Dyson bids to fill robot vacuum
JAMES Dyson has robots on his mind. Robots that will clean the house
intelligently while you are out, deciding what needs the most attention,
avoiding that wine glass on the floor.
Two prototype 'artificial intelligence' vacuum cleaners sit in his offices at
Malmesbury, watching and (no doubt) thinking. 'Robots will be a large part of
the future, so developing navigation technology and artificial intelligence is
important for us,' he said. He knows that others are racing to compete.
This hi-tech complex in the peaceful Wiltshire countryside is where Dyson has
realised his dream. He has 1,700 staff there and more than 2,000 around the
world, making the Dyson vacuum cleaners that he spent 20 years devising.
This is not just an oddball inventor. James Dyson is a hero. If there were 10
of him, British industry would be transformed. If you doubt it, read Against
the Odds - his own account of his epic struggle to design and build his
world-beating cleaner. Four million machines have been sold.
Brought up in Norfolk in a 'Swallows and Amazons childhood' of sand dunes and
dinghy sailing, he scraped through his O Levels. But the death of his father,
a classics master, when he was nine gave him a deep determination to succeed.
Four years of studying design at the Royal College of Art led him, at 23, to
join engineer Rotork in Bath, working with the inventor Jeremy Fry.
At 27 he designed the Ballbarrow, replacing the wheelbarrow's wheel with a
versatile ball. This was a success, but one which turned sour. In a board row,
Dyson was ousted, having naively surrendered the patent rights. 'Not a mistake
I was ever to make again,' he said.
In 1978, he moved to a house in the Cotswolds. While vacuuming, he noticed the
cleaner soon lost its suction. Typically, he cut it open and began
experimenting. He found that the machine lost power once its bag clogged with
dust. Wondering how it might work without a bag, he hit on the notion of a
'cyclone' for suction, and built a home-made cleaner out of cardboard and
That was the easy bit. Five years and 5,127 prototypes later, his idea had
been turned down by a series of top companies. Cleaning companies who made
£100m a year selling bags were not interested. Weary, despondent and deep in
debt, Dyson decided to make the machines himself. The rest is history. Japan
was his first conquest. Design prizes and royalties began to trickle in. In
1993 he set up his first factory. By 1995 the Dyson Dual Cyclone was the UK's
It was payoff time. Annual sales soared from £2.4m to £9m, then £35m, £72m,
£97m and £149m. Last year they hit £223m and Dyson had half the UK market.
Pre-tax profits were £30m in 1998, £27m in 1999. Dyson collected a string of
honourary doctorates. Rich lists valued him at £500m.
Dyson, who keeps fit by running, took it all in his stride. He says he owns
the whole company 'by default'. 'I tried to get investors but failed.' Dyson
puts back £30m a year into research. Planning problems quashed his hopes of
expanding at Malmesbury and adding 1,000 jobs. Facing a four-year delay, he
said: 'We have given up the idea.
'We are producing some machines in Malaysia, and working 24 hours here. One
day we will have to expand elsewhere.'
His board includes former BA boss Bob Ayling and ex-Asda chief Allan Leighton.
Will the group stay private? 'It suits us this way at the moment. As to the
future, I don't know.' He is now 54, but says: 'I haven't thought about
retirement. Designing new products is the fun, not the business itself. I am a
washing machine and vacuum enthusiast. That's what I love and enjoy.'
New products are his babies, and he is a proud father. Last on the market was
the contrarotator washing machine. The robots come next. Not just any old
robots. 'Random and radio-controlled robots are simple,' he said. 'What's not
simple is a robot that behaves intelligently, like a human being. That's what
we are trying to do.' He needs to keep moving. Electrolux brought a robotic
cleaner to market this month, and a German firm has one coming.
What else have Dyson's 300 researchers got up their sleeves? 'There are other
applications for robotics,' Dyson said. 'It might be used for clearing
landmines, for example. Once you have that kind of mapping, there are other
Casting his attention to 50 years into the future, he said: 'I think quite a
lot of the things that annoy us today will not be around. The chore of reading
instruction manuals, the difficulty of understanding technology, will be
things of the past. Take video programming. It's ridiculous to put in so much
data just to record a TV programme. Then there is the charade of burglar
alarms. Life will become simpler.
'Our homes will change. Dividing them into little rooms does not suit how we
live today. The Victorians got it wrong. I think we will revert to the
medieval hall - everything in one big space. It's happening already with
loft-style apartments. Our lives are so busy now, the home must be like
Having battled so tenaciously to build his empire, Dyson is still fighting. He
has just won a lengthy 'copycat' court case against Hoover. 'I don't think I
have more fights than anyone else,' he said. 'But part of the problem with
intellectual property is that people do pinch it. I call it theft. Songwriters
have automatic copyright. They don't copy Paul McCartney. In my field, you pay
through the nose for patents.'
He has even quarrelled with the Consumers' Association. In calmer mode, he
said: 'I would be mad not to feel under threat. I don't mind that, it provides
the adrenaline. We've got to keep developing.'
Why can't more UK manufacturers follow his example? 'There is a cultural
problem. Manufacturing requires long-term investment. It took 13 years to
develop the cleaner, six for the washing machine. Stock markets and bankers
think short term, so does the Government in taxation. All this creates a
Outside work, Dyson plays tennis and drives a JCB around his garden. His wife
Deirdre is a painter with a rug shop in Chelsea, near daughter Emily's bed
linen shop. Son Jacob is a designer, younger son Sam a rock musician.
His favourite invention? 'Charles Goodyear's vulcanised rubber. Almost every
product nowadays has it, even the Space Shuttle. He invented it all and died a
Fortunately, Dyson is different.
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"You'll learn to like robots.
They'll be nicer than human beings."
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