Jake Dyson about his passion for light and the future of the family-owned business
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2018)
When things do not work, it frustrates every one of us – as design engineers, we do something about it – it’s all about inventing and improving products,” said James Dyson, inventor and founder of the iconic home appliances company Dyson from England. Whether it be vacuum cleaners, fans or hair dryers – Dyson products have cult status. It all started in 1978, when James Dyson got annoyed with his vacuum cleaner, so he decided to develop a vacuum cleaner that worked better than the devices on the market. The inspiration for using cyclones as a filtration step came from looking at the upside-down cone in a sawmill. As an ingenious inventor, he set to work, and after five years of development and 5,127 prototypes, the first bagless vacuum cleaner by Dyson had been created.
Today, Dyson products are sold in over 65 countries, and with around 4,2 billion euros in sales per year, the British family business is one of the big players in the global market. Dyson wants to be different to everyone else and the company succeeds on the whole front. Technical innovations with Zeitgeist design go hand in hand. Since 2015, the unique LED lighting “Jake Dyson Light” by James Dyson’s son Jake has belonged to the company. Jake invented an effective cooling technology for an LED luminaire, which is normally used in satellites. The result is a lifetime of 144,000 hours. Jake Dyson, who may one day take over the business from his father James, tells us about his vision for Dyson and what makes the company so unique.
Jake, when you meet people, are you always asked about vacuum cleaners?
Sometimes taxi drivers see my surname in their app and ask me if I’m related to the vacuum cleaner firm. I don’t always tell them. But in truth, Dyson is about much more than vacuum cleaners these days. We have hair dryers, hand dryers, intelligent air purifiers, and LED lighting. We plan to launch a battery electric vehicle in 2020 and are investing heavily in energy storage, software, A.I., motors and more. It’s an exciting time.
You have dedicated yourself to the subject of lighting, please tell us about your passion.
When I started developing lighting, I asked myself three questions: why were so many LED lights producing an unpleasant blueish light? Why were we seeing bulbs and fixtures quoting a lifetime of just 30,000-50,000 hours, when LED technology has the potential to last a lifetime? And why hadn’t light fixtures changed in design for more than 30 years – why were LEDs being placed in conventional fixtures that had been designed with incandescent or fluorescent bulbs in mind? Since starting my own lighting business in 2004, I dedicated myself to finding solutions to these problems.
You developed a bulb that is supposed to glow for 180,000 hours through a special cooling system. How did you get the idea?
With adequate cooling, LEDs can last for a very long time as their coatings don’t get damaged by heat. Heat damage causes problems such as shifts in the colour of the light, reduced brightness or early failure. But many cooling systems rely on using motors or fans, which aren’t practical – or elegant – to add to light fixtures. I realised that heat pipes, which are more typically found inside microprocessors and satellites, could be used to keep LEDs cool without adding extra mechanical parts or electronics. We use copper heat pipes in our CSYS task lights and Cu-Beam suspended lights. They’re vacuum sealed and contain a tiny drop of water. The heat emitted by the LEDs causes this drop of water to evaporate into steam. The steam then moves along the heat pipe to the cooler part, further away from the LEDs, where it condenses back into water, releasing its heat, which is dissipated into the room – through the heat sink on the arm of the CSYS task light, or through the fins of the Cu-Beam suspended light. The drop of water then moves back to the warmer area of the heat pipe above the LEDs and the cycle starts again. This continuous cooling process is silent and doesn’t require any electricity.
Your company, Jake Dyson light, is now part of Dyson. And one day you may take over the Dyson business from your father, James Dyson. Was the integration of the Jake Dyson light a first step in this direction?
In 2015, I decided to bring my lighting company into the wider Dyson business so that I could be more closely involved with the family business. But the wider Dyson business was also keen to introduce lighting to the product line-up, not least to increase the range of products that Dyson is able to sell to businesses as well as individuals. The opportunity with lighting is huge. One thing about Dyson is that we’re never afraid to enter new industries as a challenger, even if they have huge incumbent players.
Will you exert more influence on the Dyson products and product range in future?
In my role at Dyson I already work on several different technology areas beyond lighting, and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait and see what they are, because we generally don’t reveal anything about what we’re working on until the time that it launches.
Dyson is a family business and will remain so after the generational change. In your opinion, what advantages does this offer the company?
The benefit of family ownership, and not answering to the stock exchange, is that we can take a very long-term view. We invest 7 million pound into research and development every week, and we take as long as we need to perfect our technology before we bring it to market. There is no pressure to rush product releases in order to keep shareholders happy.
Do you already work closely with your father? How do you two get along?
I work closely with my father at Dyson, but I also work on projects independently to him. Of course, I continue to find him enormously inspiring. I grew up witnessing him make prototype after prototype of the bagless vacuum cleaner and encountering numerous setbacks along the way. Even once the product was right, there were many more battles in bringing it to market and protecting its intellectual property. Throughout, he remained resolute. Not fearing failure and persevering against the odds are core values at Dyson to this day. I can recall the days when Dyson had 2 employees. Today there are more than 10,000. The transformation has been enormous.
Where do you see the company in 20 years?
In 20 years we will have technology in entirely new categories. We’ll continue to reinvent existing products, and we’ll almost certainly have launched some products that have never been seen before. We’re not afraid to disrupt our status quo and iterate on our existing products. To give an example, our cord-free vacuum cleaners are now so popular that the plug-in vacuum cleaners which we were originally known for may soon be obsolete.
Please describe the typical DNA of a Dyson product?
At their core, all Dyson products are concerned with solving the problems that others ignore. We take a science and research-led approach to product development, and it’s only when we have a core technology that is unlike anything else that we start to think about putting it into a product. We don’t base these decisions on market research. Some of the things we’re working on are so novel that no market research about them exists. We believe that technology must be genuinely useful and work properly to make a difference.
Dyson is not only a pioneer in the development of innovative technologies, but also a trendsetter in product design with a signal effect. What is the optimal combination of design and technology in your opinion?
Our philosophy is that form follows function. We never add unnecessary styling to products, or approach things from an aesthetics first standpoint. But that’s not to say our products aren’t beautiful. I believe that people find things beautiful if they can understand how they work. A kind of beauty that stems from fascination exists when you can see a product’s workings, or when its form gives clues to its functions. We strive for lean engineering too – no superfluous parts or materials.
Where do you find inspiration for innovations and new product ideas?
I’m very visually observant and all kinds of things catch my eye. It could be a problem – something that doesn’t work well or that I don’t like the look of – or it could be something positive. Design and invention can be inspired by an endless variety of sources. It’s very important to see and understand how things work.
Tell us about the Dyson Campus. Is this where the Dyson young talents tinker?
Our Malmesbury technology campus is tucked away in the Wiltshire countryside. But the research that takes place there is world class. We have 3,500 incredibly talented engineers and scientist who work on the site, in buildings designed by WilkinsonEyre architects that are intended to foster experimentation and unconventional thinking and provide a sanctuary for ideas. We’re more interested in how people think than in their past experience, because we hate conventional thinking.
Dyson is currently building the “Dyson Institute of Technology”. What’s this for?
For years, my father has spoken out about the shortage of highly skilled engineers in the UK, so when a UK government minister recently challenged him to open a university and solve the problem himself, he was keen. Fast-forward to September 2017, and the first cohort of undergraduate students started at the Dyson Institute of Engineering & Technology. Their programme combines a full-time job at Dyson with a top-class engineering degree awarded in partnership with WMG University of Warwick. It’s a novel approach – the students get paid a salary from the start and don’t pay any tuition fees. We’re building new facilities on our Malmesbury campus to accommodate the Institute, and are already hugely oversubscribed for entry in 2018 and beyond.
“Fail, fail again, fail better” – because trying out, failing tests and facing setbacks are often the driving force for new developments and the result is a great product, is that correct?
Learning by doing and experimenting, and not fearing failure, are traits that we encourage at Dyson. It’s by challenging convention and trying things that others may not that enables you to invent genuinely different technologies and products.
Can you give us an example?
Every Dyson product which is released will have been the result of many experiments, failures, learnings and iterations. To give an example, the team that developed the Dyson Airblade Tap hand dryer used simple but highly flexible rigs in order to try out all different combinations of product layout. There were some pretty exciting failures during this time, as high-pressure air and water were involved. But this fast-paced approach enabled them to develop a system where the tap and the hand dryer are combined in a single product over a sink – meaning all the waste water goes down the drain, not onto the floor.
How do you personally deal with failure and frustration?
Failure and frustration keep me motivated. There is so much that we could be doing, it’s exciting. One of the biggest problems we have is not coming up with good ideas, but deciding which ones to pursue further and which to keep on hold for the time being. Of course I have interests outside of work as well, and enjoy spending time with my family. My children are old enough to go to shows and museums now, so we try to keep up to date culturally.
Dyson constantly reinvents everyday products. Which technologies or technology trends/product trends do you think will prevail in the future and change our everyday lives?
Health and wellbeing will become an ever-increasing focus, particularly as we see global issues such as air pollution and ageing populations in developed nations rise. Transportation is also a sector that will see some dramatic changes.
What is your personal favourite Dyson product – apart from your luminaires?
I couldn’t pick just one! But the motor in the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer is very special. It is very powerful, but so small that it has the diameter of a coin and can fit inside the handle of the hair dryer. Having a motor this small enabled us to completely reconfigure the hair dryer, by changing where the weight sits and how the product feels in the hand. We could also make it much quieter than conventional machines. This is just the start, though. Our products will increasingly combine hardware with software and A.I., to enable them to improve their users’ lives with hardly any input required from them.
Jake Dyson studied industrial design at Central St Martins in London, and worked as a designer in the retail sector after graduating. In 2004, he set up his own company “Jake Dyson Light”, inventing, manufacturing and selling LED lighting. Jake joined the board of Dyson as a Non-Executive Director in 2013; and in 2015 his business, Jake Dyson Light, joined forces with Dyson, and Jake became a full-time Research & Development Director at Dyson, as well as Chief Lighting Engineer.
Picture credit © Dyson