After a childhood spent building vacuum cleaner prototypes with his dad, Jake Dyson is passionate about encouraging engineers. He launched the James Dyson Awards in the UAE on February 28
The James Dyson Awards come to the UAE
A cordless, bagless vacuum cleaner with robot-like intelligence; a hum-free humidifier that promises to kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria; and the world’s lightest hair dryer, which works twice as well at half the heat: there’s no denying the engineering mastery of Dyson products.
The British company has been in business since 1987, and founder James Dyson has often spoken about the high value he places on his engineers. The illustrious entrepreneur, widely respected for his forward-thinking approach, claimed that he would “treble the number of engineers if I could, but they don’t exist”.
To reward and inspire established and budding engineers, the company launched the James Dyson Awards, which are held in 27 countries. Jake Dyson, son of the company’s founder and inventor of the 40-year light bulb, was in Dubai last week to announce the launch of the competition in the UAE, making it the first Arab country selected. “We started the awards because we wanted to make engineering exciting again,” Jake tells me.
“It is meant to encourage young design engineers and entrepreneurs, and to get their work, their skills and their talents within their own cultures recognised. [The contest] is a platform for them to prove out their ideas, and for us as a company to value these, create exposure for them and promote technology in engineering, which I’ve seen a passion for in the UAE,” he says.
Having made a name for himself in the lighting industry with his eponymous company, Jake joined the family business in 2015 as chief lighting engineer and R&D director. He tells me that, growing up, he spent the holidays building vacuum cleaner prototypes with his dad. And there was certainly no scope for a gap year.
“A day in the life of me as a child was being surrounded by creativity, and watching my father working all night to make his product and solve the many problems that arose, without any financial support. So it was a fascinating lesson in determination, resourcefulness and hard work. Because watching him work, I couldn’t say to him: do you mind if I go off to Thailand for a year? It was just not an option.
“Becoming well known in the lighting field was important, and to enter the family company with those credentials was a benefit. I would never have just stepped off the beach and walked into the family business,” he adds.
When he decided to merge with Dyson, he brought into the fold his groundbreaking CSYS task lights and Cu-Beam suspended lights. The ergonomic design of the former means that you can focus the light to a single spot (say the book you read before bed without disturbing your partner), or illuminate an entire table or bed. The customised lens and trim blades of the latter, meanwhile, enable you to project the light evenly over an area of up to four metres. Were you to keep the LED lamps on for 12 hours a day, the bulbs would burn for between 35 and 40 years.
“The lighting industry was getting very sleepy – designer companies doing beautiful-looking objects, but without really thinking about the technology inside. And while we have shifted to LEDs, they are still being abused, in that many are still sticking them in what are essentially the same lights we’ve had for 30 years. I saw an opportunity to not only make a light last for many years, but also to rethink the way we illuminate spaces,” Jake says.
When I wonder how commercially viable a company that produces lights that last for decades is likely to be, Jake is quick to explain. “Imagine for a minute the cost and effort it takes to change a single bulb or service a light in the roof of an airport. It goes up to a million pounds a year. There are buildings where they absolutely do not want to replace the lighting. So a light that lasts for decades, that’s a very attractive proposition,” he says. Insert long-lasting Dyson lamps in every airport, museum and hospital in the world, and you can imagine the potential profit margins he’s talking about.
For a more personal home or office space, Jake is a big believer in mood lighting. “My dream is to take good lighting design out of the hands of bad lighting designers, electricians or builders, and give the power to the people living in and using a space. That way consumers can change how their spaces are lit based on their requirements, depending on the day, hour, need and mood.”
While he admits he joined his father’s company in part not to lose control of the family business, Jake also talks fondly of his time as part of the exponentially smaller team of Jake Dyson Lights. “One of my first creations was a ceiling fan, which flew around the ceiling on its own – kind of like if you hold a helicopter by its tail and go around in a circle – so it covers and cools the whole room.”
He says at that early stage in his career, mass-producing a project of that standard, with safety requirements and licensing, was “way beyond me. But it was that tinkering that taught me engineering. Sitting on my own in a tiny London workshop, with a mill and a lathe [industry-standard machines used to shape metal, wood and glass], is how I learnt and developed my understanding of metal and its components, the concepts of fatigue and bearings, and how things fit and work together.”
It’s the kind of passion the father-son duo want the James Dyson Awards’ participants to demonstrate and be rewarded for. “The winners need to be inventive, display a clever use of materials, a proper understanding of the science and technology, and create products that are meaningful, beneficial and globally relevant,” says Jake.
He cites 2016’s winner – the EcoHelmet by New York-based Isis Shiffer – as an example. The helmet is made of waterproof recycled paper and designed in a honeycomb pattern for additional strength, and can withstand blows as effectively as polystyrene. It can be folded into a bag, making it easy to carry around and will, hopefully, encourage cyclists to not ride bareheaded.The helmet is being tested for durability and mass-production in line with regulations in the United States.
“I have been in my father’s office, judging alongside him. He’s been very hands-on with the awards and whom they go to. We even crosscheck intellectual property on the ideas to make sure. We take it very seriously,” Jake says. “At its heart, the Dyson mentality is about investing in technology that’s still 15 years away. It's about building the long-term future, not just tomorrow.”
For more information about the James Dyson Awards, visit www.jamesdysonaward.org