The story of Sir James Dyson is one of not giving up after getting things wrong. Today his company’s designers are taught to follow this approach, and they have an R&D budget of £84m to work with
Stubbornly confronting persistent failure brings success, eventuallySir James Dyson and his revolutionary productDuring a tour of Dyson's research and development facility in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, I'm politely asked by Sam Bernard, their head of commercial product development, if I've ever used an Airblade.
Fortunately, there's no need for me to recount my Christmas party story, because I'd used one five minutes previously. Dyson HQ's toilets all carry large signs asking you to try it (“Your hands will be dried hygienically in 10 seconds”) and after I've watched Bernard's presentation detailing the bacterial nightmare of old-fashioned hand driers, I feel the urge to visit the Airblade for a second time.
“Traditional hand driers don't dry your hands,” he points out, almost unnecessarily; it's something we've all been painfully aware of for decades.
“Not only that,” he continues, “they heat up dirty air from the room and then blast it back out again. The Airblade filters the air first, wipes the water from your hands with ‘air knives' — the width of an eyelash — and traps the water within the unit.”
The case for the Airblade is closed later in the facility's microbiology lab, where scientists Karen Hall and Josephine Hoenderkamp subject me to a faintly humiliating test which reveals the disgusting amount of bacteria present on my hands and how much remains on wet hands after washing.
“Hand drying is as important as hand washing,” says Bernard.
He's employed by a company that produces a hand-dryer, but you can't argue with the science. I wash my hands again. And dry them. Again.
It's unusual for such a facility to have its own microbiology lab that tests for bacteria and breeds dust mites, but many things about this place are out of the ordinary. For starters, it's festooned with vacuum cleaners, Dyson's best-known product; they hang decoratively from the walls, sit unobtrusively in corners and are even displayed in plastic boxes set into the walkways.
Secondly, it's massive. Dyson came in for much criticism nine years ago when, in a cost-cutting exercise, it transferred its manufacturing facility from Wiltshire to Malaysia with the loss of 800 jobs. But the subsequent success of the company has prompted a massive expansion in research and development.
Some £42m was spent on R&D in 2009 and in 2010 Sir James Dyson ordered that figure to be doubled, thus doubling the number of engineers recruited in the UK. “I seem to spend most of my time interviewing people,” laughs Bernard.
As we move slowly around the building, there are clearly large areas where prying eyes aren't welcome and
thumbprint recognition technology is deployed to keep nosey parkers firmly out. In addition, each room is quickly checked before I'm allowed in, just in case someone has left a top-secret prototype lying around.
“Lots of our initial work is still done with cardboard and glue,” says Bernard. “People do tend to run about testing them. Oh and the fire alarms go off fairly regularly, too.”
The idea of stubbornly confronting persistent failure is one that seems to be drilled into Dyson employees. A quote by Edison appears on one wall: “I've not failed,” it reads, “I've just found 10,000 ways it won't work.”
And while the story of Sir James' rise from arts graduate to billionaire inventor and government adviser is ultimately one of success, it's strewn with innumerable stories of him getting things wrong.
His first invention, a boat called the Seatruck that could deliver heavy payloads in rough seas, involved endless, tedious hours dragging planks of plywood behind a Land Rover on the beach.
The dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner that eventually made his name was inspired by the design of a timber mill, but needed 5,127 prototypes before it was deemed ready — and even then no-one would buy the patent. “The industry model at the time was predicated on selling replacement Hoover bags,” says Bernard, wincing slightly. “Sorry, that's the only time you'll hear the H-word in this building, I promise.”
The Japanese, however, were more receptive and success there saw Dyson launch his own company back in the UK.
One room here is still dedicated to furthering the science of picking up debris from carpets. A machine designed to evenly spread and grind dirt into the floor is operated by senior test technician John Merchant, while behind him hangs an array of floor coverings that would be the envy of any carpet showroom.
“Different parts of the world have different floors — hard wooden ones in Japan, nylon carpets in the USA,” says Merchant. “So we produce different machines for different markets.”
On the shelves sit jars of lentils, rice and miscellaneous objects that might be encountered by the average vacuum cleaner, although no jar of Welsh border collie hair which, according to John, the photographer, is “a nightmare”.
While he seeks advice from Merchant, I nip out to the mechanical test area, the centrepiece of which is a £25,000 machine that smashes products into the ground at high velocity in order to establish their strength.
“This would obviously be a very tedious job for someone,” says design engineer Leigh Ryan. “And one that would be prone to error through people getting tired and bored, so this is the best way of testing for wear and tear.”
The sound of plastic slamming into hard surfaces becomes a familiar one throughout the day. “It's therapeutic,” says Bernard.
“We like to get interviewees to hit products; to jump up and down on them. It's all part of trying to make things better.”
The word “better” is something of a refrain at Dyson. People like stuff that's better, we're told, and that's the ethos behind the huge sums invested in research and development.
Dyson engineers, says the blurb, are more interested in how things work than how they look. “To be honest, we've launched some ugly products. But we've never launched anything that doesn't work,” says Bernard.
Indeed, a planned Dyson vacuuming robot went as far as a press launch before manufacture was halted because it wasn't up to scratch. Work apparently continues on it. Bernard believes that this quest for perfection over schedules has been crucial to the success of the company.
“Our rivals are very slow to innovate. The vast majority patch up the same components in new packaging and present that as a new product,” he says.
“The only other company I can think of that has a similar model to us is Apple and look at the success that both of us have achieved.”
When you get 550 mechanical engineers, industrial designers, microbiologists and product designers together under one roof, ideas come thick and fast.We’ve launched some ugly products in our time, but we’ve never launched something that has failed to work properly