On a cloudy day in the English countryside, you can just make out the shadowy figures tapping away inside the mirrored glass box in Malmesbury.

The inscrutable building is D9 — the most secretive part of Dyson's English headquarters — off limits to most staff, let alone a journalist made to wear a "PRESS" armband on-site.

Behind the glass hundreds of engineers are working on the company's new product innovations spanning a range of technology from robotics to artificial intelligence, motors, batteries, software and an electric car set for release in 2020.

Later, inside his corner office at the eponymous company he founded, Sir James Dyson refuses to be drawn on specifics about the hotly anticipated vehicle, including colours or how much it will cost.

Advertisement

"We're developing batteries, that's what got us into cars," the sprightly 70-year-old told news.com.au about one of his "big bets" for the future. "We have been for some time developing battery technology because we saw how important it was going to be. Not just for us … but for other things as well."

So will the man who built a AU$14.3 billion (NZ$15.3b) fortune from the humble household vacuum be undertaking any large scale battery projects in Australia a la Elon Musk or perhaps venturing into space like that other British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson?

"I'm not going to show off about it and go and do big tests in Australia and things like that. We'll wait until we've got our technology before we decide what to do," he said, adding that he would "love" to supply a car to Australia, his first export market outside the UK.

"I want to improve things here on earth," he said, explaining his team is focused on "lean engineering" rather than the "green washing" currently in vogue.

"What we call lean engineering is a responsible thing for engineers to be doing and I'm not going to go around boasting about it. It's just something we do, it's part of our psyche."

As for the ideas being nutted out inside D9 that might transform our homes in the next decade, the only clue Sir James will give is that he favours automation rather than connectivity for the sake of it.

"I think connectivity … and apps are less important than you might currently think if you read the technology press. Which is not to say I am a Luddite. I would like to think I'm a few steps ahead of current thinking. I might be wrong but that's where I am," he said.

"I'm much more interested in developing technologies like vision system technologies, solid state battery technology, electric motor technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics and various other ones which I haven't told you about because those lead us somewhere. I can see where they're leading us. That's what I'm interested in."

Advertisement

'SEEING THE DIRT'

The sprawling Dyson headquarters is testament to the vision of the man who started working on his vacuum prototypes in 1978 and developed 5127 versions before taking it to market.

Now he wanders the labs in round-rimmed glasses like some Willy Wonka of engineering. On site, young staff carry black notebooks with "Dyson. Confidential" stamped across the front where they are encouraged to record ideas and store them in a secure facility.

The company spends $14.7 million each week on research and development and has 129 labs to test everything from acoustics to electromagnetic compatibility, air quality, suction and durability of products, preferring to scrap something rather than release a substandard version.

A case in point: the Supersonic hairdryer where 110 (mostly male) engineers were sent on a hair care course while working on the project codenamed Lion Lab. They buffed and blow-dried 1600km of human tresses and modified the tiny motor from 11 to 13 blades, thus taking the high-pitched whine above the frequency for human hearing before it was deemed fit to sell.

Sir James Dyson, founder of the vacuum company. Photo / Getty Images
Sir James Dyson, founder of the vacuum company. Photo / Getty Images

New product innovation design manager Brett Coulton said ideas come from a mix of top-down directives, staff brainwaves and happy accidents, explaining the Dyson airblade started life as an iron until they realised it was good at removing water.

"We don't have any barriers. If we stumbled across something we thought would be really good at moving liquid and fluid we would pursue that," he said. "We think of loads of things we'd like to have done but if they're going to sell 10,000, forget it."

Sir James agreed the company is not afraid to change tack if something better comes along, claiming the best ideas come out of personal frustration.

"The reason for that is that if you want to do something radical, you want to rewrite the rules, it's much easier to do it if you're a user," he said about his experience with the vacuum.

"You can say 'well actually, I would like to see the dirt.' Everybody is telling me they don't want to see the dirt. Everybody is telling me showing the dirt is a disgusting idea but I use a vacuum cleaner, I want to see the dirt. So we ignored market research, we ignored what our retailers told us, we wanted to do it because we enjoyed it as a user."

'NO DEAL'

The company employs nearly 4500 staff in the UK and is set to expand into a former Ministry of Defence site at Hullavington where the electric car will eventually be produced. Dyson has also begun a foray into education with an institute of engineering and technology recently opened allowing students to work and study at the same time.

A Dyson creation: The 360 Eye robot hoover. Photo / Getty Images
A Dyson creation: The 360 Eye robot hoover. Photo / Getty Images

Sir James said he doesn't buy the idea of young people as work-shy snowflakes and prefers the "naive intelligence" a young pair of eyes can bring. He's also convinced the UK should walk away from Brexit negotiations and has been one of the Leave campaigns most outspoken advocates, admitting calls to join the euro made years earlier were "probably a mistake".

The position has seen him criticised for being "reckless" based on self-interest considering the company manufactures in Asia and has its fastest growing markets outside the European Union. However he remains adamant ditching talks would hurt Europe more than Britain and said Europe is not so much a "single market" as a highly complex one based on different laws, languages and psychology.

"I'm convinced there will be no deal that is acceptable to most of us in Britain because Europe isn't in the habit of making deals like that, particularly when it comes to Britain so I believe they should walk away. It's much more in Europe's interest to do a deal with us than the other way around," he said.

As for what keeps one of the richest men in Britain showing up at work every day to pore over new designs, Sir James said he loves the "knife edge" of risking his own money on new ideas.

"I haven't cashed in my chips as they say, everything's tied up in the business," he said.

"I'm risking my own money and living on a knife edge which I've found I quite enjoy. It's not for everybody but I've found I quite enjoy it actually. The sort of thrill of it. I don't do skydiving or bungy jumping or anything silly like that but we do take quite big risks of the business."