Friday, 14 May 2010

Do you like Dyson? I don't know, I've never Dysed.

In a bit of a bumper week, yesterday saw another outing with Mark O'Donnell of BBC Radio Wiltshire to a landmark of science and technology in the county. This time it was off to sunny Malmsbury to visit Dyson's R&D centre. Yep, the vacuum cleaner home of the world. (And, yes, I did get my knuckles wrapped for referring to one during the recording as a 'hoover'.)

I expected this to be the low point of our tour. What were we going to see except corporate PR and a load of engineers at CAD terminals, sending instructions off to the Far East to build Dyson's products? In practice it was very different - and much more enjoyable than I expected.

Ok, the corporate PR part was true. We had at least two Dyson employees with us at all times, using their fingerprints to get us through the extravagent security. One was a PR person (who by appearances was about 14). So the expectation was we were going to get the sales tour. However, in practice all the talking was done by two engineers. Admittedly engineers who were perhaps carefully selected - they looked like Hollywood stars playing engineers, and spoke without a single 'erm' or hesitation. But they were real engineers who knew their stuff and talked with real conviction about the science that goes into Dyson R&D. And that was quite extraordinary.

You might expect the vast echoing hall with robots repeatedly using or dropping hoovers vacuums to see how they survived wear and tear. But from there we moved to 3D printers and worked on up. The 3D printers produce prototype plastic components overnight, straight from the CAD. I'd heard about such things, but never seen them in action, or the results, which were remarkably good. Then there was the microbiology lab, where we peered through a microscope at dust mites (urgh - I'd never make a biologist). With more than a hint of Porton Down, this is the place they study the enemy to see just what they need to separate. Because in the end, something I hadn't really thought about before, most of Dyson's business is about moving air and separating particles and fibres from it.

In a sequence of chambers we visited a vast Faraday cage forming an electromagnetic test facility to check for interference (and protection of the electronics from outside zapping), a semi-anechoic chamber with weird non-parallel walls of foam wedges, where the sound of the machines is worked on (apparently you can't make them too quiet, or people think they aren't powerful enough) and a sealed controlled environment where products are repeatedly tested under identical conditions to see if a new version does better than a previous one. I was bowled away by the amount of science as well as engineering that goes into these designs.

Is Dyson the best vacuum cleaner in the world? I don't know. I was talking to someone that evening who reckoned their build quality was iffy, and much prefered an over-engineered American cleaner. But I think it's hard to argue that Dyson is not the most advanced manufacturer when it comes to down to the ingenuity and science that goes into their designs.

When we went to Porton Down they kindly sent us away with digital thermometers, in good Health Protection fashion. We were kind of hoping that Dyson would send us out with a mini-vacuum each - or at least one of their dinky bladeless fans. But nothing. Hey ho. Who wants another hoover anyway?

Image from Dyson website

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