James Dyson Award judge Peter Gammack reveals what makes an award-winning invention
Long standing James Dyson Award judge Peter Gammack reveals what makes an award-winning invention and what he hopes to see from the entrants this year.
14 July 2020
Innovation is a very broad word, what do you make of it?
Based purely on the dictionary definition, innovation means; “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” However, where I think the focus should be is on the word invention; creating something completely new from which you can then innovate from. The excitement for me as an engineer lies within that moment when you have found a way to do something better, or uncovered a completely new approach to an everyday problem that no one else has explored before. Constant questioning of the status quo and looking for new ways to do things can be a lengthy process, but it is a vital part of what we do as engineers and designers. Invention is scary, challenging but also unrivalled in its limits. For all future James Dyson Award applicants, I encourage you to focus on invention. Be curious about finding an entirely new solution to a problem, rather than improving what is already out there. Turn convention on its head, as that will uncover the greatest engineering surprises.
How far do you think an idea and an invention are from each other?
This really is a question without limits! It also touches on one of the most exciting aspects of being an engineer – the design process. A time where all kinds of different approaches are uncovered. Testing your idea, creating prototypes, collating feedback and iterating your design following learnings are all crucial stages that, for the very transformative inventions in our world, take a lot of time and thought. More often than not, this process uncovers a web of engineering opportunities to explore. It’s not a linear process but a chasm where unthought-of possibilities can arise. Your final invention may be far from what your initial idea focused on. But that is fine, the key is to not be afraid of failure. Failure helps us as engineers to learn and ultimately create better and more powerful inventions in the long-term. Adopting this mind-set is really the response, it shouldn’t matter how long it takes you to get somewhere, just as long as you have taken the correct path to get there in the end. The James Dyson Award (JDA) is a great platform for young designers worldwide to start exploring the design process and its complexities.
What capabilities are required to make a successful invention?
This is all about how well the brief is interpreted and the very first piece of advice I would give any prospective JDA entrant is to try and solve a real problem. This is the ultimate criteria that James will consider when he selects the overall winners. Solid inventions are born from an innate curiosity to find a better solution to what is already out there – a core part of our philosophy as engineers at Dyson. And it all started when James had 5126 attempts, failures, mistakes and developments, and continuous testing to reach the 5127th prototype of his vacuum that finally met the brief he set himself. Curiosity and perseverance fueled the creation of the bag-less vacuum cleaner.
Perseverance is another key trait to turning an initial idea into a tangible solution. There will be times when test results won’t reflect plans, or curve balls will throw you off course slightly. But this is all part of the process. The designers of the future will navigate through these challenges and adapt their methods to iteratively develop their ideas, ultimately creating a better invention that has stood the test of time.
How do you know when a new invention is actually a solution when judging the JDA?
The JDA is a problem-solving competition. A common issue people entering the award struggle with, even once they’ve selected a problem, is making sure that their solution is actually new. Some problems recur more often than others. For example, a biodegradable type of plastic, is something that a lot of people over the years have tried to solve, so we’ve seen lots of different solutions, some better than others. It’s actually good that a lot of people are trying to solve things that are “big problems”. MarinaTex last year found a solution that was intelligently designed preparing the invention for commercialisation.
Hundreds of young inventors apply worldwide and many enter with incredible solutions to problems. We have to rank the entries by some other measure of how successful they have been. We do this by asking which inventor has had a “truly original” idea, and last year’s winner demonstrated that with providing a clear solution to a problem that many had tried to address before.
What kind of inventions do you expect to see from the JDA this year and which areas do you expect them to focus on?
The design brief to submit an entry to the James Dyson Award is quite simply, “design something that solves a problem”. So, we are really looking for ideas that solve a real problem, whether it be social, global or sustainable, and presents a compelling, unique solution. The inventions that do well in the competition have a real potential to improve people’s lives. Clear evidence of iterative design in your application is also received well. This is part of the designing DNA at Dyson and allows us to see the invention’s journey so far and its potential future. The judges – and James Dyson especially – are drawn to designs that employ clever yet simple engineering principles. As well as proving your project’s technical viability, we're also curious to see if it’s commercially viable too. So, if you can, include evidence of any research you have done into manufacturing.
We all know that environmental protection paramount and this year the JDA will launch the sustainability award. How can innovation work alongside environmental protection and sustainable development?
In today’s society, innovation should work hand-in-hand with environmental protection and sustainable development. At Dyson, every new technology launched is leaner and more efficient than its predecessor. As we continue to innovate, we do more with less in all aspects of the design and manufacturing process, ultimately creating products that serve a better place in our planet. The 2019 international winner, MarinaTex is a captivating example of this mind-set. A clear problem was identified and a compelling and sustainable solution was created by Lucy Hughes. Inventions like hers, that focus on sustainable design, submitted this year will also be considered for the sustainability award, chosen by James. I very much look forward to seeing what inventions young designers from around the world submit this year.
MarinaTex addressed an environmental issue and won in 2019. Does the JDA hope to uncover more solutions like this in 2020?
In recent years of the award, we have received more and more entries solving a problem that is related to sustainability. Whether that be from the materials used, the manufacturing process or the solution to the problem. The JDA is a great avenue for young designers to gain a platform and take one step closer to commercialising their solutions. Now more than ever, young designers are questioning how products and the design process can be leaner and more efficient, which is empowering to see. And with the new sustainability award added for 2020, we expect to see more entries that do more with less and tackle serious environmental and social issues we face today, much like MarinaTex that won last year. I very much look forward to seeing what inventive solutions are entered later this year.
Looking back at previous JDA winners, are there any common themes?
Winning entries clearly fulfil the award’s brief: design something that solves a problem. We are interested in problem-solving, so when judging we try to give weight to the value of the solution, rather than the weight of the problem. But we are always looking at the quality and execution of that solution. It is impressive whenever somebody solves a problem which nobody else could. If we look at the 2018 winner, O-Wind Turbine, previously wind had been treated as a source from one direction. However, Nicolas Orellana and Yaseen Noorani looked at the problem with fresh eyes and threw out everything that had come before them. They created an omnidirectional wind turbine that takes wind from any direction and turns it into energy. The winners addressed a global problem – trying to get clean sustainable energy – and found a clear and better solution. The power is in the solution and this will determine commercial success following the award.