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James Dyson: The Ever-Tinkering Engineer

“Ancient tutor” James Dyson claims to be more tenacious than clever with his inventions.
Patty Onderko

Have you ever been annoyed by an everyday household glitch? Maybe the dishwasher doesn’t dry your plastics completely. Perhaps you’re tired of waiting the 20  seconds or so it takes your shower water to heat up. Do you get over it after a minute or two? Or do you spend the next 15  years of your life developing a foolproof dishwasher? Do you bring your family to the brink of bankruptcy riding on a dream of a more efficient water heater? If you’re James Dyson, that answer would be yes.

“I aim not to be clever, but to be dogged,” James Dyson wrote in his autobiography, Against the Odds. Dyson is clever, for sure—spend 10 minutes with him and your head will spin as fast as one of his patented motors, with explanations of turbines, and positive and negative ions, and particle emissions—but his doggedness is what made him and his clever vacuums household names.

In 1978, while vacuuming his home in Bathford, England, a village about 80 miles west of London, he noticed that once the bag in his Hoover upright held even a little dust, it lost suction. And with three kids younger than 8—which is to say, with lots of dirt and debris—this underperformance bugged Dyson. While you and I might accept a little dust as a fair price to pay for the convenience of a machine that sucks Cheerios and pet hair from rugs, Dyson did not. Instead he devoted his life to developing and marketing a new vacuum technology—the basic mechanics of the electric sweeper hadn’t been reimagined since its invention shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

At the time, Dyson was developing another of his inventions, the Ballbarrow, an ingeniously simple re-jiggering of the wheelbarrow: With a ball instead of wheel, the barrow could turn on a dime and didn’t leave track marks on the grass.

The plant where the Ballbarrows were manufactured used a giant cyclone to catch and filter the errant epoxy paint used on the carts. (Cyclonic separation technology rotates air through a cylinder at high speeds to extract any particles from it, in case you’re wondering.) At home, Dyson fashioned a miniature cyclone out of cardboard and duct tape and attached it to his Hoover in place of the bag. His DIY vacuum worked—and the first cyclonic bag-less vacuum was born.

15 Years of Struggle

But the story is never as simple as its retelling. Between his taped-up prototype and his current market prevalence, there were 15 years of rejections, thousands of prototype revisions, lawsuits and near-bankruptcy. That’s where the doggedness comes in. Not to mention a supportive wife. By Dyson’s side since they met at art school was Deirdre, a painter by training (she now custom-designs carpet and rugs). Deirdre Dyson supported James’ prototype habit with her modest salary as an art teacher.

His autobiography (dedicated to Deirdre for being “stoic in the extreme” and for bringing up their three children “at many times on her own”) details the dozens of almost-deals—with manufacturers, investors, vacuum titans and distributors from all over the world—that went awry at the last minute. “What I realized,” he told SUCCESS, “is companies weren’t interested in investing in new technology. They were too afraid.” Or they were too invested in existing technology, he says: A vacuum manufacturer whose revenue relies heavily on bag sales isn’t going to rush toward bag-less technology.

Dyson experienced failure after failure, but he saw them as the failures of people and corporations that might have given him money or sold his product. They couldn’t see the potential. “It was a wonderful opportunity, all these rejections,” Dyson says in his soothing, everything-will-be-fine lilt, familiar from his a-man-and-his-machine commercials. “I learned I would have to introduce the technology myself.”

What Turns Him On

One thing is clear when you talk to Dyson: He considers himself an engineering lodestar. He evaluates people, cultures and entire countries on their ability to engineer a tangible thing and their willingness to embrace new technological things engineered by others. (The Japanese and Americans are refreshingly enthusiastic about technology, he believes, but he is disappointed by his fellow Englishmen, who are “negative” and “unambitious” when it comes to innovation.)

He believes the designers of breakthrough products should also market them. He believes designers, engineers and inventors should lead the business, rather than turning that crucial task over to marketers and accountants and lawyers (“businessmen,” Dyson scoffs). Ask him whether he considers himself a businessman, after leading his company to financial success, and Dyson responds with an emphatic, “No, not at all. I’m a designer and engineer and maker of products.”

When SUCCESS first met Dyson, it was early 2013 at the launch of his hybrid Airblade hand-dryer and motion-activated faucet. He politely answered questions about his startup years and tough business decisions (in 2002, he moved production of his machines from Malmesbury, a small U.K. town, to Malaysia, upsetting the local workforce to whom he had previously pledged allegiance; more on this later).

But once he’s asked to describe the new digital motor that powers the Airblade, Dyson moves to the edge of his seat, gestures animatedly and speaks for minutes at a time, earnestly explaining how fast and efficient his turbine can be. “The fastest motor [before ours] was 30,000  rotations per minute. A jet engine goes 15,000 RPM. A Ferrari racecar goes 18,000 to 19,000 RPM. Ours goes 100,000  RPM!” He goes on. At great, excited length. And it’s easy to see how Dyson inspires his global team of more than 4,000 employees.

Progress at Last

Designers and engineers need more than inventions; they need money to launch their products. And after years of hitting the pavement with little luck, Dyson was in dangerously short supply of cash. An early break came from the design-loving Japanese, to whom Dyson licensed his technology.

The first iteration of the cyclonic vacuum for sale was a lavender-and-pink upright called the G-Force, launched in 1986. Its immediate, overwhelming popularity in Tokyo sustained Dyson’s efforts. But it was six more years—and a few short-lived licensing deals, patent infringements and a nasty lawsuit—before his personal pièce de résistance, the Dual Cyclone, was marketed under his own name.

By 1995, it was the top-selling vacuum in the U.K. His Dual Cyclones now hold the largest share of the U.K.’s vacuum market and notch almost a quarter of U.S. vacuum sales.

Life at Dyson R&D

But the title dearest to Sir James Dyson (he was knighted in 2007) is still “engineer.” As chief engineer of his own company—Dyson refuses to call himself the CEO—he spends most of his time and energy cultivating the 850 or so “young and bright” engineers who work for him at the Dyson Research, Design and Development Center in Malmesbury. He thinks of himself as an “ancient tutor” to these crackerjacks.

Dyson has a rule for the center’s research and development activities: No technicians allowed. The engineers have to bring their ideas to life themselves. “They all have to make and test their own prototypes, which allows them to see what works and what doesn’t. You don’t get that from looking at a prototype made by someone else or by looking at test results.”

Although Dyson doesn’t make models himself anymore, he spends most of his day “breaking the prototypes” of his engineers, challenging them to go further and spot problems before they happen. Are the engineers nervous when Dyson starts looking over their shoulders? “I was at the start,” says Marcus Hartley, a head engineer who worked on the Airblade Tap. “But James has got such a charisma about him. And being an engineer, he understands you. It’s not like you’re talking to the head of a company. He’s just an engineer. You can bounce ideas off each other.”

Another rule: Dyson won’t sell his technology or go public. “He could make loads of money selling the technology,” Hartley says. Dyson is confident the money will come from selling its own well-engineered products—from the iconic vacuums and bladeless fans to the newer hand dryer and Dyson Hard, which mops and vacuums hard-surface floors in one step. “I don’t want our engineers to adapt their technology for others, but to keep thinking of ways for us to utilize it.”

Dyson doesn’t want his engineers to worry about pleasing investors, either, which is why he’s staying private. “I’m never tempted to do an IPO. I want myself and everyone to just concentrate on bringing out the next new products. I want to keep it simple and think long-term.” To that end, his company has invested $160 million in digital motor technology since 1999.

Dyson’s mentoring extends beyond his own R&D department. He’s trying to get his entire country to move its focus away from trading and back to creating and making. In 2010 he wrote a report called “Ingenious Britain: Making the U.K. the Leading High-Tech Exporter in Europe,” and he sits on the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group. He has complained widely about the multitudes of students who come to the U.K. from all over the world to study engineering, only to take their new skill out of the country after graduation. And his advice has been regarded highly. “Dyson is one of Britain’s biggest success stories, and Sir James Dyson knows better than any bureaucrat how you start a business, build it up and start selling to the world,” Prime Minister David Cameron has said. “He’s put that knowledge into this blueprint for creating a generation of innovation and enterprise.” High praise from a high place.

But Dyson’s dedication to building the U.K.’s export economy is why his company’s decision to move manufacturing to Malaysia a decade ago was so infuriating for many. “It was a very painful, difficult decision,” Dyson lamented. “My CEO at the time recommended it, and he was right. It was all we could do.” The company was advised that the British government would refuse its application for factory expansion and that it could not appeal. “We had to go somewhere.”

Ultimately Dyson has become such a beloved English success story—up there with J.K. Rowling and Adele—that his countrymen aren’t turning their backs on him anytime soon. Still, the ever-tinkering engineer in Dyson won’t admit to success. “There are always difficulties and problems to be solved right in front of me and that’s how I feel on a daily basis. I like failure. I like having to try and try all the time. Some things take years to get right. One has a sort of frown and a furrow on one’s forehead all the time. Then when you’ve made it work, you don’t sit back and have a glass of champagne. You get on to the next thing.

“Maybe I need to see a psychiatrist, but I’ve decided that if you never feel satisfied, it’s probably a good thing.”


Do you want to create the next big thing? Check out James Dyson's advice on SUCCESS.com.

Post date: 
Nov 4, 2013

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