The Stories Industrial Designs Tell

The Dyson Airblade

James Dyson was in Sydney last week for the launch of the Airblade, a hand-dryer with touch free operation that removes 99.9% of bacteria from the air used to dry hands, whose filter is integrated with antimicrobial additives that reduce bacterial and fungal growth. Since its blade of air isn’t heated it uses up to 80% less energy than conventional hand-dryers.

When I went to meet James Dyson the press-kit I was given contained three things: a series of documents about the Airblade and photographs stored on a removable USB device embossed with the Dyson logo, in a small metal box. And James Dyson’s autobiography:

My own success has been in observing objects in daily use which, it was always assumed, could not be improved. By lateral thinking — the ‘Edisonian approach’ — it is possible to arrive, empirically, at an advance. Anyone can become an expert in anything in six months, whether it is hydrodynamics for boats or cyclonic systems for vacuum cleaners. After the idea, there is plenty of time to learn the technology. My first cyclonic vacuum cleaner was built out of cereal packets and masking tape (like some grotesque Blue Peter spaceship),long before I understood how it worked. After that initial ‘Eureka!’ it was a long haul to the Dual Cyclone — so called because an outer cyclone rotating at 200 m.p.h. removes large debris and most of the dust, while an inner cyclone rotating at 924 m.p.h. creates huge gravitational force and drives the finest dust, even particles of cigarette smoke, out of the air.

James Dyson. Introduction. Against the Odds: An Autobiography.

And a small booklet that’s a compendium of contemporary design icons selected by James Dyson. It includes cars, lamps, furniture, the Sony Walkman and the John Hancock Centre in Chicago. Some objects are considered great design beauties, Le Corbusier’s B306 Chaise Longue and Issey Miyake’s clothing created with his A-POC manufacturing method, for instance. “Design used to mean bridges, railways, purpose,” Dyson writes in the booklet. “Personally, I don’t see the difference between designers and engineers. They are one. Most people only consider how something was designed if it doesn’t work. Real design works. The best products evolve as part of a design process, in which the technology on the inside informs the way they look on the outside.”

The Dyson Airblade

Function Informing Journalists

Magazines have a long lead time in Australia, as much as three months, so it will be a long time before most of the stories about the Dyson Airblade surface. A search of Google News turned up reports on the Airblade launch on technology websites.

Dyson said that: “Instead of painfully slow evaporation, the Dyson Airblade wipes hands dry with high velocity blades of air. It’s very quick and it’s very clean”. He also explained that conventional hand dryers either don’t work or simply take too long, with most people giving up waiting and wiping damp hands on their clothes instead as they walked out. Boasting clever design, energy efficiency, speed and hygiene, the Airblade is clearly another unquestionably “21st century technology” that is a radical departure from the old way of doing things. Dyson explained that his Dyson Digital Motor (DDM), the motor inside the Airblade, produces an air stream flowing at 640km per hour. He continued that this unheated air is channeled through a 0.3 millimetre gap, no thicker than an eyelash, and acts like an invisible windscreen wiper to wipe moisture from hands; leaving them completely dry.

IT Wire. 30 November, 2007

But the Murdoch newspapers online editions reported only the findings on the Dyson fact sheet, under the headline, “One Third of Men Don’t Wash Hands in Toilets“. And the Sydney Morning Herald ‘s online edition reported on James Dyson attending the Australian premiere of Eric Idle’s Spamalot, based on Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.

Excellent manufactured products are in museum collections because, as art does, they say something about how societies live and regard themselves and their times. (Dyson products are in museum collections around the world, including a Dyson vacuum cleaner in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.) The most insightful design writing places these products in context within the culture that created them and records their influence as successive generations of people continue to use and even adapt them. The design icons selected by James Dyson are mostly from the early and mid twentieth century and celebrate a comfortable life and ease of travel in the world. His Airblade is among 21st century design products that belong to a different culture in a different world. These products are a form of self-defence against a world we’ve made toxic and that’s buffetted by wild weather.

In the 21st century design magazines engage as well as reflect on the world. New York’s Metropolis Magazine became involved with an initiative to help provide mobile retail outlets that give residents of New Orleans, still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, access to basic goods and services that include “groceries, clothing and telephone and other communications services/equipment”.

ReDI structures are being designed to be quickly deployable, highly functional, attractive, durable and sustainable. All of the structures will employ sustainable materials and have self-contained power, water and telecommunications sources. The firms involved are donating their skills and resources and working closely with community organizations and local government officials leading the region’s recovery efforts.

Deckard’s kitchen in Blade Runner

Enormously Distracted By The Environment

Ridley Scott has released a new version of Blade Runner. The movie was a box office failure when it was released in 1984 but it slowly gathered influence and momentum as a credible cautionary tale about humankind’s destruction of earth’s environment and the sinister implications of microbiology and creating robots with organic components and trying to infuse them with consciousness. It’s been a gargantuan influence on designers and artists. In an 1995 interview with science fiction writer William Gibson published in The Guardian, Martin Walker wrote: “When he first saw Blade Runner, Gibson staggered from the cinema in despair, fearing that someone else had already cornered his nightmare future. Slowly, he realised they had the street scenes and the landscape but not the mindscape, not the alternative sensory universe of the Net. Gibson saw a future where nation states rotted beneath a new triumph of corporate feudalism, where the matrix of the data banks and computer networks was the sharp reality.”

Ridley Scott: I knew I’d done a pretty interesting movie which, in fact, was extremely interesting but was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback. They simply didn’t get it. Or, I think, better now to say they were enormously distracted by the environment.

Wired: What do you mean, “enormously distracted by the environment”?

Ridley Scott: Well, we — I mean I had new ground to address: the idea of doing a film that is not necessarily futuristic in the sense of the, futuristic science fiction, but actually more as a look into the future, and the future possibility, which can be more interesting. Because then you’re touching on various possibilities of, like, replication, which now are quite commonplace, but 25 years ago they were barely discussing it in the corridors of power where you have to — you know, like the Senate and things like that. They hadn’t even gotten to that point. I’m sure it was firmly in biological institutions and laboratories, but they hadn’t yet gone for permission. It was almost 10 years or 15 years after Blade Runner that I read about replication. Now, the film is not really about that at all, it’s simply borrowing that possibility and addressing it and putting it to making a sort of unusual protagonist or antagonist that will be leveraged into a Sam Spade or one of those detective, film-noir kind of stories. So people will be familiar with that kind of character, but not at all familiar with the world I was cooking up. Which, again, really came from what I’d seen. And what I’d seen was quite a lot of Hong Kong at the time, pre-skyscraper, where the actual harbor was filled with junks, so Hong Kong was remarkably, darkly romantic. And also a lot of New York at that time, which always seemed to be a city on overload.

Ridley Scott. Wired. Interview by Ted Greenwald. 6.29.07

Industrial designer Syd Mead created the environment for what Ridley Scott describes as a cop and a bad guy movie. “In this instance, I was doing a cop and a different bad guy,” he told Wired. “And to justify the creation of the bad guy, i.e., replication, I had to justify that the outside world would support that idea. So, then, it has to be in the future. …So, it was a challenge to say — it’s the same as trying to do a monster movie it’s, like, Aliens is a monster movie. Alien is a C film elevated to an A film, honestly, by it being well done and a great monster. If it hadn’t had that great monster, even with a wonderful cast, it wouldn’t have been as good, I don’t think. So, in this instance, my special effect, behind it all, would be the world.”

Syd Mead created a mishmash of architectural styles that gave the movie depth. But the central character, the blade runner, Deckard, lives in an apartment building heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s pre-cast concrete block houses built in Los Angeles in the early 1920’s. Concrete is characterless and malleable Lloyd Wright said, and a lowly material. “Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat?” he mused. But it was the interiors, Deckard’s appliances and furniture that made the movie seem like it was happening in a real world. “..the big test is saying, draw me a car in 30 years’ time without it looking like bad science fiction,” Scott said. “Or draw me an electric iron that will still be pressing shirts in 20 years’ time without it looking silly. That’s the stretch, that was the target: that I wanted the world to be futuristic and yet felt — not familiar, because it won’t be — but feel authentic. I could buy it. One of the hardest sets to design was his kitchen. It’s not Tyrell’s room, which is easy because we fantasize about a giant super-Egyptianesque, neo-Egyptianesque boardroom. But the idea of saying, what is his bathroom and kitchen like in those particular times — that’s tricky. Nevertheless fascinating. I love the problem.”

In an interview with Dalya Alberge in The Times of London on August 30, Ridley Scott said that he believes that The Matrix, Independence Day and The War of the Worlds, and other contemporary science fiction movies that feature stupendous computer-generated effects are inferior to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Made at the height of the “space race” between the United States and the USSR, 2001 predicted a world of malevolent computers, routine space travel and extraterrestrial life. Kubrick had such a fastidious eye for detail, he employed Nasa experts in designing the spacecraft” wrote Alberge. “Sir Ridley said that 2001 was “the best of the best”, in use of lighting, special effects and atmosphere, adding that every sci-fi film since had imitated or referred to it. “There is an overreliance on special effects as well as weak storylines,” he said of modern sci-fi films.”

Sony’s Aibo and Qrio

Not Getting Sentimental About Machines

We relate to Blade Runner’s replicants as creatures with a life force but the Tyrell Corporation conceived of them as household appliances and industrial machinery and their consciousness was a feature to make them more interesting for the humans who would use them.

Since machines began to be able to operate themselves and computer technology gave them the ability to reason for themselves about the tasks they were carrying out they’ve been created on two parallel paths, with consumer robotics mostly being skewed towards machines that ape humans and animals. The Tyrell Corporation’s replicants are several generations of product iterations down the line from Sony’s (now discontinued) Aibo robot dog — “man’s next friend” — and Qrio, the humanoid robot, that made guest appearances on Astro Boy, the Japanese animated television program whose hero is a robot with a human heart.

NASA’s Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity might resemble Sony’s robot dogs, but there’s a branch of scientific and military robotics that tends towards the symbolism of the mission rather than giving the machines themselves character. When Opportunity rolled off its landing pad onto the surface of Mars it played “Born To Run”, Bruce Springsteen’s hymn to escape and the romance bound up in automobiles. The song expressed nostalgia for a vanished age, and similarly the Mars program wasn’t powered by the shiny and optimistic view of space as the final frontier but infused with the sobering reality, introduced by Philip K. Dick into the novel that Blade Runner was adapted from, that space may be our last refuge. In “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” earth’s environment had been destroyed, all of its animal and plant life killed, and humans had relocated to colonies on Mars.

Dr. Robert Ballard is most famous for his 1985 discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, undertaken as a side project when he was part of the U.S. Navy. He has given telerobotics a mythological aspect, reworking Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey of discovery. And Ken Goldberg, a professor with the School of Engineering at Berkeley, and now head of Berkeley’s New Media Center, creates conceptually profound and physically beautiful art projects around his telerobotic research, some of which has been involved with advancing assembly line manufacturing. This branch of robotics can create machines that are aesthetically pleasing to humans but this is a secondary concern, the function of the machine determines its appearance. This becomes a different design problem with machine and computer components shrinking to the molecular level. Envelopes have to be created to make the machines usable by humans.

flw. Ken Goldberg’s 1/1,000,000 scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater

Ken Goldberg tackled the problem of how industrial designers might think about and find metaphors for the design process at an atomic level in his 1996 project flw. IBM demonstrated ultra high precision lithography technology, that allows people to manipulate individual atoms, with corporate graffiti — the IBM logo, but Ken Goldberg built a one to one millionth scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, from silicon atoms.

In 1936 Frank Lloyd Wright began construction on the house that he built into a waterfall in Pennsylvania. He was looking to express harmony between man and nature through a building with an integral, structural connection to its surroundings. Wright used modern technology to construct the building and it’s based upon cantilevers, beams supported only at one end.

The unmediated world is a country we can’t return to, William Gibson said in the documentary “No Maps for these Territories“. Ken Goldberg’s flw expresses that if we’re building a structure now to connect us into the natural world it would be through a computer. Silicon has been the most predominant building material for computer chips and it’s also the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, after oxygen. “Miniature cantilevers are used to measure forces in devices etched from silicon,” he says.

“The next wave of high-value products will require assembly at the micro and nano scales, where manual labor is no longer an option. These trends suggest enormous opportunities,” Ken Goldberg wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the San Jose Mercury News on October 24.

Just as the method to add two numbers together doesn’t depend on what kind of pencil you use, manufacturing abstractions can be wholly independent of the product one is making or the assembly line systems used to assemble it. Another precedent is the Turing Machine, an elegant abstract model invented by Alan Turing in the 1930s, which established the mathematical and scientific foundations for our now-successful high-tech industries. Without Turing’s theoretical work, the system that typeset this line wouldn’t exist.

What’s needed today is an analogy to the Turing Machine for design, automation and manufacturing. Recent developments in computing and information science have now made it possible to model and reason about physical manufacturing processes, setting the stage for us to “put the Turing into Manufacturing”. The result, as was the case with databases and computers, would be higher quality, more reliable products, reduced costs, and faster delivery.

Ken Goldberg’s Op-Ed piece draws attention to the fact that two American products, Apple’s iPhone and Boeing’s 787, are being admiringly received globally but are built elsewhere. The iPhone is manufactured in Taiwan and the Boeing 787 is assembled in Japan. “America, birthplace of the modern assembly line, is losing ground when it comes to putting things together” he writes. “Driven by short-term savings and ignoring the close relationship between innovation and manufacturing, America has relinquished this responsibility to ambitious foreign competition, who are investing in fundamental research that improves manufacturing processes.” China and India produce vastly more engineers, he writes, and lure bright engineers away from America, but quality control weaknesses in their manufacturing industries have led to the recall of dangerously malfunctioning products.

Issey Miyake’s APOC manufacturing method

Reporting on Manufacturing

The proliferation of lifestyle magazines on television and the internet has diluted design writing. How we value a product and its valuation are two different things. Consumers demand lower prices and more choice and a glitzy luxury-worshipping culture values, at the high end, an i-Pod studded with diamonds , the celebrity association of the U2 i-pod, and an aeroplane interior designed by Marc Newson for the cachet the brand infers on the buyer.

The Japanese fashion designers who entered the global market in the early 1980’s through showing their collections in Paris have done something radically different, infusing the narrative and character of their clothes into specifications for fabric manufacturers and the artistry is in the manufacturing. Almost thirty years on Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcon’s label still expresses a powerful existential commentary on the role of clothing in society and the messages it conveys through collaborations with architects, artists and photographers. Yohji Yamamoto’s clothing has a deep, soulful beauty that reflects on the traditions of couture and dressmaking and classical beauty with radical materials and construction. But it’s Issey Miyake who has put manufacturing itself in the foreground with his A-POC (a piece of cloth) garments.

Miyake has so far kept the patent-pending process a closely guarded secret. But fashion insiders recognize that the technology behind A-POC – the process of melding thread into clothing, seamlessly – represents an entirely new way of making clothes, one that has less to do with the needles and bobbins of a garment factory than with rapid prototyping methods used in manufacturing. The real effect of A-POC has yet to be felt.

Textile manufacturing has a long history of sparking social and technological change. Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s automatic loom, introduced in 1801, caused riots among the hand-weavers it began to displace, and later inspired Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Herman Hollerith’s punch cards. Likewise, the demise of cut-and-sew could have significant impact, allowing manufacturers to save time and money by eliminating work usually done by skilled laborers. “Miyake is weaving garments that don’t need to be sewn,” says Jack Lenor Larsen, an internationally renowned textile designer, “and that is the wave of the future.”

But A-POC isn’t just a new way to make clothes – it’s a process that can be used to create all kinds of goods. Any material that can be turned into a fiber can work in the A-POC process, which gives Miyake the opportunity to produce anything from shoes to portable shelters. The A-POC team already has developed a series of colorful beanbag-like chairs and sofas that will come to market this year. The studio is also interested in a new corn-based fiber that could be used to construct other types of furniture, and it recently developed a resin-linen blend that a University of Tokyo lab found to be as strong as steel. To branch out, Miyake is looking into partnerships or licensing agreements.

Jessie Scanlon. Wired. April, 2004

Issey Miyake fashion show photograph from

Reporting on Products in the Marketplace

The yellow beasts stretched their long necks and gave a dragon roar as the wild wind tugged at coats, dresses, hair. The cluster of people struggled to wrap themselves in protective coats as they faced off with one of the world’s iconic machines: the Dyson power vacuum.

The Issey Miyake show was a tour de force of man against nature – and not just because the drama of those magisterial air vents caused the inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson to be pulled on to the runway to take a bow. The designer Dai Fujiwara succeeded in bringing energy and imposing coherence in his second season at Miyake.

“The Wind,” as the show was titled, did not just refer to the famous “wind coat,” Miyake’s invention in the days before microfibers had hit the closet. Fujiwara said backstage that he had both an ecological mission to support carbon-neutral efforts (printed on denim and on T-shirts) and also a philosophy. “Wind doesn’t have any shape. It comes from nothing – it’s similar to fashion,” the designer said.

International Herald Tribune. October 4, 2007

The Dyson vacuum cleaner that’s an homage to Issey Miyake

To celebrate his collaboration with Issey Miyake James Dyson’s named a Dyson vacuum cleaner, the DC16 Issey Miyake model. On the box there’s a photograph of Issey Miyake’s design museum, built by Tadao Ando, and a quote from James Dyson praising Issey Miyake’s manufacturing vision and prowess.