Engineering success through failure

It took Mr James Dyson 5,127 prototypes and 17 years of development before he launched the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner in Japan. The founder of technology firm Dyson is also behind the fan with no blades.
It took Mr James Dyson 5,127 prototypes and 17 years of development before he launched the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner in Japan. The founder of technology firm Dyson is also behind the fan with no blades. ST FILE PHOTO

Experience is invaluable, but it is better to have an uninhibited mind ready for challenges, says inventor

At last month's opening of the OECD-Singapore Conference on Higher Education Futures, Singapore Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung said the country's tertiary institutions have to respond to allow individuals to "intersperse" study and work throughout their lives and not confine learning to the classroom.

This mindset shift is exciting for Dyson. Convention says experience is invaluable. But I argue that it is better to have an uninhibited mind ready for challenges. That is why I bring

fresh engineering graduates to work in Dyson in Singapore. We challenge them, giving them every chance to succeed and the space to make mistakes.

As a graduate, I was thrown in at the deep end (literally) on a project to design a boat - a flat-hulled, high-speed landing craft called the sea truck. My mentor, inventor Jeremy Fry, who entrusted me with the challenge, taught me the value of trying and failing. He insisted that I go outdoors, get my feet wet and build models to prove my ideas.

In 1972, I came to South-east Asia (Malaysia, to be exact) to sell the finished vessel. It was well received because of its speed and ability to land directly onto beaches.

What I did not know was that 30 years later, I would be back. Today, we employ more than 1,800 people in the region, developing some of our most exciting new technology.

We give young people opportunities early and without overbearing guidance. We also encourage them to follow in the footsteps of others.

In 2012, we brought a Skyhawk jet to Dyson as part of an exhibition on design and engineering heroes. It sits in front of the building, surprising but also inspiring.

It owes a debt of gratitude to the perseverance of one of my personal heroes: Sir Frank Whittle. He created the first turbojet engine during the 1930s, despite those around him insisting his idea would not take off. He persevered and, even 70 years later, his invention is the driving force of modern aviation.

There are lessons to be learnt from many of engineering's greats.

Japan's Mr Soichiro Honda began with a question: "What's new about this design?" He went on to invent the Honda A-type motorcycle. Its patented, manually operated belt-transmission mechanism was revolutionary for its time.

Instead of being embarrassed by failure, he embraced it: "Success represents the 1 per cent of your work which results from the 99 per cent that is called failure."

It took me 5,127 prototypes and 17 years of development - from the day I discovered cyclone technology for use on a vacuum cleaner - before I launched the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner in Japan.

Dyson engineers are not afraid of failing. We test our designs and they fail. But we know that it is just part of getting to the final product.

In our 3,000 sq m research and design hub in Alexandra, almost half the space is used to run tests. They are not part of end-stage quality control. Rather, they are part of the design and development of a machine.

That is the message my foundation communicates when it works with tertiary institutions. The James Dyson Foundation encourages young engineers to be fearless in their approach to design and engineering. They apply the same methods my engineers use at Dyson - sketch, build, test, rebuild.

Often, ideas end up on the scrap heap. Occasionally, though, there is a spark of genius.

We run an annual international design award to support the young inventors who will shape Singapore's innovation future.

This year, a product called Safe.Lync created by a student from the National University of Singapore was the national winner.

An ingenious idea, it looks to solve problems for patients with kidney failure in a more comfortable and safe way.

The James Dyson Award is open for entries from March to August every year. Visit www.jamesdysonaward.org for more information.

Sir Frank, Mr Honda and other engineering heroes will inspire. But it will still be a long journey to success. To paraphrase another great inventor, Thomas Edison, "it's 1 per cent inspiration and the rest, perspiration".


• James Dyson is the founder of British technology company Dyson who is best known for inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline 'Engineering success through failure'. Print Edition | Subscribe