Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design

The robot was a bit sinister. But otherwise it was amazing. It was obviously inspired by nature, because it looked like it was designed by a honeybee and built by a spider. So you would expect a natural design to look traditional, old, primeval but actually it looked futuristic. Or maybe not futuristic, maybe gothic, like a Tim Burton filmset. I couldn’t decide. I also have no idea how it didn’t just collapse in on itself! If you understand it how it works, please share in the comments, I’m sure we’d all like to know.

But as the sun set lowered behind the red brick of the V&A, I turned my back on the new pavilion and headed back inside, for the main course – a new exhibition about engineering.

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design is a chance to learn about a very famous engineer; about him as a person, some of the things he did and also what his business has gone on to do. It’s also a great opportunity to learn about engineering in a way that’s personal and easy to understand.

The exhibition is laid out to encourage a set path, first around a mezzanine walkway past large suspended models then down into a large room with more models, drawings, videos, tablets to interact with, audio recordings and a soundlab to experience.

We’re introduced to Ove Arup by his humour, his early Christmas cards, his nonsense verse, the face that he called their first computer Mumbo Jumbo. We also learn about his early projects, the penguin house at London zoo, an ingenious design to help the war effort and a hospital design that was more pleasant for patients.

Then there’s the familiar form of the Sydney Opera House, which his firm designed. I enjoyed seeing the original architectural design for the first time; but it was little more than a charcoal scribble on an A3 sheet of paper. So the engineers did some great work to realise it, which is explained with some different models and videos. The site photos alone will stick in my memory for a long time, and made a big impression on my wife.

There’s also the Pompidou Centre, the Menil Collection, St Pancras International and a feature on Wikihouse rounded off with the Soundlab. I’d been encouraged by a colleague to check this last bit out, and it was very good. We sat for 10 minutes to see (actually it was mostly about listening) to the different sound environments, which was fun to compare mono and stereo, or suddenly feel like you’re in a theatre listening to an orchestra.

The exhibition then is a good introduction to engineering. It’s quite light-hearted, there are good explanations to go with models and parts of it are quite inspiring. For purveyors of the art, there are things to learn from as well. Seeing other people’s sketches is always instructive and one of my highlights was seeing an ingenious design to protect the D-day flotilla from ships crashing into it.

All in all, I think the V&A has done well at presenting a job that is endlessly fascinating in a way that is immediately accessible. I hope you get to see it and enjoy it too.

How to Be More Innovative the James Dyson Way

I became an engineer because I enjoy being creative, so I look up to James Dyson’s impressive track record of innovation. And even beyond having creative ideas, he’s also got a keen marketing sense. Going from starting a vacuum cleaner business on his own – after his business partners abandoned him – to running a company with more than a billion pound turnover and profits of 25% in 2014. So I’ve been doing some research about him and these are the five things I’ve learned about how to be more innovative:

Ask ‘Stupid’ Questions

Dyson credits his success at innovation with being willing to do ‘completely stupid or wrong things… just to see what would happen’. He put this down to coming from an arts background (he studied classics at school), rather than a scientific one, where you are encouraged to seek the ‘right’ answer. Whatever your background though, I think the key thing is being brave enough to question the premises of things, however stupid it may seem to do so.

Search Around for Solutions to Similar Problems

While doing domestic chores, Dyson became frustrated with his vacuum cleaner. He took it apart and realised that the design was flawed, the suction happened through the bag, so as the bag filled the suction reduced. But it was only later, in a completely different context that he came across a possible solution. He was at a Sawmill and noticed that on the roof there was a cyclone, which through various tubes picked up all the sawdust from the machines. This gave him the idea for a cyclone vacuum cleaner.

Work out what Success Looks Like

Dyson set himself two goals at an early stage, that his vacuum cleaner had to have no loss of suction and that it had to pick up particles as small as 0.5microns across (this is as small as the particles in cigarette smoke). This set a course for how to improve the design and also helped him to know when it was complete. Stephen Covey calls this principle ‘Begin with the End in Mind’

Take Lots of Little Steps

One of the most useful lessons I learned from researching Dyson was about his incremental improvement process, which he took from Thomas Edison. Rather than producing a few prototypes, he made 5,127. Starting with a prototype made from cardboard and masking tape, to prove the principle worked. Each prototype had only one variable changed compared to the last. Even though this process sounds quite laborious (and took 4 years!) he said it was critical to understanding exactly how each variable affected the design.

Invest in Innovation

Dyson is known for investing more than most companies in R&D. In 2015 he spent £113m on innovation, approximately 8% of the company turnover. Very few of us can set a companies R&D budget, but if applied to individuals, this would equate to someone on the UK average salary of £26,000 spending £2,000 a year on training!

James Dyson has always tried to innovate and in his words ‘drastically improve things’. We may never reach his level, but we can learn from these five simple things that he does and apply them to our own lives, whether at home or work to help us to be more innovative.