[INTERVIEW] Dyson founder leads with engineering mind
Posted : 2017-03-08 15:49
Updated : 2017-03-08 19:41
Dyson Founder and Chief Engineer James Dyson introduces the intelligent hairdryer Supersonic and its V9 motor. / Courtesy of Dyson
By Yoon Sung-won
Establishing a global home appliance manufacturing business is not a simple task. It requires not just business minds for profit but also ceaseless pursuits for technological innovations.
As a founder and chief engineer, James Dyson has led his namesake company to global success with leading developments in its unique motor technologies.
"I am an engineer at heart," Dyson said in an interview with The Korea Times. "It is not a particular category that interests me but the approach to inventing things that matters. This is why an experimental approach of trial and error is so crucial _ trial-and-error _ and try again with a different approach."
Under Dyson's leadership, the company has developed multiple megahit home appliances from bag-less vacuum cleaners, cord-less stick vacuums, blade-less fans and hairdryers.
Such new inventions did not come easily. Dyson said he went through thousands of failures developing the motors, which almost drove his family into bankruptcy.
"Our 5,126 failures are very memorable episodes with lots of tears and sweat. I had my house hooked to the bank and was living on the edge of bankruptcy. My wife had to support the family by teaching art," he said. "The fun thing is you never really know what working on one problem may lead to. Often it can become the solution to something completely different and very exciting."
Under the concept of "form follows function," Dyson said the company considers design only as a part of its products. Based on this policy, Dyson's research, design and development (RDD) center hires engineers and scientists instead of industrial designers, according to the company's founder. Throughout the company, about a third of its 7,000 employees worldwide are engineers and scientists.
"Good design is about how something works, not just how it looks," he said.
Dyson was born in a middle-income family in North Norfolk in Britain in 1947. He studied at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s and started his career as an engineer at an engineering company named Rotork.
"Both my parents are classics teachers, and as a teenager I studied the classics but I had a love of painting on the side," the 69-year-old engineer said. "I stumbled into engineering when I was studying design at the Royal College of Art, taking a course on architecture and structural engineering."
Dyson said he decided to start his own company, inspired by British engineer Jeremy Fry.
"He refused to fund a project I had in mind but offered me some work in design. I ended up working on a high speed landing craft _ the Sea Truck," he said. "I started with a plank of wood and had to turn the concept into a working boat. Under him, I learned the Edison approach _ making prototype after prototype until I got it right."
When he founded Dyson in 1993, its first product was the world's first bag-less vacuum cleaner named DC01. On the back of its massive hit in the global market, it has been highly praised as "the biggest hit product in Britain after the Beatles."
At the center of inventions at Dyson is its heavy concentration on research and development (R&D) of core technologies. Even though it started as a latecomer in the global electronics industry, Dyson pushed to develop its own motors, called Dyson digital motors (DDM), to use them for its devices.
The Dyson chief engineer highlighted the concept of "lean engineering" at the center of the company's R&D philosophy.
"Lean engineering is to do more with less. We stick with this principle from the drawing board to the production line and to the shop shelf," he said. "Say, rather than adding material for strength, we look into the design and geometry to find other solutions to make the material stronger. It means we use far less material, it means the products are lighter and use less energy, which means we can put in more technology. That's what engineers do."
The company has invested over $360 million in building new DDMs. It runs a motor manufacturing facility named West Park in Singapore to produce more than 11 million DDMs every year.
The latest inventions of the DDM series are the V8 and V9 motors. The former operates at 110,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and is used for its newest V8 vacuum cleaner series. The latter is a subminiature motor used for Dyson's bladeless hairdryer Supersonic.
An engineer tests Dyson's Supersonic hairdryer at the company's R&D facility in Singapore. / Courtesy of Dyson
The Dyson founder singled out the bladeless hairdryer as his favorite invention.
"It is powered by our latest, smallest, lightest and most advanced digital V9 motor," he said, "The manufacturing of the V9 is very sophisticated, we had to import a nuclear-grade cutting machine all the way from Germany to Singapore to manufacture this motor. The V9 is half the weight and one third the size of a conventional motor. With V9 motor technology, we can create a light and powerful hair dryer with its weight balanced for your hands with intelligent heat control to protect the natural shine of hair."
Besides the V9 motor, Dyson has introduced a technology called "air multiplier." It is an air projection technology that boosts the amount of air by up to 18 times. This technology has also been used for its bladeless fans, Dyson said. Education and investment in young talented engineers has been another pillar of R&D policy at Dyson. The company has increased employment of less-experienced young college graduates.
"I started off like that," he said. "When I was in college, I started making a high speed landing craft with no experience; I have always wanted to do the same for graduates. If you get them before they go anywhere else, you can mold them as they should be without having other influences.
"I don't prefer the experienced. Experience means how something was done in the past, but we are doing new things so experience is not imperative," he said.
Dyson aims to double the size of its engineering team, which currently has some 2,000 experts, by 2020. To meet this goal, the company is striving to foster new engineers on its own by investing in education. It plans to launch what it calls the Dyson Institute of Technology at its R&D campus in Wiltshire. In this institute, young engineers can acquire their degrees in engineering while working for the company.
"Hiring the brightest minds is crucial to our growth and we don't want the UK's engineer shortage to hold us back, we are looking to double our engineering force by 2020," he said. "That's why we have taken this problem into our own hands, and opened the Dyson Institute of Technology. Some 25 passionate students will come to our Malmesbury headquarters this September earning an engineering degree while working alongside seasoned engineers inside our RDD."
Dyson is also seeking technological breakthroughs by acquiring enterprises with core technologies. In October 2015, the company acquired U.S.-based battery development startup Sakti3.
"We acquired Sakti3 in 2015 to supercharge our battery development," he said. "We share the same belief in developing core technology and together we will make the solid state battery a reality. We challenge ourselves to increase the density of today's most advanced liquid lithium ion batteries, while also being smaller, safer and longer lasting."
Dyson highlighted Korea as an important market with many tech-savvy consumers.
"Korea is now the second fastest growing market for Dyson globally, and the growth is mainly driven by the love of the cord-free machines," he said. "Koreans are very sophisticated buyers, and love new technology and beautiful gadgets _ the Dyson Supersonic is also gaining a lot of popularity."
With its manufacturing base in Singapore, the company runs its Asian business from the country. Dyson said the company is "not going to open an office in Korea anytime soon."