnology will revolutionise the way we engineer. It paves the way for smaller, stronger, lighter machines and more efficient electrical conductivity.

The next step is to take research like this and apply it commercially.

E&T: How can UK manufacturing be revived?

JD: We must be modern in our approach. You can't assemble everything in the UK and it's only one part of the process. We can't compete with labour costs in the Far East. But we should focus on what we're good at: auto manufacture, high-tech and aerospace.

Companies in the UK need to keep a firm hold of their R&D expertise and intellectual property rights. That way the profits remain in the country.

E&T: If most of your components come from the Far East, can you see a time when this will change and most can be made in Britain/Europe?

JD: Not in the short term. For us the UK is about R&D. We're now doubling the size of our engineering team to 750. In fact, we already employ more people here in the UK than we did before transferring final assembly to Malaysia. It was a tough decision to take ten years ago, but the right decision.

E&T: How hard is innovation? Did it really take about 5,000 prototypes to perfect your vacuum cleaner? How did you achieve 40 per cent share of the market?

JD: A flash of inspiration is one thing. Turning it into invention is another. It means getting your hands dirty. It takes patience, perseverance and a lot of swearing along the way. It took me 5,127 attempts to create the first no-loss-of-suction vacuum cleaner. Thankfully we're a little quicker these days,'but then I'm no longer on my own.

I believe people are drawn to something that works better, whether it is a vacuum cleaner with no loss of suction or a fan with no blades. At Dyson we take risks; we invest heavily in R&D to make new technology.

We've been investing in lighter, more efficient motors for ten years. We still do. Our digital motor was developed by a team of UK mechanical, electrical, electronic, aeronautical, materials and software engineers.

E&T: How many of your 2,500 people work in Malmesbury, and how is Malmesbury structured and managed?

JD: There are around 1,500 people in the UK. New machines and technologies are designed in Malmesbury. The engineers work closely with our team in the Far East, where successful concepts are developed for manufacture.

We have a large research, design and development team, which we're doubling as we have a lot more technology in the pipeline. We're looking for lots of talented people from all types of engineering disciplines, including: graduate design, motor engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and acoustic engineers.

I have a great management team led by Martin McCourt. He concentrates on the business so I can do what I enjoy most: working with engineers and solving problems.

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