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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 12:09 GMT
Engineering the difference
James Dyson
Excerpts from his Richard Dimbleby Lecture

James Dyson
Mr Dyson believes style should step aside for once

Manufacturers and engineers make things to improve our lives and create wealth. But they're less important to us than those who occupy their time writing about it or worrying about it.

It was this disregard for the engineer's creation - the manufactured object - that led me to stand down as chairman of the Design Museum a month or so ago.

There are two sides to the design coin. There is serious design - making sure that the manufactured object performs its task in the best possible way. And there is styling - the essentially superficial task of making sure something looks attractive.


I was told that styling had usurped engineering in the latter half of the 20th century. And that it went deeper than just a change of fashion.

We have no choice but to shake off our obsession with styling
James Dyson

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My values of technology and manufacturing were old-fashioned, they said. And if our economy was to succeed, I had to realise something: "The future prosperity of developed nations, rested in the hands of stylists."

"Engineering belonged in the past."

Yet here I am. Someone whose recipe for success has been to make things that people want to buy. Not because they look better - although of course I hope they do - but because they work better.

I have spent 35 years making things in a country that often has little regard for its manufacturers. It has left me more convinced than ever that engineering is this country's future.


We have no choice but to shake off our obsession with styling.

We are as turned on by the act of buying as by the goods we purchase
James Dyson

I have 35 years experience of making things. And it's taught me a lot. However, the biggest lesson came four years ago when I located our assembly in Malaysia.

Much as I was resisting the change, there were very clear reasons why we had to change direction.

We needed to invest heavily in research and development. But our manufacturing costs were going up and our market place prices were going down. And we were trying to expand our factory in the face of local planning opposition.

Meanwhile all our competitors were manufacturing in China, while we were watching our profits go into freefall.

I could see our demise.

Logistical nightmare

But the biggest problem was that we had no local suppliers.

Our British three-pin plugs were made in Malaysia. Our polycarbonate plastics came from Korea. Our electronics came from Taiwan. It was a logistical nightmare.

A 1970s classic - the Ballbarrow

We needed our suppliers on our doorstep so that we could drive them to improve their quality and keep pace with technology.

In the 1970s, when I was developing the Ballbarrow, I needed some bent metal tubing. I got in my car and went to Birmingham. In the space of a few streets, I found workshops and suppliers who between them could provide the tubing, cut it, bend it and coat it.

You might ask what happened to these British suppliers and subcontractors? Quite simply: we drove them out of existence. Employment and property laws made it difficult for them to take on extra staff and premises.

By the mid-1980s, most had gone to the wall.

Tough decisions

Moving Dyson production abroad was a tough decision. However, it meant we could cut our costs, and expand our production. We could invest in R&D and employ more staff.

Our only chance for survival is better engineering
James Dyson

The upshot is that we now have more people at Malmesbury than ever. All of them are in higher-skilled, better-paid jobs. Most are scientists and engineers. They contribute more to the local economy. And as a company we pay much more in taxes than we did four or five years ago.

In Malaysia, the biggest benefit has been that all our suppliers are within 10 miles of the factory.

Our engineers and scientists are in Wiltshire.

For a company that depends on innovation, that's what counts. The know-how is here.

Thousands of other companies are doing what we were forced to do. From Doc Marten shoes and Hornby train sets, to Sony's high-tech electronics, they were all failing to make things competitively in their home markets and moved their production to China.

This shift has led to a huge period of wealth creation. But it won't last.


China syndrome

Because countries such as China have already mastered low-cost production.

Now they are buying Western know-how - the joint venture between Shanghai Automotive and MG Rover, is primarily to secure rights to Rover's technology. Chinese companies are also copying Western styling.

Chinese car workers
China is churning out top-class scientists and engineers

Their universities are churning out vast numbers of engineers and scientists. And they're good.

They're taking on Western companies by snapping up Western brands. Today, a Chinese company bought IBM Personal Computers lock, stock and barrel. Manufacturing, management and the brand.

Chinese corporations have bought Thomson and RCA televisions, Dirt Devil and Vax vacuum cleaners, Alcatel cellphones `and Dornier aircraft.

To survive against them, we can't just rely on shallow styling. We need technology and design that they don't have.

Our only chance for survival is better engineering.

But to get engineering and manufacturing right in the future, we need to recognise our strengths and failings in the past.

Manufacturing companies and entrepreneurs need to have their ideas here. Do the engineering here. Develop the technology here. Oversee the production from here. Plan the marketing and organise the selling here.

Then the revenues return to this country.

Product therapy

We have created a strange society.

I am convinced that our love of retailing is part of the reason for our lack of interest in engineering and manufacturing. We say that we're heading into town for a bit of "retail therapy." What we're really doing is going for some product therapy.

Inside Selfridges
The modern answer - retail therapy

But the phrase 'retail therapy' reveals our true motives. We are as turned on by the act of buying as by the goods we purchase. We have become divorced from the producer.

Just try it yourself. When you show off some thing you've bought, I guarantee the first question will be 'Where did you get it?', not 'Who made it?'. The inference is, that if you bought it somewhere expensive and exclusive, then it must be good.

The perception is that the shop makes the goods, not the producer.

Yet making money from retailing or the City is admired. While making it from manufacturing is not.

What do we need to do to ensure we get manufacturing right in the future?

The first step is to address the shortcomings of our education system. And to use it to change attitudes.

Actually, it is one area of our culture that has vastly improved its approach to engineering. We have a generation of children who have studied Design and Technology at school.

Back to school

I'm also heartened by the changes taking place on our university design courses.

I think students should be marked by how many mistakes they make. It's what they learn from those mistakes that's important
James Dyson

They have recognised that styling, as a separate entity was an invention of the latter half of the 20th century. And that it was essentially about putting a tired product in new clothes.

Most art and design colleges are now moving from teaching industrial design to teaching engineering design. It's not just a name. They are actually teaching engineering.

Five years ago, students got away with turning out conceptual designs. Few of them worked. They were entirely styling and marketing exercises.

Nowadays, students have to make breadboard prototypes that work. Then they think about the packaging and styling.


The arts and science divide, has done such damage to this country's prosperity. Look at the countries where engineering is held in high esteem - France and Germany. Most pupils continue with some science instruction right through school.

teacher in classroom
The future starts here

In subjects such as Design and Technology, I think students should be marked by how many mistakes they make. It's what they learn from those mistakes that's important.

Educating our children to appreciate engineering is only the first step. The next is to change their attitudes.

At the moment, the arts are more important to us than science or engineering. Just look at the front page of this week's Sunday Times. Two articles.

On one side "an extra 125m for Theatreland." On the other, "funds for sciences at universities to be cut."

Quick buck

Since 1997, we have closed 18 physics departments and 28 chemistry departments. As a result, we now produce only 3,000 Physics graduates a year. Compare that to an astonishing 15,000 psychologists!

And it's going to get worse. Yet more science departments are due to close.

Manufacturers quite like inflation. It's interest rates and the exchange rate that bother them
James Dyson

Again, long-term prosperity is being sacrificed at the altar of short-term gain.

A quick buck.

We need to encourage manufacturing investors. And to make them think long term.

Banks and venture capitalists are not going to invest long term unless we give them an incentive.

Brains, not brawn

To do that we need two things. Tax breaks on long-term manufacturing investment. And lower interest rates. Permanently.

Manufacturers quite like inflation. It's interest rates and the exchange rate that bother them. Inflation means our borrowings get smaller, faster.

High interest rates, on the other hand, hamper investment. And high exchange rates create the double whammy of less revenue from exports and more competition from cheaper imports.

We should set low targets for interest and exchange rates. That will encourage investment in manufacturing and R&D.

We need to encourage more people to become engineers and scientists.

If we recognise our failings, we can do better in the future. Manufacturing and engineering are about brains, not brawn or looks.

And the future belongs to those who use their brains best.

Rise up engineers!

These were brief extracts from James Dyson's Richard Dimbleby Lecture given on 8 December 2004.

Do you agree with James Dyson? Is the UK neglecting its engineers? Or is the UK riding the third wave to the service economy?

A selection of your comments:

James Dyson's views are highly laudable and I too dream of his utopian vision. Its never going to happen though. How can you resist the unleashed labour market forces from China and its regional neighbours ? The world cycle of power and prosperity is shifting decisively eastwards, the West having opened the trade floodgates in the quest for the globalisation dividend. Maybe too much was relinquished for too little too soon but it's too late. As for James's apparent suggestion that manufacturers should be given loans at interest rates at or below inflation, nobody will lend them the money when they can get better rates from consumers and the Chinese themselves.
Malcolm Lowry, London, UK

James Dyson's lecture was superb. He should have attacked the politicians more than he did for allowing UK industry to be annihilated. He should have addressed the over-riding problems of:
1. how we manage in the Uk after the OIL has started to run out. Build more nuclear power stations now?
2.have jobs available for graduate engineers so that they can apply their recently acquired knowledge and pay-off their huge University debt burden.
Overall I thought Mr. Dyson was fantastic. he has started to say what has needed to be said for a very long time. I hope Mr. Dyson can keep up the good work before the 'bastards' in the establishment get at him for showing up their limitations.
michael blatchford C.Eng. MIEE, Kilmersdon, Bath UK

I was born and educated in the UK. Lived the American dream, grew a technology company, took it public onto the NASDAQ exchange, have run a publicly traded company and was awarded entrepreneur of the year. Dyson is 100% correct, manufacturing creates real wealth, as do farming and the oil industry, service industries just move wealth around, to the rich.
David W Smith, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

Mr Dyson's speech is utter tripe based on near total ignorance of basic economics. Ignoring inflation as he suggests is what got our economy into extreme difficulties in the 1970s and led inevitably an appalling recession in manufacturing industry in the 1980s. And an "imports bad, exports good" mantra was discredited in the eighteenth century let alone today - exports are the necessary evil which pay for the imports we enjoy not the other way around (why on earth is sending a load of goods away on a boat a good thing in itself? What it does is pay for good things). The only area where Mr Dyson is correct is that we should give scientists and engineers the great respect they deserve for their work - but we should not do that be denigrating the achievements of those in service industries who do an excellent job for customer and generate a great deal of wealth.
James, Bristol

I entirely agree. It concerns me that the economy continues to move away from the activities that actually generate wealth - manufacturing, agriculture and mining... Will a time not come when there is not enough wealth generated to service the service sector...?
Jeremy Hart, Bristol, UK

Fantastic stuff, and I'd like to see more articles like this. Not all of us have given in to consumerism. There's hope yet :)
Jamie Hall, Derby, UK

James Dyson says "I have spent 35 years making things in a country that often has little regard for its manufacturers". What a cheek! He moved all his engineering jobs abroad to make himself more money! How does that support British engineering? He obviously has no regard for British engineers and British design otherwise he would have backed Britsh engineers and designers by saying I'll stay in the UK. Funny how the Dyson products havent reduced in price!
simon williams, Cambridge, England

I run an engineering club for young people, (Age 11+) with the aim of developing an interest engineering that may then evolve into a career in engineering for some of those youngsters. I believe James Dyson is absolutely right in his belief that the future prosperity of this country depends on our producing good engineers, scientists and innovators. Engineers and engineering have been under valued within our society for far too long. To most people engineer is a posh word for car mechanic. We need more people like James Dyson demonstrating what engineering is really about, inspiring young people to follow in his footsteps.
Richard Pearce, Callington, Cornwall

What's the difference between what James's company does in the UK, and what a software development company does? Not much, probably. Both are using engineering principles to design and build something. In James's case, the end result just happens to require manufacturing, which takes place abroad anyway. Also, there was no mention of the Internet, which must certainly figure in any discussion of maintaining anyone's wealth, power and influence over the future. Finally, James would have done better to cite Apple as an exception to his rule--stylish AND innovative. Their iPod owes much of its success to software, btw.
Rob Dickens, Walsall, UK

I agree that high interest rates are a serious problem for manufacturers whatever their size. So why do we have to have a single minimum lending rate? Why not two? One for manufacturing and one for the rest. This way if the consumer economy is overheating, the wealth generation apparatus of the country isn't threatened.
Crispin, Bristol, UK

As a teacher of Design and Technology, I wholeheartedly support James Dyson's views. For far too long the whole issue of design and manufacturing has been the poor relation to the fast buck philosophy.
Tim Groves, Reading Berkshire

I just hope that the government is getting the message
richard hamill, Addlestone GB

I agree with James Dyson - overall. But, style has always been a part of manufacturing design. Even a brief study of Victorian and Edwardian railway equipment illustrates this clearly. Passenger locomotives and coaches in particular were designed and finished to look as good as possible while doing their jobs. Also, corporate identity was paramount, your style had to be very different from the railway "next door."
Nigel., London. UK.

Absolutely brilliant analysis come critique on how we in the UK view engineering design! Dyson's exposition on the way forward is equally good, if only the British could truly embrace the concept of aspiration and innovative thinking we would still be a major player in the manufacture of high quality goods and products.
Mike Burns, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear

Huzzah! Except it's not going to happen. I used to be an engineer of sorts, but now I'm in the services sector. People need to pay mortgages.
Russell, Scotland

What a breath of fresh air. As an engineer I have spent many years trying to put across to people the same message but with difficulty. Mr Dyson has however managed to achieve this eloquently and succinctly. I hope Messrs Blair, Brown and Ms Hewitt and the rest take note. The text should form the basis of the next budget.
Phil Cheetham, Copthorne, West Sussex

How true! What's more we need not have let this skills drain happen. It is also ironic that we need more psychologists to cope with the engineers among us suffering depression not being able to find work.
Hazel, UK

One has to ask why bother? To become a professional Engineer you are asked prior to starting university to have exceptionally high levels of academic attainment in the difficult subjects of Maths and Physics, you are then asked to undertake a four year masters (five in Scotland) degree in order that you can ultimately call yourself a chartered engineer. After two further years of graduate training and at least two further years of professional responsibility you may apply to the Engineering Council via one of the 'lost in time' engineering institutions to become a CEng- and if accepted what can you expect - basically Social status - poor, Upward mobility within a company - limited and remuneration - generally poor. So as stated at the start: Why bother. Become an accountant and save yourself a lot of grief, after all having a good rewarding job does not pay the mortgage!!
Alastair Graham, Cumbernauld, Scotland

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