Sir James Dyson: “Sometimes just having a good idea isn’t enough”

Dyson on: why “industrial invention” is more important than the lightbulb moment…

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Jun 24 · 8 min read

Burned toast and the see-through toaster. That’s the image that springs to mind for most people they picture an ‘invention’. It’s usually a gizmo or gadget cooked up in garden sheds or Silicon Valley garages by messy haired oddballs.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries this “clutter-bug inventor” mythology was well-deserved.

On the day Albert Einstein died, a Time magazine photographer, Ralph Morse, snuck into the physicist’s office in Princeton, New Jersey. His famous picture shows the desk of one of history’s greatest minds — and it’s a complete and utter mess. While he was still alive, Einstein was even quoted as saying: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” In lots of ways, this isn’t baseless — making anything new usually requires people who are willing to first make a mess.

And the public likes this story of lightning strike genius, a different thinker leaping out of the bath naked and running about yelling “Eureka!” after having an epiphany.

The idea of an ordered, industrialised source of inventions is harder for most people to picture. This is because of the cultural depiction of machines during the Industrial Revolution, like the cotton spinning jenny, steam locomotive engine, or Henry Ford’s manufacturing line. All were initially lampooned by the public, who didn’t quite understand them because they just looked like more complex ways of making things a human hand already could.

Perhaps the greatest example of this public misunderstanding of the role industry plays in invention comes from the absurd complexity of the English illustrator William Heath Robinson’s cartoon contraptions. Their needlessly complex mechanical processes to produce relatively simple results — including trivial tasks like potato peeling, wart removal, and pancake making — amusing as they may be, didn’t paint industrial processes in a positive light.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of technological advancements today are being made inside large companies and institutions who can afford the eye-watering costs of developing new technologies. Moreover, the Heath Robinson contraption age is over. Rapid advances made in information technology have entirely changed the modern inventor’s story — moving it out of the shed and into the lab.

Here is a telling example: any aspiring inventors searching the internet for help making their idea a reality will stumble across one of many inventor’s starter kits being advertised by companies like Innovate Product Design.

They include everything would-be inventors need to get going. But inside you won’t find the sketching paper, D-I-Y electronics equipment, and the keys to a tool shed. Instead, there is C.A.D. design software, 3D printer-prototyping tutorials, and an intellectual property patent application form.

Ingredients that appear to be at odds with the fabled “light bulb moment”, replacing noble tinkering with staring at a computer screen.

But this is precisely the point; invention has modernised. Today, as well as wrong-thinking, experimentation, and luck, you’ll also need research, planning, and manufacturing skill.

To many Sir James Dyson is the quintessential self-made inventor. But, as he explains in our exclusive interview, he’s also an advocate for all the “industrial invention” needed to take your idea to the next level.

“Sometimes just having a good idea isn’t enough,” he explains. “The public focuses on inventors, and famous inventors’ stories, about serendipity and struggles. You know the inventor-in-the-garden-shed syndrome. Whereas 99.99999% of inventions are done by very creative people within companies. But the shame is that the public seems to like the garden shed man — the James Dyson or Trevor Baylis story, which is a bit of a pity. It undermines the testing and rigour of bringing an invention to life, of people working together to achieve something.”

The type of industrial invention being practised at Dyson shows the huge gulf that forms between big companies and start-ups who are both trying to create new technologies.

One clear distinction is the ability big companies, but not start-ups, have to innovate.

In the introduction to her 2016 book Inventology, Pagan Kennedy writes “people tend to use the words invention and innovation interchangeably which causes confusion.” She calls on the words of Art Fry, inventor of the Post-it note, used himself to distinguish between the two:

“Invention, according to Fry, is what happens when you translate a thought into a thing. More specifically, Fry points out that an invention usually involves creating a prototype that lets you test your concept and demonstrate that it works. The process may require dreaming, drawing observation, idea generation, discovery, tinkering, and engineering. But it should end with the proof.

Innovation is what happens afterwards. It ‘is the act of working through all of the obstacles and problems in the path of turning a creative idea into a business.’ According to Fry. Indeed, the term innovation is often used as a catchall word to describe the challenges companies must overcome in order to mass-produce a product — like streamlining, shaving costs, managing supply chains, and assembling teams of collaborators.”

Mark Taylor is Dyson’s head of research. He is on the frontline of Dyson’s efforts to both invent and innovate. The problem is there is no knowing where the next great idea is really going to come from.

“It can begin in lots of different ways,” Mark explains. “We’ll suddenly make a leap and realise we can extend a technology that we’re already familiar with into a different area. For example, we didn’t start out by trying to invent our hand dryers. We were looking at the technology to see if you could smooth and iron clothing with high-pressure air. It can be quite Edisonian in that way. You start down one path, and then you realise that another opportunity can be more attractive.”

“But we also have known problems which we’re trying to tackle,” he continues. “We know that batteries are a limiting factor and that we definitely want to develop new battery technology. When we can identify a big problem like that we have to be very decisive to go deep into researching it. Issues around batteries today are well-known: they have a limited amount of stored energy in them, they’re heavy, their volumetric and gravimetric energy density is poor relative to how people want to use cord-free products. There’s a whole bunch of problems — not necessarily with products — but actually with the core technology.”

The result of this deeper search for the next big invention led Mark and his team to invest in teams of battery research scientists. “But,” as Mark explains “it also took us down a path of acquiring Sakti3, a solid-state battery start-up.”

HyonCheol Kim, is the VP of Satki 3 and was working there when Dyson acquired the company (it is still the only company Dyson has ever acquired in this way). He and his team have been working on solid-state batteries since 2007. They made news in 2014 after one of their prototype solid-state lithium battery cells reached a record energy density of 1,143 Watt-hours per litre — more than double the energy density of best lithium-ion batteries at the time. Dyson acquired the company a year later.

HyonCheol explains the process: “I was aware that we were talking to many different large companies. I’m sure some of them didn’t work out because of differences in expectations, but we rejected others because of vision misfit. We knew we were taking on a really big challenge, and we wanted to be working with people who understand the challenge of the project with a long-term view and ambition — like Dyson,” HyonCheol says.

During this long process (which is still ongoing) both sides of this partnership started to see the interplay between a small company’s ability to invent and break the rules, and a larger company’s ability to take any idea to the next level.

As HyonCheol says: “The scale definitely helped to upgrade research tools and expanding our scope of the project. We now have facilities in three different time zones working on the solid-state battery project. The immediate value definitely comes from having both money and experience. Dyson’s successful experience in the development of the digital motor provides clear guidance in planning scale-up of any potential new technologies.

“But there is one more important thing that came with Dyson’s scale, probably the most important. We now see an order more (10X), highly qualified applicants from all over the world for every position we post for hiring. I believe this is a direct impact enabled by the global recognition of Dyson’s brand.”

This has helped both Dyson and Satki 3 to push right up to the edge of what is possible in battery technology. As Mark Taylor explains, “some of the advancements made by Dyson are about improving the do-able. For example, we know it’s possible to make an electric car because people have already done it. But if you take solid-state batteries, you’re at the unknown; the bleeding edge of science. And you don’t know whether it’s possible to do something until you’ve experimented and got there. We don’t know it’s possible to make some other things yet, because nobody’s done it.”

In many ways, this is a unique situation in the modern technology landscape. As Mark says, “new inventor’s technologies are being acquired by larger companies all the time. What the public observe is the larger company coming out with the innovation. But, a lot of the technology that goes into familiar products like Amazon Alexa was bought in. They acquired the speech to natural language processing elements from a start-up and then developed them internally. Likewise, Apple’s Siri was bought in from a start-up.

“But,” he continues “Dyson and James are a little unique because he kept it all privately owned for such a long time. Because the business scaled itself it developed from a start-up into a big company and kept the technology development in-house. So over 25 years, a business developed around our ability to develop core technologies. It meant that Dyson could always retain the ability to do both: invent and innovate. That’s rare to be both the start-up inventor and the big innovative tech company.”

Words: Henry Tobias Jones

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Dyson is a fast growing technology company. Employing thousands of engineers and investing £7 million a week on research and development means we have plenty to talk about. We want to share our most important news, stories, and issues as we develop the future of Dyson.

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Dyson is a fast growing technology company. Employing thousands of engineers and investing £7 million a week on research and development means we have plenty to talk about. We want to share our most important news, stories, and issues as we develop the future of Dyson.