This morning, at the Sustainable Operations Summit in New York, Alex Knox – senior designer of the consumer products company Dyson – will deliver a keynote speech about pursuing innovation in efficient design.
In 1995, founder James Dyson hired Knox to join his team — then comprised of just two engineers — to help further develop and manufacture what would become his iconic vacuum cleaner, the DC01. Knox has since worked as a design engineer on nearly every machine created by Dyson.
Ahead of his presentation, we spoke to him about good design, Dyson’s early days and the importance of R&D.
SP: We hear you’re speaking ahead of [former U.S. president] Bill Clinton. That’s better than after.
AK: Yes, that was my thought as well.
SP: Give us a 60-second summary of your talk.
AK: I’m going to be talking about our approach to sustainable design. Which isn’t overtly about sustainable design. It’s more about engineering efficiently — what good engineering is all about, really.
When we design a product, we start right at the basics. It’s all about solving the problem. We’ll often use new technology or a new approach to solve that problem. The design of the machine evolves from there. Using good engineering, you design a sustainable product because you’re focused on performance efficiency, materials efficiency and energy efficiency. Do all those things, and you’ll have a well-engineered product.
At the moment, there’s a lot of greenwash, isn’t there? A lot of marketing. It’s very confusing when you try and buy a product. You see it stuck on the end of things. By pursuing good engineering, you shouldn’t have to do that. Every product should be as sustainable as it can possibly be. Our AirBlade is an example of that — by tackling that problem by coming at it at a different angle, removing all those extra features, it meant efficient engineering.
We did some work with MIT recently and they found that the AirBlade produced 70 percent less carbon emissions than a conventional hot air dryer or paper towels.
SP: How do you teach a consumer about good design?
AK: At Dyson, the way the machine works is presented to you. You actually see it working in front of your eyes. You literally see the [vacuum cleaner] bin filling up. In the old days, word of mouth — people talking to other people about how a machine works — was a really important part.
And our hand dryer, you just have to use it once. Using it is the best way though, isn’t it?
SP: You’ve been at Dyson since the early days. Was it difficult to justify good design? Was it difficult to justify a premium price?
AK: When we started selling the vacuum cleaners…it was a challenge. The investment required to develop new products and technologies costs a huge amount of time and effort and resource. The price is justified in that sense.
When we first launched the vacuum cleaner, it was way more expensive than everything in the marketplace. But people want what works well, and they’re willing to spend the money to get that — and it’s a sort of virtuous circle from our perspective, so we can invest more money to create new technologies and so forth. James felt strongly about making products that were going to work properly and last.
SP: Before Dyson, you were at [Italian design company] King Miranda. What’s one thing you’ll take away from your time there? That seems totally different: furniture, lighting, home tools.
AK: It was a consultancy thing. At King Miranda, I felt completely constrained by the fact that it was only one little part of the process. What I like, working with James Dyson, is his belief to get involved and do everything. That way you work out what works and what doesn’t work and you make mistakes and that all feeds back into the development process. That’s a really nice way to work. And he’s kind of a visionary — he’s not satisfied doing the same thing as someone else. He’d never come to me with a competitor’s product and say, “I want one of these but a bit better and a bit cheaper.”
What attracted me to Dyson was the whole thing: the way it looked, how it functioned, the way it was manufactured. The whole process. We’re still recruiting; we have lots of engineers straight out of college and we try to expose them to exactly that. We send a number of engineers to where the products are manufactured in southeast Asia. So they can see the whole process. Not just on paper; actually feeling the pain.
SP: James loves to talk about the importance of engineering education; we’ve even spoken to him about it. How do you feel about the state of design education?
AK: We tend not to differentiate between the two things, engineering and design. They go hand-in-hand in designing a new machine. It’s not a process where you start with a sketch of something that looks really nice and someone goes out and tries to make it. We don’t do that. We recruit people some with engineering degrees, some with product design engineering degrees and some with design degrees. And in the end, you can’t figure out who did what. It starts at the beginning of the process. And the end result is a result of that process. It looks [the way it does] because of the way it works.
SP: What are your biggest challenges right now?
AK: James is not afraid of change. He thinks the right thing to do is raise the bar on a project — to squeeze more performance out of it because it will make it better, he’s not afraid of that. We certainly move the goalposts a little bit. I think we’ll get there.
You’ve got to aim high or else you’ll never get anywhere near where you want to get.
SP: Thus, the importance of research and development.
AK: We kind of really understand that critical part of the process. Those are the bits that unlock some of the opportunities to come out with these new ideas and technologies that actually solve the problems. We make a massive amount of investment there. Some manufacturers need to invest a bit more. We’ve been developing our own electrical motors for the last 16 years — it means we can really increase the speed and efficiency of the motor for the package size. From a design and engineering point of view, that completely opens up the possibilities of how great you can make that product.
SP: How do you justify R&D failure to a board of directors? At Dyson, at least James is going to bat for you.
AK: He’s a passionate believer and he can make decisions that companies would be more risk-averse about in that situation. The [Boeing] 787 Dreamliner — they have a massive research and development program for the fuselage and the wings. They got castigated and chastised about it. But from an engineering perspective, it’s an amazing feat. It wasn’t marginal gain; it was a whacking blade of improvement. It will trickle down to other 787s.
SP: …despite the delays.
AK: If it was easy, everyone would have done it. It’s not a surprise that there our delays sometimes on these projects. Especially when the goals are so aspirational. That’s the nature of developing things.
Companies need the confidence to carry on with that work. [Boeing's executives] were brave enough to do it, and one hopes that they will reap the benefits of that technology. It should be easier: they’ve made all the mistakes the first time.
Companies shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes; it’s a key part of making products. You’ve got to be in it for the long game. Like robotic vacuum cleaners — we haven’t made one yet, because we haven’t come up with one that’s good enough. We’ve been researching it for years. Get it right, and the rewards could be massive. There’s a really exciting product in there I think — you’ve just got to crack it.