Frustration and failure fuel Dyson's success
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The 65-year-old designer said his products are constantly tweaked; the initial design for his first vacuum cleaner had 5,127 changes before entering production. (Copyright: Getty)
Sir James Dyson tells BBC Future in an exclusive interview that his iconic redesigns – such as the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner – only succeed because of past failures.

Sir James Dyson changed the way the world vacuums the stairs.

Thirty years ago, Dyson’s imaginative reworking of the vacuum cleaner helped him on the way to becoming a billionaire.

His insight was to do away with the bag found in traditional floor cleaners and replace it with a fast-spinning motor that creates a cyclone of air to suck the carpet clean.

But Sir James’s success did not come from out of the blue. His first invention was the ball barrow, a wheelbarrow which featured a single moulded wheel (or ball) made from moulded plastic, which he released in 1974.

The design for his bagless vacuum cleaner took shape after he noticed a giant cyclone used to get rid of wood dust in a sawmill. The long slow process to miniaturise the device to fit inside a vacuum cleaner took no less than 5,127 different tweaks and modifications between 1979 and 1984. His wife’s income helped keep the family afloat as the inventor’s idea was initially rejected by British retailers.

It was the Japanese who came to the rescue. The first models, sold only in Japan, were such a hit that Sir James had enough in royalties to set up a research facility and factory in Malmesbury, in the English county of Wiltshire, in 1993. By the mid-90s, the bagless cleaner was being hailed as a triumph, and his R&D facility is still there.

Dyson’s products didn’t always prove a success, however. For instance the CR01 washing machine (a machine which mimicked the actions of hand washing with two contra-rotating drums) ended up being discontinued because its production cost the company too much.

But seven years ago, Sir James took his expertise from vacuum cleaners to create a new successful redesign. The company created the Airblade hand dryer, designed to dry wet hands in less than 10 seconds with a narrow blast of cool air.

In February, Dyson launched a tap with a built-in hand dryer – the Airblade Tap – which is designed to stop the drip-drip-drip of wet hands from the bathroom sink to the dryer. Initially intended for use in restaurants, venues and hotels, Dyson eventually hope it will make the jump to homes as well.

Just days after the launch – and various trips around the world to promote it – Sir James spoke exclusively to BBC Future about the challenges of redesigning common objects.

Do you consider yourself a designer, engineer, inventor or businessman?

I consider myself a design engineer. At Dyson we don’t make a distinction between engineers and designers. Combined skills in creativity and theoretical practice make for the best new technological advancements. You can’t design something without considering how it works – it is one and the same thing. It has not always been this way.

You’ve talked about the “enormous fun” you had on projects such as Dyson’s washing machine, even though it didn’t prove to be a commercial success. Is that kind of attitude important?

In the development of a new technology I challenge my engineers to take a problem-solving approach. For the CR01 washing machine, the engineers explored a variety of ways to wash clothes, from using a microwave to simple hand washing. Hand washing came out on top, leading to the introduction of the counter-rotating drum. The counter rotation manipulated the fabric in much the same way as hand washing resulting in a quicker and more effective wash. That it was not necessarily a commercial success came secondary to the pursuit of solving the problem – that is what I really enjoy.

The most important thing you need when redesigning something is perseverance and a willingness to fail. Inventors rarely have those hallowed “Eureka” moments. Developing an idea and making it work takes time and patience. Dyson engineers are constantly testing different ways of working – just as we did with the CR01. And we fail every day. Failure is the best medicine - as long as you learn something.

Where does inspiration come from? Has an idea for a design ever come from an unlikely source?

My inspiration to invent and redesign is fed through frustration. I spend a lot of time taking things apart and putting them back together, considering how they work and how they might work better. Observation is important. The inspiration for incorporating a cyclone on a vacuum cleaner came from a visit to a sawmill. Using an industrial cyclone it was able to remove the sawdust from the air. I found myself thinking ‘Could we use this principle on a smaller scale?’ Five years later I had developed the G-Force, my first bagless vacuum cleaner. 

How do you begin the redesigning process?

We develop technology iteratively - making the smallest changes, building prototype after prototype until we have got it as close to perfect as we can muster. Testing and prototyping is at the heart of the most successful technologies. Prototypes allow you to quickly get a feel for things and uncover subtle design flaws. Dyson prototypes are subjected to months of repetitive and rigorous testing. These are made using SLS (Selected Laser Sintering) - a rapid prototyping technique that moulds plastic or ceramic particles together to form a fully-working model.

Do you have a design motto or ideal that you are striving for (function over form etc?)

We consider that something is beautiful only when it works properly; we value function over form or design. Good design requires good technology. Our machines look the way they do because of how they work. [Victorian inventor] Brunel’s bridges look so inspiring because you can see the maths and science behind them. Every arc, nut, bolt and girder tells a story. Design should not be afraid to bare its innards.

Why are you so interested in redesigning household objects?

I do not set out to redesign any particular object. My passion for inventing stems from frustration and hunger to develop something that works better. We are developing a wealth of technologies.

In our Research, Design and Development department our design engineers have been developing motor technology for over 15 years, seeing an investment of more than £100m ($148m). Last week, we saw the fruits of our labours as we launched our newest Airblade technology. Three new hand dryers powered by one of the world’s smallest and efficient brushless motors, the V4 Dyson digital motor. As we focus on better performing and sustainable engineering, the application of technology like this becomes an exciting reality. It is the development of these technologies that allows us to challenge conventional design in and outside the house.

What, in your opinion, is a perfectly-designed object – something you can’t think of a way to improve?

Perfectionism is knowing that there is no such thing as perfection; there will always be a way to make something work better. We are always looking for better ways to make things work – even with our own machines we go back to the drawing board again and again. We call this challenging of convention and ourselves ‘wrong thinking’. And it is critical in the design process: no one way is right. I challenge my young graduates to think boldly and ask questions.

What technologies are improving/could improve the redesign process?

The creation of technology is fast paced but successful ideas take time to finesse. High technology increasingly allows you to speed up this process. We have a wide range of rapid prototyping machines, allowing designs to be generated and prototyped within two or three days, rather than the several weeks it used to take me to make a prototype vacuum cleaner. I would roll out brass cyclones with a mangle in my coach house near Bath [in the west of England].

Today our research, prototyping and primary testing is still done in Malmesbury by 700 engineers. It is quicker, but it is still a costly and time intensive process: £8.5m ($12.6m) was spent on research and development of AM01, the first Dyson Air Multiplier fan, taking over four years to design. Once we are happy with the design it is sent to South East Asia, where further testing, including reliability testing, is undertaken along with final assembly. After that it goes in production for export to 60 countries across the world. But the ideas still all start here in Wiltshire in the UK.

Any young designers you’ve seen we should watch out for?

Each year, The James Dyson Foundation runs the James Dyson Award, a design award encouraging young people to think differently and invent something that solves a problem.

Last year’s international winner was Dan Watson, inventor of a device engineered to help the sustainability of fishing. SafetyNet is a series of retrofittable escape rings implemented to a trawler net to prevent unmarketable fish being caught through the use of light. Simple yet intuitive. This year’s award will open on 14 March. 

Why do you think engineers are so undervalued?

It is a problem that starts at school. Design and technology is side lined by the curriculum. But it is the only subject that teaches children how exciting a career in engineering can be. . The result is that Britain’s children think of engineers as fixers rather than makers. Whilst both are important, the latter is what will help develop new technology.

Despite academic progress, the application of practical skills in the classroom has been ignored. Design and technology should be the subject where maths and science students turn their bright ideas into useful and tangible technology. By 2013 Britain will have a deficit of 60,000 engineers. We urgently need to raise the profile of design and technology to overcome this burgeoning gap between our talent and our economy’s need for bright young engineering minds.

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