Feature Articles

Sir James Dyson on risks, failures, and making good products

By Alvin Soon - 26 Dec 2016

The vacuum that took 18 years to perfect

It’s a pattern that repeated itself in Dyson’s answers again and again: Thinking in the long game coupled with a willingness to take great risks on new ideas. Dyson is now a multi-billion dollar company, but James Dyson insists that even though the company’s finances have changed, its spirit has stayed the same — one of “not worrying about investing time and money into research and development over a very long period.”

Dyson’s lead robotics engineer Mike Aldred knows this spirit intimately. Aldred worked on the 360 Eye vacuum, Dyson’s first robot vacuum cleaner, for 18 years before it finally came to market.

The 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner was developed for 18 years before it came to market.

I ask Aldred how he told his boss that the product still wasn’t ready after so many years of work, and Aldred revealed that it was James Dyson who had declared the robot not good enough — then gave him the time to continue working on it. “The pressure in other companies,” Aldred says, “is on the timescale. At Dyson, the pressure is on the quality of the product.”

“That’s technology,” Dyson explains. “To develop really good technology takes a long time. To make a real breakthrough — it’s difficult. It takes a long time.

“So, for example, on the robot the big decision was to stop using a lot of sensors, which our early versions had, and to use a vision system. Mike, who had been working on other sensor-based navigation systems, had to throw all of that away and start again.” And you’re willing to throw away all those previous years of work because … “Because it wasn’t good enough.”

This insistence on taking the time to make products good enough is a strong position to take, and possible because Dyson is still a privately held company. James Dyson and his employees routinely tell me that the company is doggedly focused on good engineering and that philosophy seems enshrined in how the company is structured.

The new D9 building houses the New Product Innovation and Research teams. The exterior is designed like a large mirror, reflecting its beautiful surroundings while keeping its secrets from prying eyes.

Dyson has its Research Division, where new technologies are being invented. Then there’s New Product Innovation, where teams take these new technologies and see if they can be integrated into new products. If an exciting idea passes through both engineering and commercial review, it’s passed to New Product Development, where it’s finally developed for the market.

That’s how vacuum cleaners that harness a cyclone get made, how bladeless fans came to be, and how a different kind of hair dryer was invented. It’s also how Dyson made over £1.7 billion in 2015, and has grown to over 3,000 engineers and scientists around the world. The company isn’t slowing down; Dyson expanded its Malmesbury campus in 2016, adding 129 advanced research and new spaces, and it will open a new Technology Centre in Singapore come 2017.

A fully restored Electric Lightning Jet hangs suspended in the new cafeteria.

But innovation is a gamble. New ideas are risky, especially if you’ve spent 18 years working on them. They can succeed, sputter or splatter. I ask Dyson what made him bet on the Supersonic hair dryer (which took four years to make good enough), and his answer is, as I still haven’t come to expect, disarmingly frank.

“Well, I didn’t know if it was going to work. We go into production, having spent 50 million pounds, and we don’t know if we’re going to sell any. That’s the gamble. It’s scary. Which is exciting! But it’s what we do, you see. We don’t copy people. We develop the product we want to develop, the technology we want to develop, and we hope that we can sell it and it makes a return for us.”

Read next: In pictures: A rare look inside Dyson’s secretive headquarters.

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