Saturday, 02 August 2014
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Is it a teleporter, is it a hoverboard? No, it's a tap

A revolutionary piece of technology that could fundamentally change the lives of millions was unveiled this week.

James Dyson, widely regarded as the most brilliant engineer since Brunel, has finally solved the problem of having to walk between the taps and the dryer after washing your hands.

The new Airblade tap, which includes the startling innovation of combining jets of air with a traditional water faucet, is set to shave literally seconds from bathroom visits around the world.

Ok, enough sarcasm. But sadly that’s not too far from the real reaction much of the media gave Dyson’s new product when it was launched on Monday night. The coverage was so prominent and at times sycophantic that you’d think the man had invented nuclear fusion not a slightly different way to dry your hands.

In fact, the hype began well in advance of the unveiling. ‘Dyson new invention: What could it be?’ asked the Guardian website, setting off a wave of mildly interested speculation from a bunch of people checking the site because they were bored at work.

Unfortunately, all this build up around the launch of a new product from the company that previously brought you a vacuum cleaner and a fan was bound to lead to an anticlimax.

Dyson’s about to launch its latest technology! What could it be? A hoverboard? A teleporter? A perpetual motion machine?! No, it’s a tap. With a couple of little fans stuck on the side.

/g/j/h/TE_Dyson_Airblade_tap2.jpg

Source: Dyson

The Dyson Airblade tap: changing the world, one drip at a time.

This isn’t a criticism of Dyson, by any means. The company is full of talented engineers, designers and (obviously) PR people, and its boss is clearly an astute businessman. Congratulations to them all for their hard and successful work.

But it galls me that the most fussed-over invention of the last 12 months is a tap. A well designed, unusual tap that will probably make lots of money (each unit costs £1,000). But a tap nonetheless.

As readers of The Engineer know, there are plenty of fascinating and important new devices under development in this country. And yet the UK’s most famous engineer is a man who’s made middle class floors slightly cleaner.

I’m not convinced that most people buy into the hype either. The first reader comment on the Guardian’s blog cheekily pointed out that every Dyson product either sucks or blows. Which set the tone for pretty much the whole thread.

Then again, what else should I expect from a media that classes technology as anything with a pixel. That scrutinises every move of the latest Silicon Valley startups but cares little for the companies that actually employ larges swathes of the British workforce.

A quick look at the BBC News website shows there are just three stories on its technology homepage about traditionally engineered products, covering electric car charging, the (also much-hyped) Raspberry Pi computer, and – you guessed it – the Dyson tap.

I guess all that remains is to wonder what James Dyson might do next. As he’s reinvented the tap, I suggested he might have a go at doing the same for the wheel. But as The Engineer editor Jon Excell pointed out to me, he’s already done this with his ballbarrow.

I’ll just have to hold out for that hoverboard.


Readers' comments (43)

  • If everyone were to wash their hands after going to a public Loo, there would not be enough wash basins to go around. Maybe combine the wash facility and the Loo!!

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  • Brunel's structures are still standing. I've had to scrap a couple of JD's vacuum cleaners because of really poor detailing on the plastics mouldings and poor material choice, despite their great functionality while they were still working. I refused to try a third! I've spent four decades working on design & development of plastics parts, so I often feel like screaming when I see otherwise great designs ruined by utterly basic design faux pas. Sadly, the problem is not confined to that brand, but is part of a stream of similar failures that continue to give plastics — rather than the inadequately trained designers that define their form — a bad name.

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  • I'd agree with John Mcloughlin's comment about plastic parts design, I know little about this particular branch of engineering, but as an end user I come across it continually, brackets, supports, all manner of plastic bits, which fail all too often in a way that is no surprise, good design of these components is vital and yes JD's vacuums do suffer with those faults. The interesting parallel with Brunel, is that he is controversial. Look on the web and you see swathes of opinion either very pro or very anti his vacuums. I gather that Brunel raised similar passions at the time, what controversy was there ever over a Hoover or Electrolux vacuum? None as far as I know. Any design that has a different approach from the norm tends to do that. I don't like seeing all the dust flying round JD's vacuums but nor do I like spending a fortune on bags, nor may I point out are his vacuums massively more expensive than the much vaunted Miele as far as I can see.
    Anyway back to JD, he occupies the same place in his area as Apple do in the computer area, premium products at a premium price, he may not be entirely original, but genuinely original manufacturing ideas are getting thin on the ground. Most tend to be, sometimes radical, rethinks of past ideas. Changes in manufacturing technology make things that would have been vastly impractical or too expensive years ago common place. You see many copies of JD's vacuums at a fraction of his price now and I'm sure the same will happen with his tap in the end, but in the end like Apple computers, the cheap copies lack that indefinable sense of quality and design of the originals.

    The next revolution in manufacturing is probably with us in the form of 3D printing, as this technology matures it should change manufacturing in the same sort of way as injection moulding did, giving people like JD an opportunity to further inflame our passions pro or anti, bring it on!!

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