There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out: Jake Dyson Interviewed

The name Dyson has been synonymous with invention since James Dyson created the bagless vacuum cleaner. Now his son is set to revolutionise the lighting industry…
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The name Dyson has been synonymous with invention since James Dyson created the bagless vacuum cleaner. Now his son is set to revolutionise the lighting industry…

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As global environmental concerns have come to the fore in recent years, energy efficiency has become a hot topic. But when it comes to making light bulbs last longer, it’s all about heat dispersal, and most light fitting manufacturers aren’t doing a very good job on that score. No one knows this better than Jake Dyson who spent 18 months with his team ripping apart hundreds of competitors’ products in developing his revolutionary CSYS LED task light. Today, he’s invited me to his company’s studio in Clerkenwell, London, to show me how they did it.

The studio is split into two levels: a spacious office on the ground floor he shares with co-designers Sam James and Doug Inger and Office Manager Sonia Capitao (so spacious, there’s even room for Dyson’s Fiat 500 car which is parked in the corner), and a workshop downstairs where the team develop prototypes and product designs. This integrated arrangement immediately marks Jake Dyson Studio out as different in world where product design is usually kept geographically separate from the development and manufacturing side.

I follow Dyson downstairs. He shows me the climate chamber they built, thermal imaging cameras, and electrical equipment to measure the drop in efficiency of LEDs according to temperature.

“We did some quite serious thermal tests on other products out there,” he says. “We also took electrical and lux readings [which measure illuminance over a given area] to see how efficient they are, their inherent problems and what people are not focussing properly on in developing LED lights.

“What was very quickly apparent was that was the thermal management protecting the LED chips is usually very poor. And if LEDs are not cooled properly, the phosphor cracks up inside the chip. You get pinky green colours coming through and the light level drops. Ultimately, the chip will burn out.”

Dyson explains that manufacturers of LED fittings — lights — will just quote the hourly life quoted by the chip manufacturer. Chip manufacturers play it safe quoting 50-80,000 hours life span because they know people are packaging LED products wrongly and running them at too-high temperatures (between 80 degrees to 120 degrees junction temperature). But judging by his team’s tests, even these life-spans are ambitious given the almost total lack of thermal management in many products.

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“The reality is that the chips are then put into products and run a lot hotter, he concludes. “But they’ll still state those hourly life on the packaging of the product even though it’s not true to the product they’re selling.”

Dyson worked with the head scientist at LED Manufacturer,Osram to discover the truth — “And the truth is that if you hold the junction temperature to 55-60 degrees, you get 180,000-hour life. If you run it cooler than that, you can achieve potentially 200,000 to 250,000 hours.

Dyson’s team looked to the cooling technology used in satellites to address the issue. They also worked with CCI, the company that produce all the microprocessor-cooling heat sinks for Apple, Intel, Samsung, Hewlett Packard. “They use heat pipes,” he says. “And we discovered it’s a fantastic technology for moving heat away from semi-conductors, which is what an LED chip is.”

From this revelation, the astonishingly efficient 8.8-watt CSYS task light (named in reference to the Cartesian coordinate system that defines an object’s position) evolved. Dyson takes me to the far corner of the room where the prototypes were made and refined on wonderful old-fashioned machines: “With these, we can machine things to 1000th mm accuracy. Anything we machine as a prototype represents its manufactured capabilities and precision.” This is crucial to achieve the effortless adjustment of the light in three axes, which requires a tolerance of 2000th of a millimetre. “Plus or minus will make it too tight or too loose,” he continues. “We have factories in China in Malaysia who make and assemble the components, but we design, test and engineer the whole thing here, so it’s perfect, ready to be manufactured.”

The design of CSYS, while inspired by the look of construction cranes and drawing boards, is integral to its functionality because the crossbar contains a copper tube with a sealed vacuum dispelling heat from the diodes without consuming any extra energy. Consequently, the LEDs are run at just 30 degrees above room temperature, meaning they will last in excess of 160,000 hours, or 37 years. “Osram have said to us that it could be as much 220,000 hours”, notes Dyson. “You should never need to change the LED”.

Does he know of any other companies working as closely with the chip manufacturers?

“I’m sure there’s one or two, but nowhere near as many as should. I think in most cases, they just buy the chips, mount them onto boards and then just house them in their products. There are huge global lighting brands who focus on employing a flamboyant designer to come in and design a good-looking object and then make it into a light. They market it and sell it on the back of what I call a sort of ‘artist designer’ rather than an ‘engineer designer’.

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“We tackle design in a slightly different way in that we start off researching and developing technology and design the product around that. A flamboyant designer will be trying to make something look soft, sexy and styled and it’s very difficult to do that surrounding something mechanical and functional. And I actually think that something with a functional, mechanical look has more of a lifelong appeal. If you look at Eames furniture — function and comfort came first and they’re still bestselling pieces of furniture. Because we invest so much time and money into development, we need to be sure that the things we make are going to serve for many years to come.”

To illustrate his point, from underneath a workbench, he pulls out boxes full of lighting products dismembered in the name of research. He shows me one made by a leading manufacturer which retails at £450, but has nowhere for the heat to escape.

“I think because there’s the notion that 50,000 to 80,000 hours is enough,” he says. “They have no incentive to channel their efforts into improving things, but it’s inefficient and slightly lazy.

“It’s about refinement. We’ve tested a vast amount of heat sinks from competitor products, and they look robust, but they’re not effective, they’re not refined. Companies are more interested in banging out an aesthetically fashionable new product every six months, rather than holding themselves up for a year and doing some proper R&D.”

We have seen a couple of LED downlights which have heat pipes in them, but the manufacturers haven’t understood how to package them in a product.

“So I think the application and the design of the way we’re using a heat pipe is certainly the best I’ve ever seen in a lighting product. Someone said to me recently, ‘You’re not the first company to use to heat pipes.’ I had to reply, ‘No, but we’re the first people to do it properly.’ I’ve tested these lights they’re talking about and they’re not efficient, it’s a gimmick. That’s why we’re working with experts rather than just slapping it together ourselves thinking we know what we’re doing.”

I learnt that I can’t design products thinking that’s what I would like. You have to think about the commercial viability of it

Jake Dyson is softly-spoken, but his passion for his work is palpable. He clearly shares his celebrated father’s inventive flair — of course, James Dyson’s ‘say-goodbye-to-the-bag’ Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner earned him global fame, a knighthood, and an estimated net worth of over £1 billion — but Dyson Jnr. has largely taken his own path. Nicknamed ‘Techno’, his obsession with the mechanics behind good design began aged 14 when a family friend taught him the skill of using a mill and lathe. After graduating from London’s prestigious Central Martins College of Art and Design in 1994, he gained experience working for two high-profile interior designer Tara Bernerd and Jeff James Jewellers, before a spell inside his father’s business to acquire hands-on knowledge of the process of manufacturing a product from start to finish. Then Jake set up his own workshop in Wandsworth, South London, purchasing a mill and lathe and starting to experiment, before moving to his current premises in 2004.

Similar to the earliest incarnations of James Dyson’s vacuum cleaner which retailed for £2000, the £550 pricepoint of the CSYS light would appear to place it firmly in the luxury sector, but Dyson Jnr. says that isn’t the case: “We’re finding that people who wouldn’t normally pay £550 for a light are willing to paying it for this one.”

Dyson reports encouraging early sales for CSYS from countries around mainland Europe (UK, France, Netherlands, Portugal) and the Far East (Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia) since it went on sale last September. Recently, the product got sensational receptions at the Frankfurt Light + Building trade show and when it was launched into the US market at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.

“We’ve got 15, 20 retailers who are going to stock it around the US, lots more orders and enquiries and commercial proposals,” he says. “It’s been non-stop since I got back to England.”

The CSYS is available in five colours, and at the trade shows he discovered distinct regional preferences. “In England, people tend to go for the ‘Putty Grey’, in Germany, they like black, whereas in the States ‘Industrial Red’ which they said evoked the Fifties style.” Clearly, Dyson’s prioritising of function in design to create a timeless classic is striking a chord.

“It’s really exciting. I’ve manufactured products before that haven’t sold so well. And understood why. And it hurts. It’s a bit like a failed relationship!”

He is referring to the Motorlight Wall, a variable angle wall-mounted light whose USP was the flexibility it allowed to choose a beam of light of between 10 and 120 degrees, providing a tight beam or a wide wash of light. An undeniably clever lighting solution, its market was fatally limited by the need for it to be wired into a wall.

“Two years of wages, developing it and double that again marketing it, and it’s never really sold,” he says ruefully. “I learnt that I can’t design products thinking that’s what I would like. You have to think about the commercial viability of it. With CSYS, we are looking at a far greater audience. I think the timing is also very, very good, because people are crossing that line from compact fluorescents and starting to trust LED technology again after it got off to a very bad start with some very poor Chinese products. Our best light now is only 8.8 watts and you have to get a 15-watt compact fluorescent to make it comparable brightness to ours. And there’s no mercury in LEDs, unlike compact fluorescent bulbs which makes them awful to dispose of.

“So it’s a good time to prove that the work’s gone into making a better, more sustainable product because people are paying far more attention to the green ethic and energy consumption.

“We’ve had so many requests and enquiries from around the world, we’ve got a really strong feeling about it.”

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