Could British inventor SIR JAMES DYSON’s electric vehicle become the next Tesla? He’s made a US$2.7 billion bet on it…
England’s domestic auto industry is as moribund as the British Empire. Yes, you can still buy stylish Jaguars and hand-built Rolls-Royces, but technically speaking, none of these legendary auto badges belong to a Brit. For example: Jag and Land Rover, two of the U.K.’s automotive crown jewels, are owned by India’s Tata Group conglomerate.
Sir James Dyson wants to restore England’s automotive heritage. And more. The inventor of the Dyson Dual Cyclone, the bagless vacuum cleaner that brought him fame and fortune, has long been a one-man reindustrialisation movement in the U.K. Which is also why he backed Brexit, the campaign to leave the European Union. “Britain needs to change, and we should have done so a long time ago,” he says. “We’ve ignored manufacturing, we’ve ignored engineering, and we’ve ignored technology.” Known for its appliances, his eponymous company recently announced that it will spend US$2.7 billion to produce an English-designed electric vehicle to compete with Tesla, Toyota, GM, BMW, and anyone else.
Going from an outfit that started with a vacuum cleaner, albeit an exquisitely designed one, to one that produces EVs seems like a stretch. But Dyson became a billionaire by defying critics who said the consumers wouldn’t buy his pricey appliances. Perhaps it would help if you think of a Dyson EV as simply a very large appliance. “Dyson is now of a scale, and the technologies sufficiently advanced, that we can bring together the core technologies and areas of expertise we have developed into a single product,” he tells MAXIM. “Two and a half years ago, I started developing the car, and have so far built up a team of over 400 engineers.”
Those engineers are in Wiltshire, about 100 miles east of London, where Dyson set up shop 25 years ago, having already made an innovative wheelbarrow. He would ultimately go on to build the vacuum cleaner of his dreams. “I toiled away for many years, with a small team in the coach house — the British equivalent of a garage — at my house near Bath. Being tucked away in the English countryside is quite useful,” he explains. “It provides a rather beautiful backdrop, means we are close to some excellent engineering universities, and also means we are able to stay quite secretive about what we’re doing. That is very important.”
Dyson now operates in about 75 countries and has nearly 3,500 engineers in-house. In 2016, the company earned about US$850 million in operating profits on sales of about US$3.4 billion, an increase of 45 percent over the prior year, in part because Chinese consumers are now latching on to Dyson. “But the ideas still originate in Wiltshire,” he says.
Failure is not an option at Dyson; it is a requirement. The DC01, as the Dual Cyclone is called in-house, was the culmination of 5,127 prototypes that he and a small team built as he gradually transformed the lowly vacuum cleaner into a work of appliance art. A believer in Thomas Edison’s iterative process, Dyson built a culture that fails fearlessly but fruitfully.
It’s a concept that has only gained more relevance, especially in Silicon Valley. “Failure can be an important and necessary step towards achieving engineering success,” he explains. “More often than not, your first idea isn’t the right idea; it may even be entirely wrong and fail spectacularly. You have got to be unafraid to test it and, if necessary, eject it, scrape it out of the way, and try something else.” The company says there are 200 live R&D technology projects in the works. Who knows how many will actually succeed?
James Dyson seems to have been destined for the life of disappointment and failures that nearly every great entrepreneur endures. He grew up in rural, post–World War II Norfolk, where his father taught classics at a private school. As a boy, he was pointed toward the academic path. But his father’s death from cancer when James was nine knocked him off that track — and onto another. Drawing became his inner sanctum for dealing with loss, while running up Norfolk’s sand dunes became an outer expression of his need to break away from any regimented life. He became an artist and a track star — perfectly useless in postwar Britain.
He found his life’s work, not to mention his wife, at London’s Royal College of Art, where he enrolled in 1966, a country boy with talent but little idea of what he’d do with it. At RCA he studied furniture and then moved on to interior design. His life would change when he found a mentor in Jeremy Fry, a combination industrialist and dreamer who spotted a fellow traveller in Dyson. Fry assigned his student intern an unusual task: design and then market a low-draft utility boat that came to be known as the Sea Truck. Dyson pulled it off.
A few years later, he left Fry’s company emboldened with the notion that he could design and sell imaginative products. His first success was a re-imagination of the wheelbarrow, which he called the Ballbarrow. In soggy England, the wheel of a traditional wheelbarrow often sinks into the soft soil, while a lack of balance makes it clumsy to use. Dyson solved the problem by replacing the wheel with a large plastic ball that provided perfect balance and wouldn’t rut your garden. At the same time, he improved the capacity by raising and squaring off the sides.
Then, the mother of invention would intervene to change everything. At the Ballbarrow factory, Dyson had a constant issue cleaning the filter of a powder-coating machine used in plastics manufacturing. He observed that saw mills solved a similar problem with sawdust through the use of a cyclone tower that employs centrifugal force to filter out the dust particles and fling them to the sides of an inverted cone. After falling down the sides, they could be easily collected in a bin at the bottom. Dyson couldn’t afford to buy one of these contraptions, so he built one.
His appliance epiphany came when he realised that the same technology could be applied to the humble vacuum cleaner — that he could replace all those vacuum bags that, by design, made vacuums lose suction. It was October 1978. A mere 15 years later, Dyson Ltd., owned and operated by James Dyson, would finally be in business. In the interim, he would be turned down by Black+Decker and screwed by would-be American and Japanese partners, his design would be mirrored by Amway, and his product declined by retailers who didn’t want to take a risk on unproven devices. Finally, having secured orders and financing, the manufacturer he contracted to build the machine dropped him.
Getting the DC01 to market was an act of extreme entrepreneurial perseverance for this artist turned product designer. As he writes in his autobiography, Against the Odds, even one of his own company directors rejected his bagless vacuum, telling him: “But James… your idea can’t be any good. If there were a better kind of vacuum cleaner, Hoover or Electrolux would have invented it.”
Dyson had to suck up failure and disappointment again and again — he was thrown out of his first company by the same dopey directors — in the face of a nearly unending series of legal, business, and manufacturing setbacks that put him close to bankruptcy several times. Nearly 15 years elapsed before he could build his own machine in his own factory. The Dual Cyclone was Edison as realised by Kafka.
But when U.K. consumers saw how utterly superior the Dual Cyclone was to their traditional Hoovers and Electroluxes, they quickly turned the man into brand. The DC01 became a best-seller, and Dyson a symbol of British excellence. “Millions of people use contraptions daily that are hideously inefficient, waste their time, and are causing them long-term damage,” he has said.
“We realised that we could — and should — sort this situation out.” And so he did, adding more and varied vacuums — sticks, cordless handhelds and robotics — as well as hair and hand dryers to his portfolio.
An EV, in his view, is a step up in size and complexity that’s well within Dyson’s capabilities. Appliances have motors and batteries; so do EVs. And his company is really good at those technologies. “Over the past almost 20 years, we have been developing new high-speed electric motors and we now make digital motors that are the fastest production electric motors in the world,” he says. “We’ve also been developing batteries, and a few years ago, we added a brilliant team of scientists at an Ann Arbor–based company called Sakti3, which has very interesting solid-state battery technology.”
He’s even inventing the inventors. With the U.K. facing a shortage of 1.8 million engineers by 2025, Dyson took matters into his own hands. “We opened the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology on our campus in Malmesbury,” he says. “The first cohort of undergraduate engineers have joined Dyson to work toward their engineering degree, while also gaining real-world engineering experience working on live projects.” They are both full-time students and full-time employees.
As Dyson tells it, the seeds of EVs were actually planted about 30 years ago, and are tied to exhaust filters. “In the late 1980s, I got hold of a U.S. Bureau of Mines report which linked the exhaust fumes from diesel engines to premature death in lab mice and rats. On reading this, I sent a small team to investigate whether we could make a cyclonic filter that could be fitted on a vehicle’s exhaust system to trap nasty particulates. We did significant research, developed prototypes, and met with car and truck manufacturers, but they didn’t want the extra cost or the bother of disposing of the collected soot!” Instead, we were doomed to generations of pollutants until EVs came along. ■
BY BILL SAPORITO
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