What comes to your mind when you hear the word ”inventor”? Blame pop culture if you picture an Einstein-looking person in a lab-coat, who makes things go “bang!”. Things can explode sometimes, but modern-day inventors don’t always wear labcoats, and they prefer their inventions to solve real-life problems. Yvonne Tan is one such inventor. She wears many hats. Aside from her day-to-day job as Dyson’s Digital Motor Engineering Manager in Singapore, which sees her managing a multidisciplinary team in developing products, she is also an educator and a student. She teaches at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) College of Engineering . She is also currently pursuing a Doctorate of Engineering at the Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD).
She is also one of the jurors of James Dyson Award (JDA), Dyson’s annual programme that challenges undergraduates and recent graduates of engineering and design to invent something that solves a problem. We chatted with her about what it means to become an inventor today, and why the world needs inventors now more than ever.
WHY DOES THE WORLD NEED MORE INVENTORS?
The world will always need inventors for one simple reason – there will always be problems waiting to be solved! To be an inventor is be a problem-solver; someone who applies their knowledge in design and engineering to solve everyday problems. The world is going through one of its greatest challenges in decades. The changes in our lifestyle habits and practices present opportunities to create new solutions to enhance our daily routine.
COULD YOU SHARE SOME OF THE GREATEST IDEAS AND PRODUCTS THAT HAVE COME OUT FROM THE JAMES DYSON AWARD?
There are two that come to mind. The first is the Self-sanitising door handle, which is a door handle that sanitises with advanced photocatalytic and blacklight technology, invented by students from The Chinese University, who were struck by the spread of SARS in Hong Kong in 2003. The second is last year’s Singapore National Winner, Wheelson, by SUTD students. It is a versatile storage unit attachment for bicycles, that allows the user to maintain a stable position when riding. It can be detached and used as a grocery shopping cart. Today, more people than ever are relying on food and grocery delivery services to get their essentials. This invention could not have come at a better time.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT INVENTORS?
The process of invention is never easy. The number one thing that inventors must prepare to face is failure. It is natural in the iterative design journey to experience failure. It tells you that you are one step closer to the solution. It is how you learn what is not working, so you can try and find a way around it. Encountering a difficult problem reflects that you are genuinely trying to find a different and better way. Sticking to conventional approaches is always easy, but you are not going to arrive at something that performs radically better.
Many of the world’s greatest inventions weren’t discovered by chance or a “Eureka” moment. Often, it’s the result of long hours, months, and even years of commitment to engineering and testing. It took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes – that’s 5,126 failures – to come up with the world’s first bag-less vacuum cleaner.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES SINGAPORE HAS THAT NEED HELP FROM INVENTORS?
I feel strongly about Singapore’s rapidly ageing population. This comes from my own personal experience of caring for my ageing parents. Monitoring their daily intake of medication, being able to keep a watchful eye on them while away, ensuring safeguards are in place should they encounter any mishaps, improving their mobility if they’re physically infirm, ensuring their mental health and well-being are well looked after – these are just some of the areas which I think are ripe for solutions.
Any kind of support in these areas would also have run-off benefits on caregivers. The use of technology and automation can go a long way in helping care givers do a better job and reduce the risk of care-giver burnout. I’d just like to close with an open question to all the budding inventors, designers and inventors out there: What problem will you solve today?
1. James Dyson working on prototypes of world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner.
2. Yvonne Tan is passionate about nurturing the next generation of inventors.
3. Afflo, an AI-enabled wearable device that monitors asthma.
4. The young inventors from SUTD who invented Wheelson.
“THE PROCESS OF INVENTION IS NEVER EASY. THE NUMBER ONE THING THAT INVENTORS MUST PREPARE TO FACE IS FAILURE.”
5.The sKan, a device that detects melanomas by creating a thermal map on the skin.
text Asih Jenie photos Dyson