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Get Physical, Not Digital: Dyson Advocates Engineering Innovation and IP

Posted By Paul Tate, October 16, 2012 at 10:05 AM, in Category: The Innovation Enterprise

Launching his $8 million incubator for innovative, design-based start-ups at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) last month, British engineer and inventor Sir James Dyson offered some strong words about the world’s current romance with the digital economy.

“The current fixation with digital is misplaced,” Dyson argued. “Long term, it is unlikely to generate jobs, growth, and exports. Instead, we need to encourage more young engineers to commercialize their technologies.

“Hardware is profitable,” he added. “The hardware trade around the world is growing at a much faster rate than social media and software or any of the sort of things being done in Silicon Valley right now. Don’t be fooled. Apple’s success as a technology company is built on hardware.

“The world needs the next generation of engineers to solve the problems of energy supply, food shortages, and infrastructure building,” he continued. “We need to do more to inspire them.”

That’s the kind of motivational stuff Dyson is famous for, and it’s one reason why he won our ML100 Award for Manufacturing Advocacy in 2012, plus our top award for Visionary Leadership. It’s also a philosophy he puts into practice in his own backyard.

As I arrived at Dyson’s headquarters and global development center in Malmesbury, Wiltshire recently, I found one of Dyson’s largest design icons sitting quietly in the car park just outside the main reception—a full-size Harrier VTOL Jump Jet.

The hi-tech building, which nestles between stone cottages and the rolling countryside of England’s picturesque Cotswold Hills, is full of references to such design examples—early bicycles, a mechanical digger, and many more.

Entering the light and airy atrium, staff and visitors alike are greeted with a flurry of inspirational words, each etched large onto the high glass walls—Perseverance, Perfectionist, Invention, Passion, Wrong-Thinking, Underdog.

Dyson still likes to think of himself as an underdog, despite having built a $1.6 billion global business from his bag-less vacuum cleaners, Blade hand dryers, and his innovative fans and heaters.

The new RCA incubator in London is Dyson’s latest venture to help inspire the next generation of innovative engineers to create revolutionary products such as these. As part of the scheme, as many as 40 RCA postgraduates will enjoy subsidized rent, financial help with patents, access to an equity finance fund, and mentors to help them turn their innovative ideas into start-up businesses.

The James Dyson Foundation has already provided hundreds of schools across the U.K. with special educational packs so students can get hands-on experience in design engineering. A similar ”after-school” program was launched in the U.S. for 20 schools in the Chicago area last year, and additional school workshops have been run in London, New York, Sydney, Singapore, Berlin, and Paris. The foundation also funds numerous graduate and post-graduate places at U.K. universities and runs a global design innovation award across 18 countries.

The next stop for Dyson’s company is China—initially as a direct sales operation starting in November. The problem with a good idea, of course, is that lots of people will want to copy it, and infringement of intellectual copyright has been one of the company’s biggest problems. China was among the main culprits, the company says.

“There are lots of copies out there,” confirms one of Dyson’s executives as we sit in the buzzing staff canteen for lunch. “But we’re getting very aggressive about it and working with customs teams to stop fake products on entry in a number of countries. The trouble is that it’s very difficult to track the counterfeiters down—either their addresses are fake, too, or they’ve already moved on. We’re going into China because we want them to have the real thing".

Last December, Dyson revealed that in one counterfeit case in China he even "put a private detective in their factory and took photos of them making the fans. Then we won the case and they were fined $7,500, but they didn't pay the fine and they just carried on." It’s a frustrating reality for any inventor.

So while Dyson is actively trying to inspire innovation among young design engineers around the world, he is also working to ensure that those bright ideas remain the property of their inventors. He used the recent opening of the RCA incubator to press home the point in a call for the simplification of patent laws and the resolution of IP disputes.

He pointed out to the assembled young hopefuls in London that it can cost $5 million to fight an IP case in the U.K., and tens of millions in the U.S. “It gets to the point where [a small business] can’t afford to carry on,” Dyson said, adding that only 18% of U.K. legal disputes are actually won by rights holders.

“The system does not support design and patent holders. You don’t bring a case because of the expense and the risk that if you lose, you pay the other side’s costs. The 82% [that lose their case] have gone to all the trouble and expense of developing the technology and then some company comes along and rides on their coat tails. It’s grossly unfair.”

Perhaps another three words need to be etched into the tall glass walls of the Dyson atrium to help educate the next generation of innovators: “IP Is Everything.”

* ML100 AWARD: If you know of an outstanding individual in the manufacturing industry who deserves recognition for their advocacy or exceptional performance, you can nominate them for a 2013 Manufacturing Leadership 100 Award.

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor at Manufacturing Executive.

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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