By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News, Sunderland
Mark Hemingway works on fine-tuning the infra-red hand-dryer
The somewhat un-sexy world of hand-dryers was given a fillip recently with the promotion by British inventor James Dyson of his new airblade machine.
However, in Sunderland enterprising engineers are working on a different idea to the traditional dryer - one which does not rely on hot air to dry your hands.
The three-man team at Design Right Solutions (DRS), based in Sunderland's North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC), is using a small infra-red bar to create heat.
As no hot air is used, it means the dryer is ideal for use in hospitals as it will not waft germs about in the atmosphere.
The gadget is just the latest hi-tech project the team has worked on, following rear-view vision helmets, electronic golf trolleys, hydrogen powered signage, a cystic fibrosis exercise machine, a telephone amplifier and a taxi-driver protection cage.
Concept into reality
The firm is an example of how Sunderland, at the heart of Wearside, has had to move away from heavy engineering industries employing thousands - such as shipbuilding - to smaller, more skilled operations.
"A client comes to us with a brief, we address their criteria and what the potential problems might be," says Mark Hemingway, product designer at DRS, as he works on the hand dryer.
"When we are happy with the design brief we turn the concept into hand sketches of what the product might look like," he adds, at the same working with computerised design software and tinkering with fine engineering parts.
"The health industry is obviously concerned about hygiene, and traditional hand-dryers disturb a lot of air, and disturb micro-bacteria, which you do not want in a hospital."
DRS, as a centre for commercial technology, design, product development and prototyping, offers a glimpse of the future of engineering on Wearside.
Outside its BIC-based offices lies the largely-deserted River Wear, which in its heyday buzzed to the hum and clang of shipbuilding and associated engineering.
"There is much less heavy engineering on Wearside even compared with 16 years ago," says DRS's electronics designer Peter Warriner.
The once-bustling River Wear is looking towards a new future
"A lot of engineering had been connecting with the coal, shipbuilding and steelmaking industries."
He said engineering firms which remained on Wearside were now more highly-skilled, and focusing on niche markets.
"There is a residue of work connected to heavy industry, but it has moved more to the small and medium business level, we are looking now at higher-skilled, higher-profile products," says Mr Warriner.
"The outside image is of North East industry now being call centres and not much else. But there is a skilled engineering industry here, which is good for us, as it means our services are in demand.
"There are people here in the region with fresh ideas to innovate new products that can then be taken to market."
When a new product - such as the hand-dryer - has been initially designed, manufacturing costs then have to be considered.
Issues such as what materials the product is to be made from - for example plastic or pressed metal - are examined.
"We have got a good knowledge of metal and injection moulding, and can make plastic prototypes ourselves on the premises to see how it is all going to come together," says Mr Hemingway.
Peter Warriner prepares some new moulds for the prototype machine
The team also has to consider what is known as "downstream application" costs, such as tool casting.
Further design work is also done using 3D Computer Aided Design, rather than the old-style 2D drawings, to make sure all the components will fit together properly.
Once everyone is happy and the final pricing of the work is drawn up then the process of dealing with manufacturers begins.
"We use the expertise of manufacturers at this stage, many of whom are based in the Far East these days," says Mr Warriner.
"They may be able to tell us what is a more appropriate substance to use for what we are trying to achieve."
'Product to market'
Mr Hemingway says a lot of the final cost of products is in assembly, manufacturing and manpower, therefore there is a desire throughout the design process to reduce costs where they can.
"We are trying to create well-priced items that work, are good to use, and create a 'must-have' desire.
"A lot of time and money is spent to make sure something works first time.
"To get a product to market is difficult - timing is important, as are price and look and there has to be a demand of course - or at least the chance you can create a demand."
Meanwhile the small firm is hoping its latest assignment will be a success.
As he works on the tiny components which make up their newest creation, Mr Hemingway says: "After its launch in the UK we hope the hand-dryer will go international and be released in different markets around the world."