The British press has a rum old relationship with James Dyson, the undisputed king of domestic appliance innovation.
When Dyson this week unveiled his latest advance, a highly efficient motor for vacuum cleaners and washing machines that also ‘talks’ to service centres, it was seized upon with delight by newspapers that usually wouldn’t give engineering technology the time of day.
Dyson has joined that elite band of businessmen who can, apparently effortlessly, secure headlines at the drop of a hat.
Richard Branson is probably the best general example. In engineering and technology, the list of iconic figures is restricted to a few big names such as Dyson and Sir Clive Sinclair.
When Dyson comes up with a new product or innovation he is widely acclaimed as a living example of that most endangered of species: the great British inventor.
But wait. Where will Dyson’s new motors be made? In the Far East, of course, to where he is moving his manufacturing operations from the UK – a decision which, to those employed to assemble his vacuum cleaners in Wiltshire, really did suck.
This has all proved rather confusing to some people. Three cheers for Dyson, the plucky inventor. Three jeers for Dyson, the pursuer of cheap labour.
In reality Dyson’s strategy is no different from that of many UK companies. Keep the ‘added-value’ operations such as R&D, design and marketing here. Then either build your own manufacturing facility in a ‘low-cost’ economy or contract it out to someone already operating there.
However, because Dyson is Dyson and has been accepted into the pantheon of part-time national treasures, the shock at his Far Eastern flit was magnified ahundred-fold.
Dyson and many of the rest of the UK’s technology-driven companies are currently in the early stages of providing an answer to the question that will shape the country for the next 100 years.
Can a high-cost, knowledge-driven technology base, underpinned by a voracious andferociously competitive service sector, support an economy of some 60 million people?
To use Dyson (the company, not the man) as a more specific example: can the sales of its appliances around the world, and the jobs in R&D and so on that they fund, put more back into the UK’s economy than the loss of manufacturing to the Far East took out?
Place your bets. A talking vacuum cleaner to the winner.