Sir James Dyson with various digital motors which will be used in future applications using robotic technology. Photos: Dyson Ltd

Sir James Dyson with various digital motors which will be used in future applications using robotic technology. Photos: Dyson Ltd

It all starts with 10 hours’ sleep a day, with the rationale that a well-rested mind leads to a productive one. Add a bit of inspiration from the humility of arguably the greatest inventor of all time. Also, some sympathy for allergy sufferers the world over.

But that’s no reason to brand Sir James Dyson some sort of hygiene freak, even if he has an obsession for sucking up every grain of dust and maintaining a spotless environment. Contrary to easy misconception, the Briton’s dogged obsession was actually born from a pressing need back in 1978: to stop his vacuum cleaner from losing its suction power as its bag filled up.

Raising three children naturally meant a quick accumulation of dirt and dust, and to guarantee his kids a clean and healthy house, something had to give.

“I found that instead of sucking up dirt, my top of the range vacuum cleaner pushed it around the house. I couldn’t understand why the performance of the machine dropped so quickly – the bag wasn’t even full. My inquisitive nature led me to study bag after bag to investigate the problem,” he reveals in an e-mail interview.

He soon learnt that the tiny pores in the paper bags that were supposed to let air through but leave the dust behind, were quickly clogging up. “This was causing the machine to lose its suction. It felt like a con – one to make you buy more bags.”

Putting his scientific brain to work, he eventually came up with a solution. When he chanced upon a cyclonic separator at a saw mill, he wondered if the same principal of centrifugal force could be applied to a vacuum cleaner.

“I built a cardboard cyclone and strapped it to where the bag normally sits on my ordinary vacuum – and put my theory to the test. Astonishingly, it worked better than the real thing.”

And 5,127 prototypes later (starting with cardboard), he cracked the nut. His breakthrough wasn’t embraced with much enthusiasm by the vacuum cleaning bag industry, given its US$100mil a year turnover, so when all knocked doors remained firmly shut, there was only one way forward: going it alone.

“Over eight years, all the short-sighted multinationals rejected my idea. So I decided to launch it under my own name. DC01 (his first cyclone vacuum cleaner) hit the shelves in 1993. Within 18 months, it became the bestselling vacuum cleaner in the UK.”

And the Dyson brand has grown to the point it’s an empire today, generating enough revenue – he’s worth US$4.8bil (RM20.3bil) – for him to now own more land in Britain than Queen Elizabeth II, according to Forbes.

Inquisitive mind

Dyson, 68, has become a bona fide inventor today because he was always a curious child, stripping things down to their component parts and earning the ire of his parents in the process.

“But I also loved the big show stoppers – the Concordes of this world … technology and engineering marvels that grabbed people’s imagination and made them stop and stare, not at the style so much as the pioneering capabilities. So you could say that being an inventor has always been in my DNA.”

An early model of the innovative ‘cyclonic’ bagless Dyson vacuum cleaner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An early model of the innovative ‘cyclonic’ bagless Dyson vacuum cleaner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But that DNA would only be harnessed once he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London in 1966, where he studied furniture and interior design before moving on to engineering. But even before embarking on his tertiary education, he already began tinkering with designs, and the idea of using balls instead of wheels appealed to him.

The Ballbarrow, an improved wheelbarrow, was a display of how a ball, instead of a wheel, offered greater manoeuvrability. Taking it a step further, he also designed the Trolleyball, a trolley which launched boats.

His time at college really came into sharp focus when he met ingenious engineer Jeremy Fry, who designed the amphibious vehicle Rotork Sea Truck, the prototype of which Dyson helped put together.

“Jeremy Fry was my mentor. He was the first person to give me responsibility from the off, throwing me in the deep end and allowing me to make my own mistakes. He gave me my first job and taught me to work iteratively, making small changes at every stage, so you know exactly what works and what doesn’t,” reveals Dyson.

Patience and perseverance

The renowned tale of his frustration with his Hoover Junior vacuum cleaner in the late 1970s is well-documented, but what’s often forgotten is that it took five years of research and development for his first cyclone vacuum cleaner to finally see the light of day. And even though those years meant lean living, with his wife keeping the family afloat with her teaching and earnings from her artwork, no Plan B was ever devised as a safety net.

“Frustration is the catalyst for invention, but it’s only the first step. Developing an idea can be a painstaking process. But I had faith in my idea and persisted obstinately.”

Dyson was explicitly aware that every prototype was going to be plagued with problems, but putting them through their paces was always going to be key.

“I had to remind myself that every iteration was one step closer to finding a solution. An icon of mine, Thomas Edison, famously said ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ That is why all of our engineers build and test their own prototypes.”

If infiltrating a market chock-full of electronic gadgets of similar function seemed an uphill climb for a new player, Dyson’s cyclonic vacuum cut like a hot knife through butter.

“Critics of my machine argued that the clear plastic bin was a bad piece of design because the person vacuuming didn’t want to see the dirt. I ignored them. I wanted people to see cyclone technology at work – people get a certain satisfaction watching the fluff and grime go around in the bin. Following my instinct paid off,” he asserts.

People often comment that our machines look futuristic, but it’s the technology inside that sets them apart.

Dyson got his first sale by being honest with a mail order retailer who asked why he should include Dyson’s newfangled vacuum cleaner in his catalogue: your catalogue’s boring, was Dyson’s reply that won over the retailer – but is that kind of sincerity out of place in this day and age?

“No successful business is built on ‘yes’ men. And that’s why I always look for young graduates who are full of fresh, unsullied ideas. They’re not afraid to explore new possibilities and challenge convention,” he argues.

Technology moves at a rapid rate – what’s in today is out tomorrow. Dyson is mindful of the fast-paced world but is not terrorised by its often breakneck speed. According to him, at Dyson, function dictates form, pointing out that it is wasted effort if a machine looks fancy but doesn’t operate optimally.

“People often comment that our machines look futuristic, but it’s the technology inside that sets them apart. Technology, rather than design, is at the heart of what we do. And on a planet with finite resources, more than ever, using energy and materials sparingly and ingeniously is a prerequisite of our job.”

Inspiring innovation

It can be argued that the latest gadgets and apps have made life easier to the point that the value and principal of hard graft may be consigned to history books. However, Dyson begs to differ, arguing that in its very nature, good engineering is lean engineering. And the real leaps will come from developing more efficient technologies; better batteries, lighter materials, leaner manufacturing.

“We read about the latest connected gadget every day. The connected home helps people use their technology in the most efficient way. By gathering information and streamlining processes, we’re able to use what we have available effectively – it’s an exciting time.”

Where it all begins: Dyson with his various prototypes.

Where it all begins: Dyson with his various prototypes.

In 2002, Dyson set up the James Dyson Foundation, supporting design and engineering education. The foundation now operates out of Britain, Japan, and the United States.

“I always wanted to attract graduates with little or no work experience – it’s easy to attract good people if you give them responsibility and freedom at an early stage. They are encouraged to make mistakes, to get things wrong and strive to correct them. That philosophy hasn’t changed at Dyson since we started.”

He reasons that this is probably the best time to be a designer, given the available technology. And with globalization upon us, talent can be sourced not only from Europe, but right here in South-East Asia. Unsurprisingly, Dyson’s manufacturing initiatives have now moved very close to the equator – right here in sunny Malaysia, in fact.

“I decided to move manufacturing there at a time when Dyson was becoming more globally focused – we wanted more people to experience Dyson technology. Malaysia offered a strategic base for us; logistics, infrastructure, a good workforce and geographically close to Dyson’s supply chain (China-Singapore-Malaysia).”

It takes more energy to make an idea happen than to think of it in the first place.

Manufacturers have come and gone, and some have been bought over or merged with other multinationals – that’s an inevitable outcome with fluctuating economies. Likewise decision-making by boards of directors and foreign ownership, it’s all par for the course in this modern age we live in. However, Dyson stands tall in its position as a single-person run enterprise. The secret to this success is … time. When manufacturers are afraid of losing ground or missing the opportunity of jumping on the bandwagon, Dyson is, instead, willing to take the time to not only develop but also refine a product’s technology before it comes off the assembly line.

“And personally I prefer the nitty-gritty of engineering. Of course, I couldn’t do it all on my own so I have handed over the day-to-day business concerns to our CEO Max Conze, who, like the rest of the team at Dyson, is full of fight,” Dyson shares.

Even if he doesn’t know what lies ahead, Dyson still relishes what the future holds. At his organisation, ideas are constantly evolving. In fact, the company is working on technologies 25 years into the future, which effectively suggests he is a clairvoyant of sorts.

“We are collaborating with 30 of the world’s best research establishments to develop new technologies, which will be at the core of it. There are exciting gains to be made in material science and robotics, autonomous machines, batteries which last longer, and super materials that can allow us to create lighter, stronger, machines.”

Everything begins with an idea

So, what bits of wisdom and insight would the older James Dyson share with his younger self today, given the chance?

“An idea is a precious thing. If it’s not been thought of before, it’s easy for people to miss its importance, to think of reasons why it should fail, or worse, ridicule it. The reason you were able to come up with the idea in the first place is because you could see something others couldn’t. So don’t expect everyone to be on the same wavelength at first.”

He insists that the first thing one has to do is convince one’s self of the feasibility of an idea. Once internal conviction is achieved, only then should an idea be pitched or sold.

“And remember, it takes more energy to make an idea happen than to think of it in the first place,” he stresses, offering sound advice.

And what about those cell-regenerating, soul-resting 10 hours of sleep then?

“Sometimes, work doesn’t get away from me. I am constantly thinking about ideas and issues the engineers and I haven’t solved from the day before. When I go home, I can’t help but think over what I’ve seen. So I sketch new ideas and make changes to the designs. And things pop into my head at ridiculous times in the morning. A good 10 hours’ sleep can help me make sense of all these ideas.”

He may sleep a lot, but one thing’s for sure, the Dyson brand didn’t become a household name because its owner was sleeping on the job. In fact, it is one of the great success stories in British engineering history, contributing cutting-edge ideas that have gone global. Today, Dyson makes a variety of vacuum cleaners, hand dryers, bladeless fans, heaters, and more.

So the next time you’re sucking up that stubborn bit of dirt on your rug with a cyclonic vacuum, know that its concept was conceived from many hours of sleep.