The difference between a house and a home is how much you love living there. LaunchPad explores the innovative technologies that help you care for your space more effectively.
Josh Mutlow has spent the past six years as an engineer at Dyson, helping them iterate and innovate in order to turn common household appliances like vacuum cleaners into beautiful, high-quality pieces of technology. He’s part of a much larger team within the company: Dyson spends roughly $10 million a week on research, design and development.
Josh is a Senior Design Engineer, part of the floorcare research design and development team. Specifically, he’s helped design a wide range of upright and cord-free vacuum cleaners, focusing on the nitty-gritty — floor tools and cleanerheads — as well as the juicy stuff, like battery packs. Originally from the UK, for the last eight months he’s been working out of Dyson’s Chicago office, making sure that everything they have coming up will be perfectly suited to US consumers who want to up their home technology game.
Here’s a little bit about what Josh does at work:
I had a habit of wanting to take things apart as a kid — with limited success, because I could never get those things back together again. Fortunately, I’m a bit more competent now. I’m quite hands-on, and it really suits my desire to understand how things work and improve on them. I get very frustrated by things in the world that don’t work as well as they should.
Prior to university, I was studying things like physics and math. But I never got on with all of those subjects in isolation. So for me, the opportunity to apply that all together was really appealing. That was the catalyst: realizing that I could combine all of those things into a career.
I went to university in Nottingham in the UK, and I studied product design and manufacture. I have a Master’s degree in Engineering. I joined Dyson as a graduate design engineer, and over the course of the time I’ve been there I’ve worked my way up to now becoming a senior design engineer.
How do you describe your job to non-engineers?
I have quite a few functions within Dyson. I work in product development, so what I’m ultimately responsible for is taking a technology or an idea that we believe has value, and making sure that we deliver that in a product that meets our pretty strict requirements in terms of robustness, function, and ease of use. It’s about turning an idea or a piece of technology into a product that a consumer can interact with.
It’s a very fast-paced environment. One of the reasons that Dyson is so successful is that we make pretty bold decisions on a daily basis. We don’t put all of our eggs into one basket, so there will be multiple different people working on a multitude of different ideas at one time.
The last design project I was working on was the Dyson Cyclone V10™ vacuum; I was responsible for the design and development of the battery pack on that product. As part of all of our design work, we follow what we refer to as an iterative design process, so for whatever aspect of the pack that I’d be designing on a given day, it would be a process of ideation — coming up with concepts of what we think might work in order to solve a problem — and then we use a computer design system to turn those ideas into a three-dimensional representation.
We have a wealth of rapid prototyping facilities, where we can have those computer-based three-dimensional models printed into physical real-world parts that we can build, test, and modify as we see fit in the workshop. One of those iterations could happen in a day, or sometimes if you’re designing something bigger it could be a week or a couple of weeks, start to finish, for that iterative process to take place.
A lot of your job is coming up with ideas, which doesn’t always work as a desk-bound process. How do you give yourself space to imagine and create?
It can be pretty challenging! Sometimes things don’t come easily. but we’re very much encouraged to use all of the workshop facilities we have on hand. One of the best ways to work out whether an idea can go the distance, or come up with an idea in the first place. is to just get hands-on with the existing technology and just try to make some alterations to it, test it again.
We have a pretty incredible research development facility in Malmesbury, in the UK, where we have different floor types to test out vacuum cleaners, and labs where we can blow-dry hair in a repeated manner. It’s kind of like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for design and development.
Do you have a favorite design element on the Dyson Cyclone V10™ vacuum?
I think it’s a bit you can’t really see, which is the V10 motor itself. That’s a pretty incredible piece of engineering. We’ve been designing and developing these motors for about 17 years, and this latest generation is about 40% lighter than the previous generation, but it produces loads more power. I find that pretty remarkable: Even after 15, 17 years, we can still be improving technology that much. That’s really at the core of Dyson’s ability to produce such market-leading cord-free vacuum cleaners.
In addition to that, there’s more general things, like robustness: making sure that if you were to drop the vacuum cleaner from the top of a staircase or something, it would manage to survive. That’s an interesting one. We have a whole testing suite where we deliberately put our products through quite abusive testing scenarios, where, for example, we’ll drop it from a meter and a half off the floor, bash it into a baseboard twenty times. You go through this long list of steps. It’s pretty noisy.
And the great thing about that is, you kind of expect it to break, but you get the opportunity go away and try to improve it and repeat the process again.
What are you looking forward to working on next? What’s the most exciting thing on Dyson’s horizon?
We’ve announced that we’re working on an electric vehicle, and I think that would be a fantastic project to get involved in. It pulls together all of the core technologies that we’ve used elsewhere: motor design, battery pack design. For many years now, we’ve really been a technology company. For a lot of these things, software plays a critical role, so it really is quite a diverse range of things we apply to find success.
*Interview has been edited for length.
Zan Romanoff is a freelance writer and the author of the novels A SONG TO TAKE THE WORLD APART and GRACE AND THE FEVER. She lives and works in Los Angeles.