The Dyson Q&A
Last week, I got to talk to James Dyson about his latest invention – the Airblade Tap – and what his company has been working on during the recession.The finished piece ran in Monday’s Innovation supplement, but here’s the full Q&A.
There’s been a lot of speculation about what you were planning online, with people guessing what you were planning. Was this intentional?
No, we’ve developed this new technology and put a hand dryer into a tap, which hasn’t been done before because it makes a much better hand dryer. We’re not trying t create a false lead on the internet, we’re just trying to make better products.
One of the suggestions they came up with was a hairdryer.
Well you probably could dry your hair with it if you stuffed your head in the sink…I haven’t tried it, but it’s an interesting idea.
Anyway what we’ve done is, you wash your hands in the sink under our tap and then immediately dry them under the two wings that come out from our tap. S you can get it all done in one go. In the past you’ve had to wash your hands and then drip your hands across the floor and queue for the hand dryer. They often only have one or two hand dryers and half a dozen sinks. You’ve got your own space, you wash and dry your hands and out you get. So it’s just a musch nicer and quicker experience in the washroom.
What’s the target market for this – is it just commercial premises, or could you see people putting these into their own homes?
I think people have put our hand dryers into their own homes. And I think they’ll particularly put this in, because it’s in one with the tap, so you don’t have the expense of having to use towels. And towels are not very hygienic, because germs get on to the towels and then transfer from one person to another. S it’s much nicer to use our device, because you’re the first person to use it, as it were.
Also from an environmental point of view, this is far better than paper or natural towels and hot air hand dryers as well.
This is something that has come about from the investment your company put in even though there was an economic downturn. Is this the first product that has come about from that investment?
I think the point about downturn is that it’s not necessarily that people have less money – although that is often the case – it’s that people are much more careful with it. So they don’t necessarily buy the cheapest thing; they buy something that they really want that does the job well and lasts a long time. So I think the winners in recession are the people who produce new technology that does things better, which people really want. So when the recession happened, and we saw it instantly in the United States in 2008 when the shops stopped ordering, the answer we thought was to develop more technology and develop it faster.
So as rapidly as we could, we doubled the number of research engineers we had an have produced a lot of new products – we introduced 12 new ones last year – interestingly, 50 per cent of our sales in 2012 came from products introduced in the past 12 months.
Was that a conscious strategy for you?
Very much so. The way the world is going, it’s technology driven. And it isn’t just driven by the old super powers, it’s driven by the far east and new emerging economies.
Do other companies tend to pull back on R&D budgets? Is one of the first things to go R&D budget?
I’m not knowledgeable enough about other companies but I think you’re right, I think there is a tendency to look after today and not worry about tomorrow. But I’d cut back on advertising and put more money into research and development. That’s what I would do. But that’s not necessarily a very good thing for today, but I think it’s a brilliant thing for tomorrow, the next five years.
You’ve got to look very long term. We’re doing research projects that won’t come to fruition for 15 years but you can’t get real breakthrough technology and transformative technology unless you look long term. It’s amazing how quickly long term comes about.
The new electric motor we’ve got in our hand dryers – we weren’t involved in electric motors at all 15 years ago. And we started recruiting clever motor engineers about 14 years ago, and now we’re producing revolutionary electric motors that no one else in the world makes anything like. Our motors go at 100,000 rpm. A lot of people make motors that go at 30,000 rpm but not 100,000. So we have a fantastic commercial advantage to having these small high speed motors in our handheld vacuum cleaners – battery operated vacuum cleaners – and motors that are half the size and twice as efficient as any of our competitors’ motors. That’s because we took the long term decision to invest in new motors technology.
Are there other things you’ve done to adapt Dyson’s business to the current economic situation?
I think the obvious thing is to export. Because there is a huge global marketplace and you can really take advantage of that if you have got new technology and better products. And the new emerging markets are consuming huge numbers, anf they want the latest technology – China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong – all these countries want new technology, they don’t want old technology. They are great consumers of new technology. So we’ve got fantastic opportunities not only selling to mature markets like Europe, the US, Japan, Australia, Britain, but you can double your market size by exporting to emerging markets.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned the counterfeiting of Dyson products was an issue. Has that continued?
It has, more and more, and of course it’s extremely damaging to Britain’s global trade – or indeed anyone’s global trade – if plagiarism is allowed or is not stopped So it is important that governments around the world support patents, and that the courts support patents. They don’t always give the support they should.
Speaking of Government strategies, do you think the government priorities when it comes to supporting business and R&D are appropriate? You’ve been quoted quite a bit on Some governments are concentrating their firepower on web technologies
I think that’s a pity.
One of the examples I always give is Caterpillar in the United States, which has sales of about $61 billion and Facebook, which has sales of $4 billion. Caterpillar employs 132,000 people, Facebook 3,000 people. You can see that real technology, tangible things, employs a lot of people and is a much bigger business than software. I’m not decrying software and I’m not being a luddite about it, but my point is that this new software revolution is a new form of publishing. And hardware uses just as much software as this new form of publishing. We use a he amount of software and artificial intelligence in our electric motors in our products, but it’s hardware. Cars use the same. They use vast amounts of software and artificial intelligence. But its also hardware.
Hardware is growing at a faster rate and employs many more people than software and creates many more exports. So as far as the economy is concerned, it’s better to drive hardware than do things like computer games. That’s merely my point on that.
But I think the British Government has done a lot to help industry and help research and development. They’ve really carried out the things I asked for in my ingenious Britain report. They’ve increased the R&D tax allowances, they’ve increased tax allowances for angel investors in new technology startups, and they’ve created the patent box, which will reduce the corporation tax for people developing technology they can export.
These things will make a huge difference – already are making a difference and will make a huge difference.
Curiously enough, quite a negative thing which is student fees at universities has actually enormously pushed up the number of people deciding to read engineering and science. By something like 12 per cent, which is a huge jump for one year. I think if you have to pay for your education, you worry very seriously about you’re going to do when you’ve got your degree. I think people are realizing that engineering and science are extremely good degrees to get and you’ll be very highly paid once you’ve got them.
Employers are looking for people with science and maths degrees.
What has been Dyson’s biggest challenge as a company over the past couple of years?
Employing engineers, getting enough engineers. It’s what really holds us back and it’s very depressing because only 12,000 are produced in England every year. There’s 2.5 million produced in China and by 2015 there’ll be 3.5 million. India produces about 1.2 million. Even Iran and the Philippines produces twice as many engineers as Britain.
So the biggest problem for us is getting engineers in our home country, We can get them in Singapore and Malaysia, but we can’t get enough here and here is where we do all our creative stuff.