Combining product design with engineering is key

Dean Palmer talks to James Dyson about what he believes have been the most important design innovations over the last 25 years and what the future holds for UK manufacturing and engineering

"Over the last 25 years, the most significant technological breakthroughs have been the personal computer on the design engineer's desktop, the chip and electronics," enthuses James Dyson, founder and CEO of global vacuum cleaner giant Dyson. He continued: "These advances have changed the face of engineering completely over the last 25 years, not only in terms of how engineering products are now designed, but also in the testing, analysis and evaluation of those products. "In terms of electronics, a very large part of our research and development here at Dyson is in this area. Chip design and electronics are driving what we do here. Our new digital motor [DDM - see panel] for example, is run by a chip instead of using mechanical continuous currents through brushes. It's a switched reluctance motor that has two phases, the phases being switched on and off using a chip. So you can go much faster, it's more reliable and you don't get all those problems associated with mechanical motors such as commutators breaking up and maintenance issues. "Basically, all the problems you get with ordinary motors go away and you're left with a much smaller, lighter, faster motor because of the chip. So that's a good example of how it has changed things. And yes, the whole digital environment now has changed things too: CAD/CAM, prototyping, 2D, 3D and all that." Dyson has been a designer for more than 40 years and is passionate about new technology, innovation and engineering design. In his products, Dyson constantly strives for the perfect blend of product design and aesthetics with engineering, a goal that the rest of UK manufacturing and engineering should be aiming for. How many times have we seen an excellently-engineered product fail to capitalise on its innovative qualities because it has poor aesthetics or design? Finding the right combination - and the right calibre engineers - of the two disciplines is never easy, but somehow Dyson seems to have cracked the problem, which is perhaps why the Dyson products always look so modern and trendy. "When I first started looking at this market, vacuum cleaners were the most boring things I'd ever seen. They were anonymous machines with manufacturers that weren't really that bothered what they looked like - they were a commodity product. The market was a highly competitive, unprofitable one to be in at that time. And that's one of the reasons why I was so excited by the area. Because nobody had done a good design engineering job on vacuum cleaners. So I wanted to design one that would perform much better, look better and would be interesting to use. And so I saw an opportunity there. "So combining aesthetics and product design with engineering was a good thing to do. I don't think using industrial design to add a style to an engineered product is the right way of doing things. The two disciplines have to be combined to work. For the last 40 years, what I've tried to do is blend the two disciplines into one and my products hopefully reflect this." The market certainly thinks so, you only have to check the statistics. To add to their success in the UK, Dyson's vacuum cleaners are now selling extremely well abroad. After just two years in the States, Dyson is already the market leader and in Japan, the DC12 vacuum cleaner recently became the number one selling vacuum cleaner model. Much of this success comes from research and development. Last year, as a company, Dyson spent around 15% of its annual turnover on R&D, which equates to around £50 million - a very high figure for the vacuum cleaner market. There are now 1,200 staff working at the Dyson site in Malmesbury, with 350 of these working in R&D, design, engineering and test. Dyson describes more breakthroughs that have impressed and excited him over the years: "I started as a design engineer in the late 1960s, so I've surpassed even Eureka's lifetime. One of the surprising areas in which things have changed is the use of carbon fibre. And the problem with all these sorts of things is we all heard about carbon fibre but what's really interesting now is just how pervasive it is. Everything from fishing rods and tennis rackets, to motor racing and sports cars. As well as the body shell, the struts on racing cars are now made from carbon fibre composites." Surely polymers must be an area that has made great leaps? "Well, possibly, but I feel quite disappointed in that area really," suggests Dyson. "As a designer that uses polymers in his products, I feel that not an awful lot has happened here. What I mean is we haven't had a material as groundbreaking as carbon fibre in the last 25 years. Carbon fibre is 20% lighter than aluminium and in some cases a lot stronger. And we haven't really had a breakthrough like that in the polymers industry. He pauses then reconsiders: "I mean, you've got polycarbonate, ABS and polypropylene that have been floating around for years which are very good. We use PEEK here at Dyson which is a very interesting material which we use on an impeller in the high speed motor [DDM]. But there still hasn't been that sort of breakthrough in polymers. Look at the A350 Airbus wing, it was completely made from carbon fibre." But what about the personal computer? Surely this has had a huge impact on the role of the design engineer? "Yes, a huge impact on the design engineer. But on engineering, perhaps less so, except maybe CAD/CAM software," suggests Dyson. He qualified this: "A lot of the things we used to do, we still do, like writing things down in notebooks and sketching. Well we have notebooks where we do drawings, sketches of product concepts, writing test results, analysis, working out details, it could be anything really. And it's in that sense that I don't believe the PC has helped that much. I prefer a good visual record done by someone's hand with some kind of meaning. Like a logbook of intellectual property and knowledge I suppose." "On the other hand," he adds, "obviously the PC has helped when it comes to CFD, FEA, and so on. Some of the simulation stuff we can do now is simply amazing!" The 'voice of the customer' is another important area for Dyson. Ensuring this voice is translated into the company's new product development is key. "We listen to our customers, we speak to them, we ring them up, we even try things out on them. And you can do quite a lot of that, but it only really gets you half or part of the way there. "The next bit has got to be something the customer wants or perhaps doesn't even realise they need in the product, surprises them even. So you've got to mix intelligent listening with creating something that people think they don't want but actually they really need. Sometimes you have to actually ignore what the customer says he wants." An example he gives is the clear bin (waste collector) on the Dyson vacuum cleaner: "This was something everybody said nobody wanted to see on our products. It isn't the best example because the best ones I'd prefer to keep secret, it's a facile example but it illustrates the point." Apparently, Dyson's retailers didn't want a clear bin. Also, none of his licensees had ever done a clear bin. The research Dyson had done also supported this and suggested that users didn't want to see the dirt either. However, Dyson said he ignored this advice. "We felt, as engineers, that it was fascinating to see the dirt. There are situations in which you just have to say, not that you know better, but that you've seen an opportunity, something that users may not even know they want, but you know it will improve the product and the users' experience of that product." Dyson has received much criticism from the UK press recently, for moving his manufacturing from the UK to Malaysia. Eureka asked him what he saw as the way forward for UK manufacturing and engineering in the next five to ten years and whether it had a future? "Very much so, it does have a future. But it depends who you are I suppose. If you make aircraft or you make JCBs or you make motor cars then it's perfectly valid to manufacture your product here in the UK because the labour content is negligible. And the cost of transport/logistics is enormous. And probably other things where the labour content and infrastructure costs are not enormous. And you can do the engineering here, the manufacture here and export it. Our problem as a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, is that our labour content is quite high but our suppliers are not here in the UK. What kind of suppliers? "In some cases they are suppliers of quite simple things such as aluminium tubing and switches and so on, but most of our supplier base is abroad so it made sense to move manufacturing away from the UK." I suppose it's a vicious circle then? The more manufacturers move that away from the UK, the more suppliers will follow. "Well it happened the other way around actually. Suppliers went first. So that's one of the main reasons why I moved manufacturing to Malaysia. It's been touted that we left the UK because of low labour costs that we could exploit in Malaysia. This isn't actually true. The main reason was due to not having a large enough supplier base here in the UK. There were actually two reasons why we moved our manufacturing abroad. The first was that we weren't allowed to expand our manufacturing site here at Malmesbury at a critical time in our company's growth, into those lovely trees over there. We were producing 900,000 machines a year here back then, but it's now more than four million - so we simply had to move. It's not green belt land but the locals didn't want it to go ahead so it was held up by the Secretary of State for two years. So that was the first reason. The second reason was that we hadn't got any suppliers here. Our switches and flex were coming from Taiwan, our tubing was coming from Germany, motors from Japan, our polymers from Korea and so on. Now we're manufacturing in Malaysia, almost all our suppliers are within a ten mile radius of the factory. Negative press, etc, but were there any issues with moving the manufacturing to Malaysia that you never really anticipated? Yes, I suppose logistically, there have been issues. Not so much design over here in the UK communicating with manufacturing, we've had no real problems in that area. It's just the geographic distance between the two sites. A lot of people have to come over here from Malaysia and vice versa and travelling costs are high for all that. Also, you can't just pop down from the design office and see Fred in production engineering. Yes, there are difficulties but you learn to live with those. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Being able to develop suppliers close to your factory within touching distance is an enviable position to be in. Their quality is better than the UK - this is not a sleight against UK manufacturing, but being in Malaysia must be what it used to be like in Birmingham and the North West of England manufacturing industry in the 60s. If you have a problem within manufacturing you can nip down the road ten miles to see the supplier to sort out that problem. You can build them up. So, for me that was the major reason why we moved our manufacturing to Malaysia. How do you ensure that your products are designed for manufacture and assembly? First of all, we regularly rotate engineers from Malaysia with engineers here. The two sets of engineers also travel between the sites. Also, you have to remember that we used to make here, so a lot of the engineers here that design products remember things being made here and have a lot of experience. The ones who don't, go out to Malaysia. And we have experts within the business to advise on that sort of thing. It's know-how I suppose, that's being passed from engineer to engineer. Also, with our product, which isn't too complex, it' isn't that difficult to achieve. Dyson Box Out 1: The Ball Vacuum Cleaner Three years' effort by 350 engineers and scientists, 182 patents and between £20 million and £25 million went into Dyson's DC15 vacuum cleaner running on a ball instead of wheels. The idea allows the machine to be articulated so it can more easily be manoeuvred around obstacles. Innovations include having the main motor inside the ball, using a second motor to drive the brush bar through gears, and a mechanism to drop down wheels when the user wants to stand it up to use a pull out wand and hose. If it is turned over, the brush bar is stopped to protect possible prying fingers. The inspiration was not the ball barrow, which used its ball to prevent its sinking into soft ground, but the computer mouse, which uses a ball to allow it to be moved in any direction. Box Out 2: The DDM Engineers at Dyson have developed a fast, intelligent and carbon-free electric motor that has a power-to-weight ratio equal to that of a Ferrari sports car engine. Codenamed the DDM, the motor is the first ultra high-speed switched reluctance motor to incorporate turbocharger aerodynamics and aerospace materials. It has no brushes, no magnets, no commutator, is up to three times faster than a typical vacuum cleaner and is much smaller. Fitted with embedded software, the new motor has diagnostic capabilities that allow it to manage energy efficiently and safely. There's also build data, usage and owner information, which can be quickly communicated to a call centre by holding a telephone handset to the device port or via the Internet. The idea behind the motor, said Dyson, was to overcome the problems normally associated with existing mechanical motors, specifically brush, commutator and magnet failures.