The future according to James Dyson: optimism, tech farming and a robot butler

The future according to James Dyson: optimism, tech farming and a robot butler

The future according to James Dyson

Dyson has entered robotics: the British company presented robotic hands designed for "fine" tasks, such as the manipulation of very delicate objects. Strawberries, for example. It was Jake Dyson, son of founder sir James and Chief Engineer, who showed the prototypes on video in Philadelphia, during the main international academic conference on robotics and automation.

It looks like a product light years away from who produces vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, LED lamps and air purifiers but, as the founder sir James told us during an exclusive interview, in reality there is an underlying logic that is very stringent: "We are developing small robots for our activities agricultural: we entered the agritech sector a few years ago and we invest to improve and make more efficient the way in which the fields are cultivated ". Dyson Farm is a company of the group and has bought a lot of land, often neglected (the British newspapers summed it up by saying “Dyson has more land than the queen”) to put it to good use. But in an innovative way, using technologies that farmers are usually unable to develop.

“For example, - says sir James - we use thermocomposting to use biological waste to produce electricity and heat; we in turn use the latter to dry the grain and to heat our greenhouses, which are lit by LED lamps powered by our current. At first we harvested strawberries for six months, now we harvest them all year round and there is no need to import them from North Africa. The problem is that there are no people doing this harvesting work, so we invest in robotics. "

The Dyson robotic arm

Image provided by Dyson The investment is very large: it is part of Dyson's £ 2.75 billion (€ 3.25 billion) five-year plan for new technologies and facilities. This includes the recruitments of engineers, programmers and scientists in recent months: one thousand out of a total of two thousand people in 2022 alone. The company is also building Britain's largest robotics center at Hullavington Airfield, alongside another of its research centers: the one on solid-state batteries. The batteries of the future. “We have just finished them - says Dyson, and now we are in the testing and verification phase. We hope to go into production in a few months ".

Farewell to the electric car The batteries, which together with the electric motors are two key components of the puzzle of innovative and integrated technologies developed by the company, had to be the tool for the creation of James Dyson's electric car. A vehicle worth more than 120,000 pounds the size of a Range Rover which, however, was frozen indefinitely shortly before the lockdown. The reason? The downward competition (both for prices and for quality) that kills the market by the major car manufacturers especially in Europe. After the dieselgate, that is, when American journalists discovered that the Porsche Volkswagen group had rigged the tests for the detection of pollutants of diesel engines, the manufacturers according to Dyson have committed to building electric cars to meet the demands of environmentalists and regulations but without wanting to create real commercial products. They made them at a loss, says Dyson, to get the "green" credits (which they also buy from other American manufacturers like Tesla, for example) while continuing their production of traditional cars.

Student housing at the Dyson institute

Photo: Peter Landers (Dyson) Not only does Dyson explain this reasoning orally, in its all-glass corner office inside its Malmesbury office, in the heart of rural England two hours away from London. But he also writes it very clearly in his autobiography just released in Italian, Invention-My story. The second one who writes (in the first she was 50, now she has turned 75) and in a certain sense the richest and most interesting, because in addition to her personal story she also tells the challenges and the context of a world in which the ingenuity of a young architecture student at the Royal College in the early 1960s and then an industrial designer and engineer managed to become the resourcefulness of a successful entrepreneur. The Dyson group has very diverse interests, as also shown by the eclectic Malmesbury campus with a vertical take-off Harrier jet on display in front of the entrance and another in the mess hall (an old BAC Lightning, the first British supersonic fighter. 1960s) but also a Mini Morris "cut in two" to show the interior of another industrial design object that Dyson loved, together with the Citro├źn 2CV and the "Shark" DS.

The companies created from Dyson are located in the United Kingdom, Singapore and Malaysia and range from research and production of household appliances to the agricultural sector through Dyson University, the Dyson Foundation, awards, scholarships, research activities on batteries, electric motors , aerodynamics, up to robotics. However, everything revolves around two concepts: the curiosity of those who have not yet experience and the meaning of the term entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur and business The latter is linked to the meaning of the English words. "For me the true meaning of the word" entrepreneur ", entrepreneur in English - explains Sir James from behind his double mask, letting you see only the white mop and two eyes of an intense blue color - is originally French: not the industrialist who accumulates money but the person who is committed to building something. An architect and builder. I like this definition compared to that of trying to make money: that's not the idea ". If anything, we have to say, the consequence.

A hangar of the Dyson robotics center in Hullavington

Dyson corporate image For Dyson, who is the second richest person in the United Kingdom, the goal is find solutions to problems, have ideas and constantly improve them, bringing them to maturity. All based on personal verifications, scientific experiments repeated over time, in a constant and industrious "doing" that takes place in dozens of laboratories equipped not only to build new things but also to build the tools necessary to build new things. The true dream of any little girl or boy who takes part in a science fair.

In the Dyson company, products are built by engineers, not technicians: that's how he did it, personally working on dozens of his own products starting from the first, now mythological vacuum cleaner with cyclonic technology built in a coach house thanks to 5126 prototypes not satisfactory enough. It is a work of continuous approximation that is done with the mind and with the hands. “Today I no longer build - he says - but I still design and, in any case, I have renovated the house where we live with my own hands”, he says. "And I keep designing a lot of things that I then let others do: tables, chairs, furniture, pens, even bridges".

Inventions Inventions, that is the ability to innovate, are actually the engine of life of sir James: it takes curiosity more than experience, and then stubbornness and endurance of marathon runners (a sport that Sir James has practiced for a long time). And then other boundary conditions. Dyson, as a good engineer if not on paper at least as a mentality, declines this idea step by step: his company is "a family business" and as such "is not listed on the stock exchange". No shareholder "to discuss", no consultant as a "foreign body", which makes the company "lazier". Instead, investments are made for the long term rather than for the quarterly dividend, and there is the possibility of "always opening new fronts" without problems. “We produce almost everything we need to make our products - he says - and we are increasingly integrated and self-sufficient. Investing in the long term allows us to be free and is valid not only for companies, as we see with the crises caused by the transfer of production abroad but also by the pandemic and the war ".

This need for independence, being autonomous and masters of their own destiny, makes Dyson unique but also makes it intolerant above all to politics and bureaucracy: "Why - he asks - to sell the electricity we generate and which would be enough for 22 thousand homes, we have to go through an electricity company whose the only function is to print the bills, since you are not directly involved in the production and processing network? ”. Dyson's electricity production through agricultural plants today is equal to that consumed by all its appliances sold to date; which, Dyson tells us, makes its products in fact sustainable.

Sir James Dyson

Adrian Sherratt / Dyson Ltd Then the ingenuity and ingenuity: Dyson has always placed itself in front to a new problem with an open mind, not closed by previous experience and dogmas. In a naive way but applying himself as much as he could to find a new solution. From the flat-bottomed motorboat to the wheelbarrow with a sphere instead of the front wheel to the first vacuum cleaner, for Dyson innovating means thinking outside the box, but also making a lot of effort by dismantling and reassembling all aspects of the problem like a puzzle that somewhere admits a solution. "This is why I want young people who study and then work for me: future engineers who do not yet have a wealth of experience that limits them, who are naive but enthusiastic, who know how to exploit an opportunity when it is offered".

Pragmatism Dyson does not define himself as an engineer, if anything, a designer who studied architecture, and an entrepreneur, indeed a French “entrepreneur”. But after meeting him it is clear that he is above all a pragmatic person: he analyzes a problem rationally and, once the solution has been found, applies it rigorously. “The problems of the future - says Sir James - are the environment, sustainability, energy, resources, climate change. These are all things that need to be solved by scientists and engineers, not politicians. And above all, by young scientists and young engineers. They are the ones who want and can do it because they are used to doing it: they are used to inventing new things ".

Sir James considers himself an optimistic person:" I have a positive outlook on the future. Because of science and because of young people, who are altruistic ". That's what, says Dyson, in the end is the secret: being selfless. And make good use of technology and design to make the environments where you live and work on a human scale.

However, one question remains: why invest in agriculture, which is a sector different from the traditional Dyson one? A difficult sector, which requires heavy capital and where returns are limited? Sir James disagrees, he believes that new things can be invented and innovated here too without using chemical fertilizers and with a positive environmental balance. That there may be a revolution in agriculture as well as in manufacturing and industry, thanks to new technologies. "But first of all - he says - I invest in agriculture because I grew up in the countryside, running among the farmers, and I still live there. This is my world ”.

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