Q&A with James Dyson: Research, ideas and the treachery of copycats

James Dyson demonstrating the mechanics of the Airblade motor.

While James Dyson might be a name associated with vacuum cleaners, the recent launch of the second generation Dyson AirBlade hand dryers and the Airblade Tap proves that the British engineer is far from being a one-trick pony.

But before a Dyson product hits the retail floor or the commercial space, what exactly goes on behind the scenes?

For this special one-on-one interview, Appliance Retailer went to James Dyson himself to find out just what goes into making a Dyson product and why he takes it personally when other brands copy his designs.

What kind of research and funding goes into developing a new Dyson product?

People always want the best. It’s why we spend £1.3 million a week on research and development, and we invest for the long run. Our latest digital motor was seven years in the making and a £150 million investment. It was just the starting point for the new Airblade machines.  It’s a long slog. We have to make that investment back, so we can continue to plough money back into creating new technology.

More importantly, the cost is always a reflection of the development that goes into our machines.  Engineers developed over 3,300 prototypes to perfect the tap. Our unforgiving test team simulated hand washing 213 million times. They even doused the machines in chemical mixes and tipped beer over the machines to ensure they can weather even the toughest environment.

How do you try to design products so they will stand out for consumers on the retail floor?

I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. Dyson was the first to use clear bins on our vacuums — market researches argued with me that people didn’t want to see the dirt, but I trusted my gut. People love to see what they’ve captured whizzing around the bin. Now most cyclonic vacuums use a clear bin. We don’t design machines to stand out, we engineer them to work.

Every Dyson product bears your name, so you have to trust the engineers and design teams working to produce them. What do you look for in your staff?

Problem solvers. 850 of them work in our Malmesbury research and development lab. I’m searching for 100 more this year. Most of them will be graduate engineers. Fresh young minds are unsullied by other companies’ ways of working and can create exciting new things. I started Dyson with four graduates from London’s Royal College of Art. Now we have specialists working on acoustics, fluid dynamics and a dedicated team over 100 motors engineers working on our own digital motor. It’s an exciting place to work. There are always lots of ideas being discussed and plenty of heated debate.

What do you think the floorcare category will look like in 10 years?

We don’t try to guess the future at Dyson. Our focus is making technology which simply works better. People don’t want to mess about with gimmicks, they want high performance technology. The latest Dyson digital motor has fully integrated electronics, allowing it to spin at up to 100,000 revolutions a minute. Advances in the technology enabled the cordless vacuum cleaner DC44, and our new Airblade hand dryers. And it will be a core technology for future Dyson machines.

Do you take other brands’ attempts to copy Dyson products personally, or is it just business?

It’s business for them, personal for me. I love turning new ideas into real technology. Competitors not only copy the design of our machines, but the look and feel of them, too. Some might see it as flattery, I find it treacherous. At Dyson our technology is our lifeblood. Wherever possible we take copycats to court. On Air Multiplier technology alone, we have fought 650 different copycat cases across the world. Our technology is always protected with patents, but frustratingly we don’t win them all.

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