Lack of Vision

Wandering around the BBC site today I ran across an article about James Dyson, the man who invented the cyclone vacuum cleaner, and took on the entire industry in the process. Dyson is one of those home inventors and tinkerers that Britain is famous for and one who made good. The story is about the fact that Dyson has been awarded a knighthood in the New Year Honours List.

The article quotes Dyson on a few topics, for example, he says his recipe for success is simple: make things that people want to buy. It took Dyson plenty of patience though, after making 5,127 prototypes over four and a half years he tried to get the big players in the cleaner market interested, but they told him to go away, so he started his own company, which is now worth an estimated $1 billion. He says:

“Each failure, the 5,126 failures taught me so much,” the 59-year-old explained. “Success teaches you nothing. Failures teach you everything.

“Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do.”

An important lesson for anyone who think success comes easy. It his later comments in the article I would like to focus on:

Despite selling products that [are] easily recognisable by their bright colours, Mr Dyson argues that cute designs are not enough to ensure the success of a product, and wants the UK to do more to promote engineering and technology.

“To survive against Chinese producers, we can’t just rely on shallow styling,” he said. “We need technology and design that they don’t have.

“As long as we continue to innovate and produce products that have better features and work better, we can compete.”

Earlier this year, Mr Dyson revealed plans to set up the Dyson School of Design Innovation in Bath, which will aim to encouraging young people to consider engineering careers.

“I have spent 35 years making things in a country that often has little regard for its manufacturers,” he once said.

“It has left me more convinced than ever that engineering is this country’s future.”

Essentially, I agree with exactly what he says. The Brits have always been fantastically inventive, we have an amazing record, but equally we have a long history of not getting behind our scientists and inventors. Most of them have to work on a shoestring to start with, and when they do produce results, someone with no vision but the power to say yes or no decides it’s not a good idea. You can read many of the high-profile examples of this in The Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. Another good example is the jet engine developed by Frank Whittle which the RAF and private investors never thought would work, allowing German Hans von Ohain to catch up and overtake Whittle with his similarly designed engine, getting a flying version working earlier.

The mass availability of cheap labour means we will never be able to compete with China and India (and wherever else once they become too expensive) when manufacturing mass-market goods. The western world will need to specialise on luxury items and continued advancement. I used to work in an industry which was under pressure from engineers in ‘low-cost centres,’ namely India, China, even places like Romania. They are rapidly closing the gap for general engineering but our advantage is in innovation.

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