on June 11th, 2008

Dear Colleagues

I am grateful to my colleague, Ian Gibson, for passing on a copy of the recent BBC Richard Dimbleby lecture, presented by the well known engineer and industrialist, James Dyson. Some of his thoughts are discussed below. As Ian dryly remarked – ‘Dyson is no sucker’. Although a superb engineer, he is also a businessman with an extraordinary manufacturing business operating throughout the world and he has clarity with regards to engineering and its place in our society.

Although his comments are focussed on the decline of manufacturing in the UK (where he remarked irritably that frivolous designs are often considered as important as designing an aeroplane), they have applicability to us wherever we are in the world today. To survive and prosper as engineers we need to urgently focus on creating new, more advanced products and to be continually innovative. Simply relying on ‘shallow styling’ and marketing is a sure-fire dead end. Service, creative industries and software products cannot replace manufacturing. His large manufacturing company almost went under with the massive increase in taxes and costs in the UK. To survive he shifted production to lower cost countries, but boosted his R & D and engineering design team in the UK. He is now prospering. He points out that whilst China has mastered low cost production they are now going hell for leather in mastering high level engineering design (which they are increasingly doing with their acquisitions of companies such as RCA televisions, Alcatel cellphones and Dornier aircraft – notable examples).

The Western world feels that engineering manufacturing is dead – and in this so called post-industrial society, service and creative industries have replaced manufacturing. This is patent nonsense. Of the world’s top ten corporations, by revenue, nine ‘make big, heavy things’ (I like this phrase), such as turbines and cars.

He feels that there are three successful models of manufacturing in the 21st Century:

High tech in a high cost country – such as Rolls Royce manufacturing. They have the engineering know-how, value, reliability and safety (eg. turbines for aircraft) so can prosper.
High tech using both the high and low cost countries – with the R &D, strategy and direction remaining in the high cost country and the manufacturing in the low cost countries – Dyson’s business.
High tech, but mainly outsourced to the low cost countries – Stylish Apple  outsources manufacturing and engineering, but markets its brand at home.  However, as Dyson points out, if a rival makes a significant technological leap, styling and branding counts for nothing. I don’t agree with Dyson on this entirely as Apple have created new technology as well and used an innovative simple design. Admittedly they do outsource their engineering and this could be problematic.

One of his remarks is note-worthy: ‘As long as we continue to innovate and produce products that have better features and work better, we can compete’. When we stop doing this, we are gone.

Dyson recommends that we:

  • Give engineers a free hand in engineering design
  • Encourage more entrants to science and engineering
  • Get financiers to pour more money into R & D invest in the future of the business (he spends 16% of revenue on R&D)
  • Avoid shallow styling at the expense of good engineering
  • Ensure that colleges focus on engineering design and less on industrial design
  • Use our brains innovatively, persistently and creatively to design and build products which simply ‘work better’


At the end of the day, to draw on that great quote from Thomas Edison: “Invention and success are one percent inspiration, 99% perspiration”. Occasionally one wins Lotto, but for consistent success we have to work hard and innovatively to get the results. Something the financial engineers on Wall Street have found to their cost over the past year.

Thanks to the BBC.

Yours in engineering learning

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