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James Dyson On The Lazy Engineering Behind Fake Energy Efficiency

The vacuum-inventing genius talks about the future of engineering and innovation, and how it’s much harder to actually design an appliance that’s truly efficient, instead of just putting a smaller motor in it and saying it uses less power.

Ask James Dyson about clean technology, and he doesn’t mention wind turbines or solar panels. He talks about the Mini. To the inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, and other modern takes on old appliances, the Mini was green before people talked about being green. "The Mini came out in 1959. It uses very few materials, and it is very light, and economic. It is good engineering." Dyson doesn’t think we need a design revolution if we want to cut energy use and conserve scarce materials. We just need to go back to making durable products, and get people interested in engineering again. The rest should take care of itself.

"I think you are brought up to believe that lean engineering is what you should be doing as an engineer. I don’t think there’s anything new about that, and I’m 65. I don’t think it changes because it’s good to be green. Engineers just think like that, or they ought to."

Not surprisingly, Dyson points to his own products as examples of good engineering. From the many versions of his bag-less cleaners, to his washing machines, hand driers, and fans, he says the aim is always to use less materials, and to cut energy consumption.

"Lazy engineering is using thick walls of plastic or steel, because that way it should never break. The intelligent way is to see how light and thin you can make it, and then arduously test it to make sure it is right. It saves money, because it lasts a long time, you are saving CO2 and energy in the production of the machine, and you are making it lighter as well, which most people appreciate."

Many of Dyson’s machines now use digital motors the U.K. company first developed in 2009. At up to 120,000 revolutions-per-minute, the motors run at up to four times the speed of conventional copper-and-brushes designs, and are twice as efficient, Dyson claims.

Dyson says he hates it when manufacturers market their products as environmentally friendly without making genuine engineering improvements. "People install a small motor and say 'This is green, it’s good for the environment.' But if they haven’t made the vacuum cleaner more efficient, then it’s a bit of a con. I can fit a 10 amp motor instead of a 12 amp one, and claim my product is green because it uses 2 amps less. But that’s just a cheap marketing trick. It’s not answering the real problem of using 10 amps to achieve 12 amp performance."

Many manufacturers don’t even bother with efficiency. "It’s much easier to say my car’s got a 12-liter engine, than saying my car’s got a 1-liter engine, but it performs as well as a 12-liter engine. It’s too tempting for manufacturers to sell it on its bigness. It’s a more difficult proposition to say you’ve made something energy efficient."

Dyson says he would like manufacturers to introduce much longer product guarantees to reflect "the life for which they are intended." And he wants governments to limit the power appliances can use, in the same way it regulates fuel economy for automobiles.

"You could legislate the amps that go into vacuum cleaners. That sort of legislation marked out in advance will force manufacturers to develop more efficient products. You can’t expect consumers to do it. And you can’t expect manufacturers to do it on their own. They have too much self-interest."

Dyson says the U.S. needs to train many more engineers if it’s going to compete with the emerging Asian economies. He points to statistics that colleges here produce nine times more lawyers than engineers, and that many overseas graduates end up going home after their studies. He wants more kids learning engineering at school-age, which is why his foundation is sponsoring a half-million-dollar program near its U.S. HQ, in Chicago.

"The United States is incredibly inventive and always has been. But the problem is that it’s become more of a numbers game. You need a lot more engineers and scientists now than you ever had in the past, because the nature of world trade has changed," he says.

"Other nations have lower manufacturing costs, and generally lower expectations of profit. They can make me-too products much more cheaply than we can. So, we’ve got to produce products with better design and technology. The pressure on research and development is doubling and quadrupling."