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Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Manufacturer

Thu, 09/07/2006 - 5:40am
Mark Gottlieb, Manufacturing.net

A soft-spoken Briton named James Dyson wants you to know that he thinks you’re all jerks.

Well, perhaps “jerks” is going a bit far.

Truth be told, I’ve paraphrased Dyson’s sentiments rather liberally. A proper English gentleman, he would never frame his message in so antagonistic a way. But the admonition he conveys to manufacturers everywhere is both blunt and damning, and the effect of ignoring it, he believes, will redound to the peril of those who do not listen.

James Dyson has for years been warning his fellow industrialists that they are committing slow suicide by failing to “sell” careers in manufacturing to the global pool of potential new hires entering the job market annually. His concern is that too many of the best and brightest coming out of universities and graduate schools around the world perceive manufacturing as a dull, bloodless and essentially uncreative activity. Few, he believes, would opt for a position in industry if they could instead work for advertising or public-relations agencies, graphic-design firms, media outlets – anyplace where they think their creative muscles would be more fully exercised.

Yet Dyson knows that manufacturing is anything but sterile. In fact, he calls it “the ultimate creative activity.” And he cannot understand why the senior management and human resources departments of every industrial concern on the planet do not emphasize that simple fact when they pursue new talent.

Creativity is a subject with which Dyson is well acquainted. Some two decades ago he invented, designed, developed and ultimately began to manufacture the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. When his DC01 dual-cyclone model was introduced, it was a product so revolutionary and so superior to anything then available that it altered the landscape of the industry. After just five years, Dyson’s fledgling company had captured more than half of the United Kingdom market. Today, his products are sold around the globe.

And, oh yes – nearly every other maker of vacuum cleaners in the world now produces bagless machines that look and function suspiciously like his.

Dyson was trained not as an engineer, but as an industrial designer. A graduate of London's Royal College of Art, his creative bent is clearly evident in the look of the products his company develops. In fact, the sudden and apparently inexplicable emergence in the 1990s of yellow as a popular color for consumer items – from kitchen gadgets to automobiles – can be traced directly to the Dyson DC01. The world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner also sported the world’s first eye-popping color scheme for an everyday household appliance: a rich, deep lemon, complemented by silver and black. The DC01 also started the see-through trend by featuring a clear-plastic section in which all the crud sucked up from floors and carpets whirled about in plain sight.

Above all, of course, the thing worked – worked so well that people who for decades had contentedly vacuumed their floors with older bag machines were shocked to find their new Dysons exposing years’ worth of accumulated filth.

Dyson’s creation represented a radical departure from the mainstream technology and staid look of appliances to that time, but it conformed with his theories of “holistic” design. When design is integral from the earliest stages of product creation, he believes, it affects more than just appearance. Good design embraces technological innovation, engineering, quality and performance, as well as the “feel” of the product to the end user and its aesthetic appeal.

Take all of these factors into account from the start, mix and stir in the high heat of an environment in which creativity is prized, and the result will be a product that works exceptionally well, looks exceptionally good and attracts buyers with an almost supernatural aura of desirability.

“Design isn't the thing that sells you the product,” says Dyson. “It is the product.”

To design holistically is to engage in an intensely artful act requiring the contributions of individuals with expertise in a number of different disciplines. It is creativity of the highest order, and it is exactly the sort of opportunity that Dyson wishes more of his peers in manufacturing would present to prospective employees.

“Manufacturing is a very exciting, very risky act of creativity,” he says. “We have to convey that if we are going to attract bright young people to our companies.”

In a perfect world, the bright young people Dyson hires to design his ever expanding line of products would represent the vanguard of a trend in manufacturing – an emphasis on the inherently creative aspect of making things, be those things vacuum cleaners, fork lifts, machine tools or children’s toys.

That is James Dyson’s message. And he wonders if anyone out there is listening.


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