Listen to this article
Sir James Dyson, Britain’s most famous living inventor, says money is not his motivation. “I manufacture products where I’ve developed the technology and designed the whole product, and that’s the kick I get from it,” he says at the Dyson company headquarters in Malmesbury, south-west England. “My belief is that if I do that well, everything else will follow.”
Innovative engineering combined with cool design is the hallmark of the Dyson brand. Over the past quarter of a century this has transformed everyday appliances, from vacuum cleaners to air purifiers and hairdryers, into stylish products associated with superior performance — and high price tags.
The upshot is that Sir James controls a business that turns over £3.5bn a year and reaches into homes in some 80 countries. This has built his status as a British success story — one who has also become an outspoken figure on topics such as the EU, Brexit and education.
The entrepreneur’s boldness was on show last September when his company unveiled arguably its most ambitious endeavour yet: a £2bn project to design and construct from scratch a “radically different” electric car.
It is a high-stakes wager that could prove Sir James’ crowning achievement. Yet the venture is fraught with pitfalls in a fiercely competitive industry. “It’s bold for somebody who’s never been in automotive,” says Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, an industrialist and educator who first met Sir James in the mid-1990s. “That takes a lot of guts and imagination.”
The car has been merely the most eye-catching development during what Sir James describes as the biggest year of change in the company’s history. Expansion is under way as Dyson delves deeper into frontier technologies, including robotics, battery storage and artificial intelligence.
In 2017, the company welcomed the first intake of students at its Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, located at its headquarters. This higher education establishment will train the company’s next generation of engineers, in partnership with the Warwick Manufacturing Group, chaired by Bhattacharyya, part of the University of Warwick.
When asked about Dyson’s greatest achievement over the past decade, Sir James — aged 70 and dressed in a zip-up shirt, chinos and white trainers — says he had “never thought of that” before but soon finds an answer: “From being a company that produced vacuum cleaners, we’ve turned ourselves into a technology company.”
He gives the example of the minuscule but powerful electric motor, controlled by electronics and algorithms, that has been used in many Dyson devices since 2009. Although the fundamental principle had long been deployed in industrial “brushless” motors, the innovation was to shrink the motor for domestic appliances — similar to how Dyson adapted the cyclonic principle in its cleaners to separate dirt from air.
“They’re probably the most advanced production electronic motors in the world and certainly by far the fastest,” he says. “But those sorts of technologies can take some time to get there.”
Patience is a quality people familiar with Sir James credit him with, exemplified by the five years and 5,127 prototypes it took to perfect his bagless vacuum cleaner. This is partly thanks to the nature of his company, family-owned with no external shareholders to satisfy. It also reflects a perfectionism he has inculcated in the organisation.
In a company research area stands the only working jet engine left in the world designed by Sir Frank Whittle, one of Sir James’s heroes. Another strong influence was Jeremy Fry, of the chocolate family, who ran an engineering company, Rotork. Fry asked the aspirant inventor — then a young student at London’s Royal College of Art — to help design a high-speed military assault boat called the Sea Truck.
“He really taught me everything about what it was to be an engineer and entrepreneur. He never did any so-called market research. He just did what he thought was right from an engineering and product perspective.”
Professor Gareth Jones, who was one of Dyson’s first employees, calls his former boss a “genuine polymath” in the technical, commercial and design fields. “He’s a master at working out whether something is feasible, viable and desirable,” says Jones, now the Dyson-sponsored chair of design engineering at the University of Bath. “Couple that with unbelievable drive and determination.”
Yet focusing on the long haul can come at the expense of speed to market. Work on robotics began some 17 years before Dyson launched its automated floor cleaner in Japan in 2015, during which time rivals such as iRobot stole a march. Dyson is considering two different battery technologies it is developing to power its first car, but some automotive industry watchers wonder whether it is late to the game, since many carmakers already sell electric models. Sir James is confident, however. “We’ve got battery technology, we’ve got motor technology, we’ve got environmental control technology. Aerodynamics has been a big part of what we’ve done,” he says.
Despite its successes, Dyson has known controversy. A decision to end UK manufacturing in 2003 attracted criticism. Its motors are manufactured in Singapore and its machines assembled in Malaysia and the Philippines, though a site has yet to be chosen for its car factory.
But the company today employs more people than ever in Britain — 4,600, an increase of two-and-a-half times in the past five years. Half are scientists and engineers. The opening of a centre in Singapore last year enables what Dyson calls a “24-hour R&D cycle”, with collaboration between engineers in the UK and south-east Asia.
Sir James is one of the few well-known business figures who advocated a vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Was this not in contrast with his former enthusiasm for the EU, including support for the UK adopting the euro? Sir James brushes this off as “a long, long time ago, in the mid-’90s”.
“As we expanded more and more globally, I realised Europe was a bad thing, not a good thing, for us,” he says. Dyson has “expanded heavily in China” and Asia-Pacific has become by far its biggest region. “We’ve expanded in Europe, but Europe is a shrinking part of the world for us and I would suggest for everybody.”
Is some of this down to the EU’s energy-efficiency labels, given Dyson has mounted a legal challenge against them? Sir James regards this as an area ripe for post-Brexit reform, saying regulations favour German manufacturers and that laboratory tests for ratings do not reflect real use in the home. “They don’t encourage innovation — in fact, quite the reverse.”
Since the Brexit vote, UK economic performance has lagged behind other developed nations, leading to downgraded growth forecasts. But Sir James remains bullish about the UK’s prospects.
He hints at a preference for a “hard” Brexit. As to whether his carmaking ambitions help explain why he favours such an outcome, which might well inflict heavy damage on conventional UK car manufacturers, Sir James insists his views on leaving the EU and his desire to build a battery vehicle are not linked.
On whether he believes any future Dyson cars can break into the Chinese market, Sir James presents his general view that Britain’s EU membership has been at the expense of its relationship with Asian and other markets.
“If we could do free-trade deals with the US, China and the old Commonwealth — India, Australia, Canada and so on — these are of far greater value to Britain than the EU.”
Sir James’s interests also include farming, which has received agricultural subsidies from Brussels. He refers to this as “an important part of remaining competitive against heavily subsidised farms across Europe”. The handouts are “dwarfed”, he adds, by his investments. “Beeswax Dyson [the farming business] has invested £75m in technology, training, soil improvement and environmental stewardship over the past five years.”
As much of the Brexit debate centres on immigration, Sir James says the UK should make it easier for graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to obtain work visas. The UK faces a possible shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates a year and he believes a cultural change is needed, hence the Dyson Institute, where tuition fees are covered by the company.
Although his son Jake works full-time for the company, Sir James shows no signs of reducing his involvement. He rejects the idea of floating the company on the stock market. “We want to stay a family business. We want to be able to think long term. We want to be able to concentrate on the values — the ethical and moral values, of course, that we have — but also engineering and design and the product.”
Get alerts on Technology sector when a new story is published