Putsching UK products

James Dyson’s new vacuum cleaner is one of that rare breed, a product researched and manufactured in the UK. Its successful reception raises interesting questions about the problems faced by product designers in Britain, believes Gaynor Williams

SBHD: James Dyson’s new vacuum cleaner is one of that rare breed, a product researched and manufactured in the UK. Its successful reception raises interesting questions about the problems faced by product designers in Britain, believes Gaynor Williams

James Dyson has done it again. “It” being to challenge the multinationals with a product that a) looks miles better than anything else on the market and b) re-writes the book on functionality.

With the new cylinder cleaner, Dyson and his team have managed to design a product that has an anthropomorphic, K9 style of charm. Take the way it sits safely on the stairs when you’re cleaning (most cleaners teeter precariously). The V-shaped undercarriage fits neatly over the stair in just one of the quirky but practical touches that have become the Dyson trademark. The squat little machine has a cute, almost dog-like air, and at the press launch people were “aahing” over it much as they would a new puppy.

But is Dyson one of a dying breed? A designer and inventor in the great eighteenth century tradition, it has taken him 17 years, a court case and an intense sense of mission to get this far – because being a small manufacturer in the UK is not easy. Britain’s service sector, post-Eighties, is still heralded as its industry of the future.

There’s nothing wrong with cultivating one’s strengths, of course, but with exports up (largely due to a monumental Government cock-up with the ERM), the debate on the UK’s economic future has receded. Manufacturing is last year’s argument.

Unfortunately, what Thatcher-ite recidivists ignore is the fact that most world trade is still in manufactured goods. The recent Select Committee on Trade and Industry reported that it would take more than a 2.5 per cent rise in service exports for the UK to make up for every one per cent fall in manufacturing exports.

As if having a small domestic market and a highly competitive European one wasn’t enough, there are huge financial pressures on companies which attempt to innovate and design new products. The first is short-termism from institutional shareholders. This is why Dyson has chosen to maintain total boardroom control of Dyson Appliances: he has been the victim of a boardroom putsch once before, with a company founded on the back of his inventions (well, why not throw the baby out with the bathwater?).

The second is debt. According to Will Hutton’s new book, The State We’re In, British companies maintain the lowest level of debt of any industrialised country except Ireland: this is because it’s so dangerously expensive to borrow here. This formula rapidly translates itself into low investment and R&D. In the UK, 60 per cent of a typical bank’s business lending is for less than a year, in Germany 50 per cent of loans are for longer than four years. Even venture capitalists tend to favour low-risk investment projects.

When companies do manage to raise the capital to invest in their future, the stock market undervalues profits which will take more than five years to materialise by an estimated 40 per cent.

To make things worse, the idea of running a “national business” like Dyson’s is now widely thought to be outdated. It is argued that companies should rely on their intellectual assets to “add value”, and site volume production wherever costs are cheapest – usually abroad. Yet this, like most ideologically driven arguments, is over-simplistic.

Dyson is successful: he has a factory in Chippenham and is about to expand into another. Where appropriate, he sources parts abroad – but that doesn’t mean everything must be made in Taiwan. To a manufacturer who cares about closeness to the product (to help improve it ) and being in total control of quality, a domestic production line can be just as cost-effective.

At the moment, every time the economic picture gets brighter, the UK market greedily sucks in buckets of imports. So whenever people have a bit of extra spending money, the balance of payments deficit grows. The UK government simply has to tackle this problem – and one way is to stimulate the better use of design within the UK. By coupling new technology with exciting design, James Dyson now has 60 per cent of the high end of the UK’s upright vacuum cleaner market.

The Treasury has already admitted that something should be done about City short-termism. But there must be other measures which would help the aspiring Dysons – or Wedgwoods, for that matter – out there. A cheaper system of patents? 100 per cent tax write-off’s on new product development costs and tooling?

Maybe our designers should join forces with manufacturers – and campaign for the freedom to innovate.

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