True inventors never stop inventing. That’s why, whether at home or in the office, Sir James Dyson, the self-made billionaire and creator of the bagless vacuum cleaner, is always making something.
“I design a lot of my own furniture,” Dyson tells BRW during a recent visit to Australia from Britain.
The 66-year-old engineer/industrial designer came up with a vacuum machine that is so popular that today almost one in five households in Australia, and a third in Britain (including his own) has one.
And it’s not just the vacuum cleaner that was first made at Dyson’s Gloucestershire home. Almost every item, from table glass to door handles, is designed by himself or a member of his family. His son, Jake Dyson, is another creative whiz who invented the CSYS LED light, which apparently lasts 37 years by using clever technology that prevents overheating.
That’s why Jack is responsible for creating all the family home’s lights (although Dyson assures me he himself does the design while Jack handles the technical creation).
Meanwhile his wife, Deirdre Hindmarsh, whom Dyson met and fell in love with at art school, personalises the home with her art.
Dyson says he particularly enjoys “digging trenches” with his JCB excavator around the family estate.
“It’s pretty much do-it-yourself around our house,” he says. “For years I couldn’t afford to buy furniture so it’s very nice to be able to design and make things myself.”
Dyson grew up in England’s Norfolk countryside and was sent to boarding school soon after his father died from cancer. He studied furniture and interior design at the Royal College of Art and in 1970, while still at college, he and co-designer Jeremy Fry invented the sea truck – a high-speed watercraft that can travel on water and land.
His next product was the reinvention of the wheelbarrow, which he called the “Ballbarrow”. With a large ball in place of the front wheel, it was made to be steadier and easier to move around, making it popular with gardeners.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Dyson started looking at vacuum cleaners. He used cyclonic separation to create a vacuum that would maintain suction as it picked up dirt.
In 1983, after thousands of prototypes, 5127 to be exact, his vacuum cleaner design was licensed by Japanese company Apex. Using the income, he set up the Dyson company headquarters a decade later in Wiltshire, England.
Dyson’s vacuum cleaners hit Australia in 1996, and ever since he’s been releasing new products here including fans, heaters, taps and the Airblade hand dryer which is ubiquitous in the bathrooms of more upmarket bars and restaurants.
His latest invention is the Airblade tap, a combined water tap/hand dryer for commercial or private use.
“Although we’ve just announced it, people are already ordering it. We have had more inquiries for the tap than we had for the original hand dryer.”
Globally, Australia’s market provides the fourth-largest profit for Dyson. The US, where it launched in 2003, remains its biggest profit market.
In 2005 Dyson overtook Hoover as America’s No. 1 selling vacuum cleaner brand. Its second-biggest market is Japan, followed by the UK.
In 2011 the company earned revenue of more than £1 billion and a profit of £306 million.
Dyson’s own net worth is estimated by Forbes at $US4.2 billion (as of March last year). He holds more than 3000 patents for more than 500 inventions, making him one of the most prolific filers of patents in the UK.
He says it’s crucial that courts uphold patents on products and has spent much of the past year fighting against Chinese rip-offs of his bladeless fan called the Air Multiplier.
He frequently calls on governments to support greater innovation and told BRW he was disappointed with the Gillard government’s planned funding cuts for big companies undertaking research and development.
Today Dyson’s inventiveness is aided by more than 1500 scientists and engineers, most of whom are based in his research centre and factory.
The amount the company invests in research and development is one of the highest in the UK. In 2011, Dyson spent £1.3 million every week on R&D, an investment he says will grow by 20 per cent each year until 2016.
The tap/dryer is unlikely to be the last Dyson invention to hit Australia. “All I have done in my 45 years as an engineer is make mistakes and work out how to solve problems,” he says. “I will go on doing that.”
Dyson spends less time inventing at the office these days. When he’s not out promoting new products or lobbying governments for change, he enjoys sails around the Mediterranean with his wife, three children and six grandchildren. But he says he still thrives on being in the lab - even if he’s no longer the brightest mind in the room - and watching his team “test things”.