Innovation cleans up the opposition

James Dyson took on the big manufacturers and won with his innovative dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner. As he tells Mark Venables, his success is based on giving a high priority to design and invention in manufacturing

When you meet James Dyson the instant impression is that he is every bit as well turned out as his products – smart, colour co-ordinated and efficient.

He has the air of a man who has taken on, and soundly beaten, some of the world’s manufacturing giants by reinventing one of the most common household appliances. His dual cyclone vacuum cleaner has captured 52% of the UK market, selling over 91,000 units each month.

Dyson was born 52 years ago to academic parents living in the backwaters of Norfolk. Towards the end of his four-year furniture and interior design course at the Royal College of Art he rather perversely designed and engineered the Sea Truck amphibious vehicle for inventor Jeremy Fry.

After graduating, he joined Rotork to manage the Sea Truck project, before striking out on his own with a new version of the wheelbarrow – the Ballbarrow.

In the late 1970s, while renovating his country house in the Cotswolds, he stumbled upon the idea of a bagless vacuum cleaner. Dyson sold his shares in Ballbarrow for £10,000 to devote himself to developing the project.

`I started in 1979 and it took me until 1983 to get it right,’ Dyson says. `During that period I probably built over 5,000 prototypes – these were not high-tech machine-shop versions, but simple models which were fabricated in my own workshop.’

Having failed to convince the main players in the field to license his product and following several unsatisfactory forays into licensing overseas, Dyson decided to take the plunge and, in 1993, set up his own manufacturing operation.

`It was a big decision and one that I took somewhat reluctantly. I had some experience of manufacturing, from my time with the Ballbarrow, so I knew how difficult it would be.’

The arrival in the shop of the DC01 in May 1993, selling at around £200, signalled the start of the company’s meteoric rise.

But even with healthy sales and a growing bank balance, Dyson is still at heart an R&D engineer. `There are about 300 engineers and scientists at Dyson Appliances who are developing new vacuum cleaners and various other products,’ he says. Among them is thought to be an innovative washing machine. Engineering is and will always remain the heart of the company. R&D is what we started out doing, it is our base and it is what we want to do. Selling the product is almost incidental.’

Dyson speaks passionately with an understanding of the issues involved. Take the environment: `I don’t think manufacturers should make products they are not going to recycle. I can see a future in which all products will have to be made of recycled materials.

`We made a vacuum cleaner from recycled products but it cost more and did not sell. There is a great deal of confusion between recyclable and recycled – it is easy to put a sticker on a product and say it is recyclable.’

Dyson constantly returns to his vision of the engineer as someone who combines invention, design and engineering. `I believe that invention and design should be part of the core business and it is not right to subcontract those aspects out.

`Manufacturing is a creative act. It could be tempting to work in a design consultancy, turning your hand to packaging lots of projects. But that is not for me. I want to do something with more depth. For every project I work on I have to reinvent myself, and that is quite a challenge.’

Dyson does not subscribe to the commonly held idea that engineers are not held in high esteem. `Good engineers are sought after and can earn a lot – not as much as people in the City, but that is because most manufacturing is out of town. If it were in the City the earnings would be comparable.

`It is difficult for people outside manufacturing to understand why the sector is interesting. It is hard to explain the thrill of coming up with an idea, making it work and then seeing how popular it is with the public. The whole process is quite fascinating.

`Modern manufacturers are often more interested in profit than in the whole reason they exist – to make products people want to buy.’

James Dyson at a glance

Age: 52

Education: Gresham’s School, Holt, Norfolk. Royal College of Art studying furniture design and interior design

First job: Manager of marine division for Rotork in Bath

Inventions: Ballbarrow, trolleyball boat launcher, bagless vacuum cleaner

Current job: Owner of Dyson Appliances

Interests: Member of the Design Council