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Interview: James Dyson

(Sir James Dyson (left) shows Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran the Dyson 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner.TNP PHOTO: PHYLLICIA WANG)

 

While many homeowners may be farmiliar with the iconic looks of the Dyson bladeless fans and space shuttle-like vacuum cleaners, not many know of the story behind the man who created it all.

"I was brought up to believe that engineering was beneath me - something only boring people in white coats did, and that the only people who landed in factories were those who failed their exams," said Sir James Dyson, founder and chief engineer of Dyson.

Boring is not the term one uses for the British technology company behind bladeless fans and quiet hair dryers.

Dyson is expanding its research and development efforts with the launch of its Singapore Technology Centre at Singapore Science Park yesterday.

Mr Dyson, 69, famously took five years and 5,127 adjustments to create the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner.

He applied the same technology used in cyclonic separators, which are used in industrial sawmills to remove dust from the air, on a vacuum cleaner.

The cyclone technology is now used in millions of vacuum cleaners.

 

(The iconic look of the Dyson fans)

 

Frustration, Mr Dyson said, is the mother of invention.

"You come up with concepts, build a prototype, and then test your idea," he told The New Paper via e-mail.

"And you must be prepared to fail. Not once, not twice, but hundreds and thousands of times."

But industrial design was not Mr Dyson's favoured subject in school.

He studied art in the Byam Shaw School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art in London.

"You don't just draw the outlines but learn to represent the essence, the function of the thing through lines on the page," he said.

"This was part of what drew me to design and ultimately, engineering."

At the Royal College of Art, Mr Dyson ventured into industrial design, and this sparked his lifelong passion for functional design.

"People tend to think that art and engineering are polar opposites - they aren't really," he said.

 

(Dyson recently launched a hairdryer - its first foray into haircare.)

PROBLEM-SOLVING

"Engineering is all about problem-solving, and having a creative eye to look at problems from different perspectives can be very helpful."

Mr Dyson set up his first research facility and factory in 1993 in Malmesbury, England, where it still stands today, having undergone a £250 million (S$445 million) expansion last year.

After creating seemingly impossible products,Mr Dyson is not done yet.

He said: "I can't help but be fascinated by impossible ideas. More often than not, what seems impossible can be made possible with crazy or outrageous ideas.

"I call it 'wrong thinking'. There aren't really any stupid ideas; they are just ideas that haven't been tested yet."

The company is investing another £330 million (S$587 million) in its Singapore-based research and development (R&D).

This will create 200 jobs, mostly for research scientists and engineers, over the next five years.

The new site in Kent Ridge will focus on the integration of hardware and software, and was set up for R&D across newer areas like artificial intelligence and robotics.

The company's founder and chief engineer, Sir James Dyson, said "Singapore in particular stands out because of the great access it offers to world-class engineering talent.

"There's a vibrant community of tech companies and start-ups, and we look forward to being a part of it."

 

(Sir James Dyson with the Dyson vacuum cleaner)

From 10 employees in Singapore in 2007, Dyson now has about 1,100 here, and more than a third of them are engineers.

The company employs 3,500 engineers and scientists globally and spends £7 million a week on research, design and development. The average age of its engineers is 26, and the average age of the rapidly expanding software engineering team is 24.

Mr Dyson said: "We find that young people tend to be more open to experiment and held back less by the notion of what's right and what's wrong."

He added: "Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said engineering matters for Singapore's future... I believe that engineering matters for everyone's future."

He added: "The world is gripped by a technology race, only engineers can solve the most significant problems."

 

If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out other interesting interviews here: 

 

Article by Ang Hwee Min, originally appeared in The New Paper.

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