From smart vacuum cleaners to smart cities

20 May 2015

Sir Richard Needham

Sir Richard Needham

Industry expert

20 years ago when I started working with James Dyson, IT consisted of unreliable and insecure analogue mobile phones, a clanking computer that sent out invoices, registered credits, paid the wages, controlled the stock and occasionally if asked provided management figures long after they’d lost their relevance.

We also had a support system for logging sales, preparing budgets, and keeping records for HR, marketing and other Dyson subsidiaries. The two systems had no ability or desire to share information or communicate with one another. Technology was always involved in the development of the product, improving performance, design, weight and reliability. All that back office stuff use for clerical pen pushers.

Now Dyson has a SAP system that’s the spinal cord on which the company depends, not only for its success, but also its survival. Everything has been connected both internally and often with outside suppliers and subcontractors.

However good the product is, unless it’s delivered on time, to the right specification and in the right volumes at the right price, the customer will soon go elsewhere. Integrated IT provides seamless support from taking the order, forecasting demand, regulating the manufacturing, controlling the levels of stock, managing the customer call centre, dealing with complaints personally and politely and solving crises quietly and efficiently. 15 years ago Dyson received more letters than emails. Now it has to deal with thousands every day.

The influence of technology on Manufacturing  

If anything, IT is gaining more speed and influence. The arrival of the Cloud has transformed the amount of data that can be stored and downloaded. In manufacturing the miniaturisation of technology leading to ever smaller, more powerful motors, has revolutionised hand drying fan technology and vacuum cleaner size and suction. They are all a world away from when I first became a director of Dyson.

Finally, cyber security and the protection of data together with the ability to ‘listen in’ make it crucial to protect sources and defend a company’s IP patents and trademarks. 

If the existing IT has made the world ever more demanding and exciting for the individual company, a new world is opening up which will revolutionise existing methods of work in manufacturing.

The arrival of 3D printing and prototyping has already dramatically changed the dynamics of making things. It will be increasingly cost effective to build products locally in small batches as and when required rather than having them mass produced in China or India. Prototyping will speed up our R&D in ways unthought-of. In terms of innovative design and application, redesigning components, reducing weight, prolonging service life and cutting down on the maintenance costs, 3D (soon to be 4D) will reduce R&D costs, reduce time to market and increase demand.

The benefits of smart technology

The big question will be how will this all benefit the average Joe (or Jane)? Will there be jobs for anyone other than a small number at the top and a large number stacking shelves at the bottom?  Part of the answer will come from Smart technology. 

The arrival of an ever growing number of smarter applications, based on SIM cards, wireless connections will lead to more sophisticated products and services which in turn will bring about extra demand and extra jobs in areas that right now we cannot forecast.

Perhaps a most exciting opportunity for the future is Smart Cities. People will want to live in places where total interconnectivity between services are ubiquitous. Traffic lights can be changed to reduce traffic jams, dustbins emptied when they are full, buses can arrive when needed rather than 3 at a time! Street lights can be dimmed or brightened depending on the weather and as can temperatures in buildings.  Security can be tightened from greater use of camera technology and the ability of Smart cameras to differentiate between suspicious and non-suspicious behaviour.

NEC, a company which I am a director of in Europe has signed an agreement with Bristol to approve a wireless platform throughout the City which entrepreneurs can use as a highway to test new ideas for their products. Bristol City Council, the Mayor’s Office, together with Bristol University and The University of The West of England have pulled together a potential £100 million fund to make Bristol a world-leading Smart City.  Other cities such as Glasgow, Belfast, Leeds and Manchester are, all, with support, from the Department of Business going down the same adventurous route. Many commentators are gloomy about the future, predicting that the rich will get fewer and richer and the rest of us will stay stuck in the squeezed middle.

I don’t believe this. I think we have it within our grasp to make our lives more successful, more rewarding with more leisure and less stress, while still protecting and improving our environment.

There is only one problem. At 73 I am not sure how much longer I am going to be around to see this happen.


Sir Richard Needham is widely accepted as Britain’s most successful Minister of Trade since the War. He regenerated the infrastructure and economic base of N. Ireland and overhauled and reinvigorated the whole of Britain’s export strategy. He is President of the British Exporters’ Association and continues to advise the British Government on trade matters. He has held Directorships at Dyson, GEC Plc, Meggitt Plc and as Chairman of the London Heart Hospital, Biocompatibles Plc, Avon Rubber and a number of other public companies. He has been a director of NEC Europe for 18 years and is now Chairman of Rose Petroleum Plc and a director of Rank Plc, Adaptive Modules and Smarta.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bluefin Solutions Ltd.

About the author

Sir Richard Needham

Industry expert

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