Dyson’s coronavirus response – Sir James Dyson on COVID-19 and developing the CoVent ventilator in 30 days

11 Jun 2020

Dyson’s coronavirus response – Sir James Dyson on COVID-19 and developing the CoVent ventilator in 30 days

Sir James Dyson talks to Virginia Bottomley about his company’s role in the fast-track development of the CoVent ventilator to tackle COVID-19, as well as the ongoing challenges facing his business.

As one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs, Sir James Dyson knows all about innovation and raising the bar when it comes to business ideas. But nothing quite matches the operational agility shown by his company during the COVID-19 pandemic. Best known for the Dyson vacuum cleaner and other groundbreaking household goods, the company joined forces with Cambridge-based science engineers TTP to manufacture a new design of ventilator to help support the healthcare response to COVID-19 .

Under Sir James’ leadership, hundreds of Dyson’s employees in both the UK and Singapore worked around the clock as part of the venture with TTP to design and develop the ventilator in just 30 days.

“Mercifully, the numbers of ventilators that the UK government initially thought were needed are no longer required – as the virus was brought under control,” Sir James tells Virginia Bottomley, who chairs the Odgers Berndtson Board and CEO Practice. 

Sir James adds: “Dyson funded the project to the tune of £20m, and we looked into opportunities to make the ventilator available to other countries, but regulatory and legal hurdles made it very difficult. I don’t regret all the efforts we made for one moment.”   

Virginia Bottomley: It took just 30 days to develop the CoVent ventilator. What were the operational considerations and leadership challenges working at such pace on something that is outside your core business?   

James Dyson: I have never seen anything quite like it – Dyson engineers worked tirelessly, motivated by their instinct to save lives. 

We started as a relatively small team of engineers and designers, understanding the clinical need and the specification of the ventilator. Over the first weekend, we made lots of different prototypes, with varying degrees of sophistication. We realised quickly that, for it to be any use in tackling COVID, we needed a very sophisticated type of ventilator which could take over the entire breathing of the patient automatically, and also have the capability to suction the gunk out from the lungs; this was in contrast to the much more simple ‘bellows’ type. We also realised that it needed to be an entirely new design which could be produced at scale under the constraints of lock-down.

Dyson CoVent

The CoVent – TTP & Dyson 

We deliberately avoided traditional ventilator components, due to potential supply issues, instead, we used those that we knew we could rely upon and which we knew were in plentiful supply. The team grew quickly and ultimately about 450 people were involved, working across the UK and Singapore so that we could achieve 24-hour working cycles and draw on our global supply chains and knowledge. Our Singapore engineering team picked up while the UK team was sleeping and vice versa – but the days were still long, often stretching long into the night. 

It really was an extraordinary project, the feedback we were getting from clinicians was very good, and within two weeks we had an entirely new ventilator ready for clinical testing. As the project progressed and reached the manufacturing stage, we turned an entire aircraft hangar – where we had planned to make our battery electric vehicle – into a medical-grade production facility filled with Dyson people, observing social distancing, assembling the machines.   

VB: You have already paid tribute to your team in working 24/7. Were you at all surprised at your employees’ commitment to the project and their motivation?  

JD: Well yes – they were extremely driven, but I am not sure I was surprised as such, it is what we do. They did all of this at the height of the pandemic and worked all hours, away from their families – it was selfless and shows quite what engineers can achieve. 

There were many amazing stories across the team of how people contributed, not just the engineers, but also the people who came in to make our food, the cleaners who kept us safe from the virus, the people taking our temperatures every few hours, the security team, the team who prepared the hangars for manufacture, the list goes on. The speed at which we were able to deliver the device is testament to their hard work. 

VB: What advice would you offer to other organisations and business leaders about operational flexibility and adapting quickly to challenges during a time of crisis? 

JD: I’m not a fan of giving advice, and these were very unusual circumstances. I suppose one element of this project which was hard to manage was the ever-changing specification due to an evolving understanding of the virus. We always had to be ready to adapt and change our approach, taking clinical advice, and speed was important. 

We had a very flat structure that empowered individuals to get things done and take decisions quickly. We had all the right people around the table, and everyone knew their role. Given the possibility of people getting ill due to the virus, we also had a lot of crossovers, with people understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities in detail. By having such a clear purpose, understanding and direction, it allowed our people to use their expertise to the maximum effect. It was very challenging but highly rewarding to work in this way.  

VB: There is now a recurring question in business: if we can do this in a crisis, why not in normal times? Are you thinking along these lines at Dyson, and are there any lessons that you have learned from this period? 

JD: In many ways, this is how we operate in normal times; we are always doing things we have never done before! We solve problems every day – often really hard ones – and we move quickly, failing and learning as we go. We answered the Government’s direct request for help on this matter because I believed it was the right thing to do; perhaps we were not the best-placed people to do it – we just wanted to help. 

VB: How will the convergence of data, AI and IoT manifest itself in the home in the years to come? How will consumer behaviours change because of it and what are the impacts on the wider economy?   

JD: It is already happening, Dyson now has more software and data engineers than mechanical engineers. Intelligent products, which understand their environment, interact with it, and respond to it, will revolutionise the way that products work and the performance they deliver. This requires continuous development of sensing technologies, AI and data interpretation techniques. 

Our robotic vacuum cleaner is a good example of this. Traditional robots bounce around the room in an unintelligent way, changing direction when they come into contact with an object. Their movement is entirely random, which is not very efficient or effective, and we could see the benefits of a machine that had intelligence, so we spent decades developing a vision-based approach. The Dyson robot uses a 360-degree camera to actually see the room, understand the orientation and objects which are present, and plot an efficient route to clean based on this. It’s really just one example, but the opportunities this provides are really interesting.  

I don’t believe in connecting products or creating apps for the sake of it; if we connect a product it’s because we’ve identified the benefit of doing so. Our purifiers for example continually ‘sniff’ the air and respond to the pollutants and volatile organic compounds that they sense. They respond in real-time to filter the air and provide an air-quality reading, without interaction from the user. The data also allows us to predict pollution events and build up a very accurate picture of indoor air quality, to develop our understanding of the problems.  

VB: The future of work has been proven almost overnight by COVID-19. So many of us are working virtually. How do you envisage the workplace of the future now that we have all experienced the positives and negatives of home working? 

JD: COVID-19 is the biggest challenge facing business in my lifetime. Many economies face a grave future as the world begins to recover – it is not an easy time to be in business. Some businesses certainly seem to be working remotely to good effect. We have found it difficult as we make physical things: products and technologies that exist in the real world. These require physical interaction and specialist equipment, so lockdown has brought some significant challenges and delays to projects. The years of research, design and testing behind all our products just cannot be done from home, they require labs and equipment, so progress slows when you don’t have access. Our campus in the UK remained open throughout the crisis for people to work on the ventilator and we are trying as best we can to keep projects on track. Our people who require access to our campuses are returning to work in the safe working environments we have created. 

In a series of articles responding to the impact of COVID-19, OBSERVE looks at how companies and their leaders are adapting and reimagining their organisations’ strategies and what lessons leaders have learned through the immediate impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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