What do the following have in common? The head of M16, the boss of Rangers Football Club, turkey magnate Bernard Matthews and James Dyson.

The answer is that all the above received various types of official recognition in the New Year Honours List, joining luminaries such as Rod Stewart and Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin in being deemed contributors to the national good.

Of course, for those with an interest in engineering and technology it was heartening to see Dyson’s name on the list, along with that of GKN chief executive Kevin Smith, as newly-created Knights of the realm.

Of the two, the ubiquitous Dyson inevitably attracted most attention confirming his status as the UK’s highest profile champion of innovative engineering technology.

Not all this attention, however, was entirely positive. The knighting of Dyson was condemned by some union leaders, who regard the entrepreneur’s outsourcing of assembly jobs to Asia as an act so unpatriotic that he should be sent to the Tower of London rather than invited to Buckingham Palace.

Because of his high profile Dyson has faced particular criticism over his decision to move the assembly component of his business to Malaysia while retaining the high value-added elements, including the R&D and design, in the UK. That was done years ago and Dyson (the company) has thrived, but Dyson (the man) hasn’t been allowed to forget it.

The union leaders concerned could hardly be expected to heap praise on a business leader who, in their view, has sold their members down the river when he should have been backing the British worker.

But whatever they say, an objective look at the situation suggests that Dyson’s strategy is rather more aligned with the realities of the global economy, love them or hate them.

Until you visit the region, it is hard to appreciate how the development of Asia in particular has ripped up the rule book for mature economies such as Europe.

China and India are the most oft-quoted examples of exponential growth. But the region’s smaller and historically poorer nations are also battling to grab their share of the global cake.

Vietnam is a good example (and we must use the word ‘smaller’ cautiously in connection with a country whose population is 25m greater than the UK’s).

Take a journey from the country’s major towns, and roads that 20 years ago would have been surrounded by rice fields are now lined by factory after factory, above which flutter the flags of their home nations – Japan, Korea, Australia, Sweden and, yes, the occasional Union Jack.

The sense of dynamism is inescapable, and its labour costs – a doctor, for example earns US$150 per month – staggeringly low by Western standards.

Dyson moved the lower skilled element of his business to Asia to remain competitive, allowing him to invest in the skilled, innovative and technologically advanced operation that is currently thriving in the UK.

However much it may upset his remaining critics, technology’s newest Knight has shown a shrewd business judgement to match his prowess as an engineer.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online