• 05.29.12

Dyson’s Design Chief: Green Comes Naturally From Great Engineering

Alex Knox explains how the objective of making something work better leads to engineering innovations, as well as to advances in sustainable design.

Dyson’s Design Chief: Green Comes Naturally From Great Engineering

Green. It’s a catchall phrase that’s used and abused, making it nearly impossible for people to distinguish the inventive from the tokenistic. Because most people agree it’s a good thing, it’s molded to fit agendas and sell products. The fact is, it’s easier for companies to talk green than to innovate.


Now I’m not an environmentalist. But I am an engineer and know a little about designing machines. Engineers are very singular. They don’t necessarily start out to make something “green” but rather to create something that works better. Often, to achieve that goal, they have to do more with less. Rather than green engineering, it’s about efficient engineering.

It’s not a new concept. Engineering has always been about efficiency. Take a hero of mine: Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel built 25 railway lines, over a hundred bridges, including five suspension bridges, eight pier and dock systems, three ships, and a prefabricated army field hospital. He was a genius and just 53 when he died. On one of his ships, the SS Great Britain, he perfected the screw propeller, making the ship faster than its paddled predecessor and the first iron-hulled vessel (and the largest) to cross the Atlantic. All this was engineered on paper. Even with all of our computer programs and modeling software, today’s propellers are only 5% more efficient.

Then there’s the original Mini. Launched in 1959 during the Suez oil crisis, it was an alternative to gas guzzlers. The designer Alec Issigonis rotated the engine, making the car smaller, lighter, and more economical. It was green before green existed. The United States felt a similar squeeze in 2008–and saw a very quick shift to more fuel-efficient cars. And as gasoline prices rise, it’s likely that electric-, hybrid-, or fuel-cell-powered cars will become necessity rather than novelty. But getting the technology right won’t be easy. When it comes to engineering better, longer-lasting products, patience can be in short supply.

It took Boeing over eight years to bring its 787 Dreamliner to market. For the fuselage and wings, its engineers used advanced composite technologies, rather than the standard aluminum. Such materials had never been applied at this scale. The result was fewer parts and a lighter body, allowing the plane to fly farther, burning 20% less fuel–more with less. Yet, rather than being applauded for its engineering excellence, Boeing was chastised for delays resulting from a lengthy research-and-development process–the scapegoat for being first out of the gate.

There are often delays to great engineering projects. That’s because it’s hard to invent something that’s all-round better. And energy efficiency is the hardest nut to crack. It’s fraught with political debate and uncertainty, both environmental and economical. Efficiency–whether that’s material efficiency, energy efficiency, or performance efficiency–is essential to good engineering and genuine advances in sustainable design. You can’t sacrifice one for another. Energy efficiency must be balanced with performance; no one will buy an appliance that does half a job.

For example, to comply with demanding new American efficiency standards, some washing machine manufacturers reduced the quantity of hot water used per wash. In principle, it made perfect sense: Less hot water means less energy used. The trouble was that it came at the expense of clean clothes.


So is it even possible to create big performance from a small input? We think so. But it’s not easy. Our engineers and scientists have spent 15 years developing our digital motor technology. It uses electronic pulses to drive the motor, rather than conventional carbon brushes, and spins incredibly fast–more than 80,000 times a minute, or four times faster than a racecar engine. This motor helps reduce energy use in our Airblade hand dryer, allowing the machine to create 70% less carbon emissions than paper towels and hot-air hand dryers. Less energy means less cost. But it has to work better and faster, too.

That’s where the difficulty comes in. This kind of investment is risky and takes time. We do it to make a better machine, something that works properly–no more wiping your damp hands on your trousers–and because we think it’s a manufacturer’s responsibility to engineer efficiently. The trouble is that it’s easy to sell something based on bigness: big-box stores, supersize drinks, and vast televisions. So that’s what a lot of manufacturers do. It’s harder to get the message across that how something really performs is what counts. It’s easier to say a car has a three-liter engine than it is to say a car has a one-liter engine with three-liter performance.

If “green” is what we want, legislation may be part of it. But it’s a doubled-edge sword. It should encourage genuine advances in invention–machines that cut energy use without sacrificing performance. But this is not always the case. In the European Union, for example, legislation determined that new cars should use a higher proportion of recycled steel. A noble aim but the result was heavier cars that actually consumed more fuel, driving up the carbon footprint.

While green-washing is nothing new, the scale is. As more companies wield green paintbrushes, it’s less likely a coat of paint will woo a potential customer. Instead, companies that lead the charge in creating better technologies, efficient motors, battery and capacitor technology, and more will have a competitive advantage. When it comes to green, people want to make the right choice, but amid a barrage of claims, causes, and issues, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the well meaning from the meaningless. Good marketing means that green can mean anything. But good engineering means efficient engineering. It’s not quick or easy, but it is the right thing to do, and it doesn’t just make sense in terms of sustainability but as a business strategy, too.