Engineering a book on Dyson’s Robots

James Dyson’s autobiography Against the Odds It was written in 1997. Before airblades & bladeless fans & hairdryers & longlife lights & robot vacuum cleaners.

“It must have been some time in 1979 that I first heard the words. ‘But James, if there were a better kind of vacuum cleaner Hoover or Electrolux would have invented it’ … For twelve years I laboured under heavier and heavier debt. I tried and failed to interest the major manufacturing companies in my product. I fought terrible legal battles to protect my vacuum cleaner. And in 1992 I went into production, on my own, as sole owner of the machine I had conceived, designed, built and tested alone.”

The creation story of the dual cyclone, bagless vacuum cleaner translates to every other Dyson product. If you’re limited to what factories can manufacture, you’re also limited to only being able to invent what they’re able to produce. If you invent something that requires specialist manufacturing, you have to create your own manufacturing system. And have patience during the time it takes for this wild idea to become accepted as a more efficient solution to a problem. For example, in 2011 the Air Blade hand dryer was such a peculiar concept that, seen in the bathroom of a train in Duncan Jones’s sci-fi movie “Source Code” it seemed like a science fiction effect.

The book clearly describes how design emerges from the engineering. That it’s not a decorative layer added on.

“My own success has been in observing objects in daily use, which, it was always assumed, could not be improved. By lateral thinking — the ‘Edisonian approach’ — it is possible to arrive, impirically, at an advance. Anyone an become an expert in anything in six months, whether it is hydrodynamics for boats or cyclonic systems for vacuum cleaners. After the idea, there is plenty of time to learn the technology. My first cyclonic vacuum cleaner was built out of cereal packets  and masking tape (like some grotesque Blue Peter spaceship), long before I understood how it worked. After that initial ‘Eureka!’ It was a long haul to the Dual Cyclone — so called because an outer cyclone rotating at 200 m.p.h. removes large debris and most of the dust, while an inner cyclone rotating at 924 m.p.h. creates a huge gravitational force and drives the finest dust, even particles fo cigarette smoke, out of the air.”

But what fascinated me, that became the jumping off point for a chapter in my book that puts domestic robotic appliances within a wider cultural context, was when there were enough different varieties of Dyson products that practically a whole home could be fitted out with them. Illustrated by a YouTube video showing how at the Rosewood Hotel in London housekeepers vacuum with Dyson vacuum cleaners,  the public bathrooms are fitted with airblade hand dryers (perhaps even the dual tap/dryer devices), and the rooms have Dyson fans & heaters, lights and hairdryers. It reminded me of the Westinghouse World of Tomorrow from the Worlds Fairs in New York in 1939 and 1940 with the premise inverted. Then electricity was a miraculous force that was being promoted as life changing. Products would be time savers … dishwashers … washing machines … vacuum cleaners … This was a social issue. It was changing architecture as modern architects were able to design homes without rooms and amenities for the servants who would carry out these tasks. It was a Utopian concept, liberating, people would have more time for unspecified higher pursuits. Now Dyson products suggest a Utopia. A recent advert for home loans hung in the window of the National Australia Bank in Potts Point showed a young couple with a Dyson vacuum cleaner and their new home.

When James Dyson began working on the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner, that grandness had completely faded. Products weren’t miraculous any more. They might cost less than $100, less than $50. And now we’re faced with the crazy concept that it’s cheaper to throw away a printer and buy a new one for $30 or less rather than replace the ink that costs twice as much as the machine.

From what it’s possible to glean from Dyson’s research projects it seems that products emerge naturally from pure engineering research, starting with concepts, longer battery life, for instance. And from the understanding and control of air flow in vacuum cleaners, for instance, being able to be applied to different classes of products, hand dryers and heaters and humidifiers. Products emerge when the engineering has solved a problem, and the product, rigorously tested, can be efficiently and reliably manufactured not when the market demands some fresh novelty. Projects can take years, decades, maybe, to come to market. As was the case with the robot vacuum cleaner, 17 years in the works.

James Dyson famously likes to employ young people, students, who are those less likely to be constrained by the limits of current manufacturing and the broader market. But what interests me is wisdom and hindsight to assess the impact of the technologies and concepts. If the view of ‘machines for living’ is now based around longevity and saving and resuscitating products for as long as possible, who is calibrating that philosophy? I found a Dyson DC04 being thrown out on the street last year. It’s probably 20 years old. It was in poor shape, it had been badly looked after. But I took it home and pulled it apart and cleaned it up, put it back together and it works perfectly.  It looks like a prehistoric lumbering herbivore when compared with the aerodynamically sleek and smaller products of today. But I could still use it everyday if my apartment were big enough to manoeuvre it around.

For my book I want to start with Dyson’s robot vacuum cleaner and figure out an overarching philosophy underpinned by robotics. And to use Dyson’s voice activation systems as a way of studying all voice activated home systems, from a practical point of view rather than as something that we need to form a human kind of relationship with. As I’ve said, I use Siri all the time. The British male Siri perfectly understands my speech, and I think of him vaguely as Stephen Fry as Jeeves, but mostly I think of him as an active database & calculator. If Dyson is now large enough to define markets, surely we now say we “Dyson” the floor rather than “Hoover”, is there the need to present a more expansive cultural philosophy?

And if Dyson is now starting its own university to train engineers I’d like to factor in what they learn about the history and culture of engineering.

Now that my Sydney Opera House book is done I have a clearer idea about how to pursue a complex book length project. It’s similar to Dyson’s philosophy, pursuing research and reporting details around a clear framework, but not to a book proposal and not to fit a publisher’s idea of what a book needs to be.

This book needs to be engineered in form as well as content. And if I persevere perhaps I can engage with Dyson to 3D print the book form which has to be illustrated with printed gifs that show robots in motion.

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