A rural upbringing in Norfolk amongst a family of academics and clergy might seem an unconventional route into engineering, but James Dyson showed an obstinate streak from the off. The sole volunteer to play the bassoon in the school orchestra, the long distance runner with the determination to do things differently. After graduating from the RCA, James was employed by local engineering company, Rotork, where he designed his first project, the Sea Truck; a high-speed landing craft. Working alongside Jeremy Fry, James adopted an Edisonian approach to design; making prototype after prototype until he got it just right. A wheelbarrow which sank in the mud and chipped paintwork was the inspiration for Ballbarrow, James next invention. Ballbarrow had a large inflatable ball instead of a wheel, which along with chunky feet, gave it stability. In 1979, James became frustrated with his then top of the range vacuum cleaner as it clogged and lost suction. During a chance visit to a local sawmill, James noticed how the sawdust was removed from the air by large industrial cyclones. Could that principle work on a smaller scale, in a vacuum cleaner? He took his vacuum apart and rigged it up with a cardboard cyclone – it picked up more than his old bag machine. The world’s first vacuum cleaner without a bag. It took 15 years of frustration, perseverance, and over 5,000 prototypes, for James to finally launch the Dyson DCO1 vacuum cleaner under his own name. Within 18 months it became the best-selling cleaner in the UK. Dyson continues to produce new and different technology, such as the Dyson digital motor, the Dyson Airblade™ hand dryer, and the cordless vacuums. Today, Dyson technology is available in over 70 countries. James continues to work alongside his growing team of engineers and scientists, developing new technologies to overcome everyday frustrations.
Dyson has over 2,000 scientists and engineers specializing in diverse fields such as fluid, mechanical, electrical and software engineering, and even including a team of microbiologists. The company holds over 3,000 patents for more than 500 inventions, and nearly US $2.25 million is invested in R&D at Dyson each week. The first stages of R&D still take place, in Malmesbury, where Dyson’s incredible engineers continuously improve everyday objects including hand dryers, fans and lighting. In 2014, an investment plan was announced to inject US $391 million into a brand new technology campus, which will double the UK’s Dyson R&D capacity and create 3,000 new engineering jobs. In 2015 Dyson launched 17 new products in 5 categories and sold 10 million machines globally. Dyson is also continuing its support of the R&D landscape through partnerships with universities worldwide.
Engineering is at the very heart of what we do at Dyson. We have more than 2,000 engineers and scientists dedicated to inventing and improving our machines. Together, they create Dyson’s future. I depend on my team of engineers to continue creating products that solve problems, but more importantly, the global economy depends on engineers to keep invention alive. Without engineers and inventors, there is nothing to patent, market or sell. Ideas an invention are the foundation upon which an economy grows. Engineering propels the principles of math and science into action, and deserves its place alongside disciplines like biology, chemistry and physics. Yet, in our school curriculums – both in my home in the UK and in the US, engineering is often still an afterthought to math and science, if included at all. Our job is to get young people excited about engineering at an early age. Young people have the power to change the world through engineering. We must ignite their natural curiosity, and fan the flames of ingenuity. That begins with a commitment in education and should be fostered by our attitude towards the profession. It’s been over four years since I launched my Foundation in the US – in Dyson’s home base in Chicago. Our aim is to inspire young people to take on engineering. Through free resources and after school clubs, students disassemble our machines to discover how they work and why they’re designed the way they are. They take on their own challenges, too, thinking of problems in their own life they’d like to solve, designing and prototyping solutions to everyday problems. Our resources are all free, but not just that – they stand apart. Young minds need space to create – to fail and learn. So we’ve replaced a game controller with a screwdriver and give students the opportunity to experience R&D at Dyson in their very own classrooms. Through practical, creative activities, engineering principles come to life. This year, we’ve taken our efforts a step further and focused in on Chicago, working with the city to set up state-of- the-art design and engineering labs in three select public schools. This includes nearly $150,000 of industry-standard equipment like laser cutter and 3D printers, along with training and resources for teachers. The Chicago labs are based on a similar program we launched at schools near Dyson’s headquarters in the UK in 2011. This original initiative from our Foundation saw overwhelming success, with enrollment in design, technology and engineering courses increasing by 41% for boys and 150% for girls. But we haven’t stopped with primary or secondary education. We run an annual competition that invites university students to design something that solves a problem. Each year the James Dyson Award sees truly remarkable solutions to everyday problems, and as the award grows around the world, we are seeing more problems solved from more angles. The best inventions have a significant and practical purpose, and many feature commercial potential that has previously been left untapped. Last year’s international winner created a 3D circuit board printer, making prototyping electronics easier and more accessible. Previous winners have created anything from low-cost incubators for premature infants in developing countries, to advanced robotic arms that aid in lifting and physical therapy. It’s remarkable what young minds think up when given the freedom to invent. While we’re committed to training up budding designers and engineers, we are simultaneously investing in our own engineers. The number of Dyson engineers continues to grow at staggering rates. We currently have 200 open engineering positions that will support our future technology. Yet while the field continues to grow and interest continues to be piqued, a problem remains. There is still an unmistakable disproportion between men and women in STEM. By not encouraging girls to explore engineering just as much as boys, we are effectively ignoring half a population of potential engineers. At Dyson, our labs have more than three times the national average of female engineers. But this isn’t enough. When male and female design engineers work together, the result tends to be better technology. Diverse insights and points of view are critical to the design process – someone with a different life experience to your own may find new issues in a product, and can help to create better solutions. This happens every day at Dyson. To encourage girls (and everyone, for that matter) to get inventing, we need to do more reveal a true picture of engineering at a young age. We must continue to trudge on in our quest to change the perceptions of STEM, who can participate in it, and what it looks like. For a technology company like Dyson, the engineering spirit is critical for future innovation, and that starts with our young people and their unhindered exploration of the world of STEM. We must not forget the US economy is built upon ideas. It will need many more of them in the coming years.