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EXCLUSIVE Dyson's Chris Osborn on engineering hand-dryers

03 June 2013

Chris Osborn, a Dyson engineering manager who was involved in the design and manufacture of the new Dyson products, recently spoke to David Strydom

Dyson released new technology at a recent conference in Kensington. It summed up its latest innovations as entailing 40 engineers, 16 bars of pressure, seven years of development, six Dyson-designed Helmholtz silencers, one precision laser, one new Dyson digital motor and three new machines. The HACCP International approved the Dyson airblade tap as safe for the food and beverage industry - the original Dyson airblade was the first hand dryer to get endorsement by HACCP International for use in all food handling areas, and the new airblade tap has now joined it.

I recently spoke to Chris Osborn, a Dyson engineering manager who was involved in the design and manufacture of the new Dyson products. Excerpts:

What in your opinion gives Dyson an edge with respect to engineering hand-dryers?
First, the fact James Dyson and the board are willing to take risks. We've invested £40M in these projects; not many companies are willing to spend that amount of money developing something new. That frees us up to experiment, try new things, and if that doesn't work, it's not the end of the world. Second, we like employing graduates straight out of university as they have a different way of thinking, untainted by previous business experience. Last year we brought in a couple of hundred engineers, most of who were graduates. They enter the company full of energy and ideas, and we harness those ideas quickly.

What are the main challenges in trying to improve air-blade technology?
Size is challenging but important. Making the motor smaller doesn't necessarily make the equipment smaller. It's all about finding the space and working with configurations in order to accommodate filters, sensors etc. Pressure is important too - we're talking about such high air pressure inside these things that you can't just screw in a couple of (Inaudible) as they'll just blow apart. A lot of them are held together with hundreds of screws, high-strength materials that can cope with high pressures, high flow rates and impacts.

Do you have dialogue with end-users such as FMs?
Yes. Early on we're very secretive so we don't let anything out of our shell because we're wary of losing our intellectual property. But we do talk to them cryptically in some cases, either through a few select engineers or through internal bodies. As we get further down the road, in the last six months or so, we speak to people under the terms of non-disclosure agreements so we start to get more realistic and genuine feedback.

What are the big requirements with respect to FMs?
Mostly, it's space restrictions. Each has his or her own requirement, of course, but most FMs will look at the hand-dryer in terms of its size and how much space they have available to accommodate it.

How important is energy efficiency with respect to air-blade technology?
We don't heat the air, and we mechanically scrape it. That means each dry is very quick; the motor is on for only 10 seconds at a time. Over the life of the product, the motor is running for less time and therefore using less energy. With an evaporative dryer more power is being used because the heater and the motor are running; it takes 45 seconds sometimes. When you add it up, the difference in energy use is enormous.

What would your advice be to graduates who are put off joining the engineering sector?
Two separate sets of advice: to the graduates, stay versatile and communicative. Some people think of engineering as 'here's a metal block, take half a millimeter off there'. But these days engineering is about ideas, creativity and concepts. And here's some advice for companies: don't treat your engineers as just people who are there to trim and shave things. They are your 'idea generators'. We call our engineers design engineers for exactly that reason. They don't just engineer, they also design.

How do you protect your patents from infringements?
We're very secretive in the early stages but at certain points in the product development we have to release patents and press releases. Even now, after launch, our international legal team will be constantly on the lookout for people who have infringed our patents. We've spent so much money on development but those who infringe just want it for free. The legal team is fiercely keen on pursuing such breaches.

Are there health and safety issues when designing or using this technology?
In the early stages we used prototypes held together with bits of glue and string so we have to be careful with those but by the time we get to the end we're using free production oil and manufacturing prototypes and it's all very safe. With respect to safety, there are several approval standards we have to go through - electrically, mechanically and as far as water goes.

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