Patrick Moloney, senior design engineer with Dyson and winner of the inaugural Irish James Dyson Award, tells Mary Anne Carrigan how engineers with simple but smart ideas can make a big difference to people’s lives – and make a lot of money in the process
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The simplest of engineering innovations can offer the most payback – both in terms of improving people’s lives and yielding financial reward, according to Patrick Moloney, senior engineer with Dyson. Irish engineers, in particular, need to think creatively to come up with ideas that can be patented and sold abroad – helping to kick-start the economy in the process.

In 2005, Dyson, the innovative UK design and engineering company snapped up Moloney, a native of Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny, after he impressed the judges of the James Dyson Award with his idea for an anti-atrophy casting system – essentially, a cast that helped with recovery from injury. The James Dyson Award is run by the James Dyson Foundation, the inventor’s charitable trust, as part of its mission to inspire young people about design engineering.

Moloney was the winner of the inaugural Irish James Dyson Award in 2004 and, as a result, he now develops and utilises the latest technologies to bring products to market that make people’s lives that little bit easier. “I’ve always questioned how things work – and why some things don’t work as well as they should,” he explained. “Before I entered the competition, I was lucky enough to get a place in the Institute of Technology Carlow to study industrial design; it’s a great institution that focuses on the practical side of things, rather than theoretical engineering.”

For some time, Moloney had been nursing had an idea to develop a muscle cast that would help with injury recovery. “I knew that it solved a problem, so I decided to submit an entry based on that,” he said.

“The James Dyson Award isn’t just focused on earth-shattering feats of engineering; it looks for inventions that use design and technology to solve problems that often have a global reach. I thought that was a great approach – I actually found it inspiring and I also wanted to compete against other bright inventors from across the world.”

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DEVELOPING THE IDEA

Moloney’s anti-atrophy cast aimed at minimising the muscle bulk loss experienced after injury. The idea came to him one day while on his daily bus journey to college, he says.

“I noticed a passenger on the bus who was moving a cast on their arm – the cast was loose and it wasn’t giving support to the limb,” he explained. “I set about designing a cast that allowed access to the main muscle groups in the leg – allowing electrical muscle stimulation to be applied to the major muscle groups. Along with the benefits of reducing muscle loss and the need for recasting, the materials chosen for the cast allowed the patient to shower without having to wrap their cast in plastic, so it just made life a lot easier for them.”

Moloney’s ingenious entry saw him scoop the Irish leg of the Award for 2004. After he won, his invention continued through the prototyping phase but, in the end, he found that the cost of patenting his idea was prohibitive. “Inventions are time consuming and costly – and not all of them make it,” he added.

One of Moloney’s first projects was the DC23 cylinder vacuum cleaner

Despite this setback, in 2005 Moloney was offered a job at Dyson in its headquarters in Malmesbury, England, not long after his competition success. Dyson puts a lot of emphasis on recruiting young talent and taking a risk on inexperienced graduates, according to the young Irish engineer. “I think it’s because students are willing to try new ideas and aren’t afraid of failure,” he said. “So I was delighted to get the chance to develop new technology with other bright engineers in Dyson’s UK headquarters.”

After starting with Dyson, Moloney was “chucked in at the deep end from day one” and he started working straight away on the DC23 cylinder vacuum cleaner. He was involved in the initial modelling.

“This is the real hands-on prototyping stuff that’s hard work, but also very rewarding,” he said. “My role is in the concept team, which builds up the new product ideas. I worked on the new Airblade hand dryers, including the Dyson Airblade Tap hand-dryer, right at the concept stage and worked on the early proof-of-principle designs and prototypes.”

JAMES DYSON AWARD

Moloney is not the only Irish recipient to find the ‘Dyson effect’ has led to better things. In 2009, another IT Carlow student Noel Joyce won the Irish James Dyson Award for a lightweight ergonomic wheelchair braking system; he has since gone on to invent a range of vertical gardening products that have proven successful.

In the past nine years, inventions devised by Irish students have made it into the top 15 in the world on numerous occasions, and in last year’s semi-finals, three Irish entries made the shortlist.

“Often with the James Dyson Award, it’s the less obvious and simpler inventions that are the best. We see this every year,” said Moloney. “This means that there are opportunities for unknown inventors to publicise their invention and to get money to patent their ideas.”

The Award is open to product design, industrial design and engineering university level students (or graduates within four years of graduation), who have studied in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

For the international winner, the student or student team wins £30,000, with £10,000 going to their college department. Two international runners-up win £10,000, while national winners receive £2,000. In total, the prize pot for the James Dyson Award is £96,000.

Last year’s winner of the Award, Dan Watson, invented a series of escape rings that can be retrofitted to trawler nets, which use LED lighting to allow an escape route for juvenile, unmarketable fish. The prize money has allowed him to set up his own company, SafetyNet Technologies, to complete his prototyping and to qualify his invention for trialling by a governing body.

SOLVING PROBLEMS

The digital motor on which Patrick Moloney worked

Although he could not elaborate on the details about his current projects, Moloney’s job involves researching technology and looking at how technology can be used to solve problems. “Sketching, prototyping, building and testing is the core of what we do at Dyson,” he said. “A lot of the time is spent using the latest computer software to model new ideas and to make tweaks to prototypes before using 3D printers to create physical models. For example, we’ve developed a digital motor that takes the technology to a new level.”

The digital motor has been a 15-year project at Dyson. The company has invested £150 million in developing tiny motors capable of moving large volumes of air quickly and efficiently. It is the size-to-power ratio of these motors that makes them special. They rely on powerful magnets and use complex control algorithms to achieve the most efficient operation. The motor in the Dyson Airblade hand dryers self-adjusts 6,000 times every second.

“We realised that investing in core technology would allow us to make machines that are more powerful, lightweight and efficient that anything else that’s out there on the market. And because only we have the patents in these tiny motors, only our machines can use the patented technology. It gives us a huge advantage.

“We’re researching uses for these motors beyond our existing range of technology,” he continued. “One of our motors has already played a key role in a research project in the development of a hydrogen fuel cell system for vehicles. It resulted in a 20% increase in power density and improved efficiency. The start-up time of the fuel-cell system has also become almost three times faster using the Dyson digital motor.”

Moloney believes that it is an exciting time to be an inventor because there are so many problems that need solving. “I’d encourage young engineers to be creative and to get involved in competitions like the James Dyson Award. Those with a smart idea have the opportunity to make a big difference to people’s lives – and can make a lot of money in the process.”

The innovative nature of Dyson’s work means that the future is wide open when it comes to product development. “That’s the great thing about it – all you know for sure is that it’ll be at the forefront of the technology,” said Moloney. “But I think that digital motors will be at the heart of it for the next while. We’re working on a technology pipeline that stretches out for the next 25 years. Some of the technologies are really exciting – but for that, you’ll have to wait.

To enter or find out more about the James Dyson Award, please go to www.jamesdysonaward.org/. The closing date for entries is 1 August. Find out more about the Foundation’s work at www.jamesdysonfoundation.co.uk.

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The simplest of engineering innovations can offer the most payback – both in terms of improving people’s lives and yielding financial reward, according to Patrick Moloney, senior engineer with Dyson. Irish engineers, in particular, need to think creatively to come up with ideas that can be patented and sold...