Graduate Profile: Oliver Blackwell, 23, inventor of the drumless washing machine

Oliver Blackwell hopes to revolutionise laundry time with his drumless washing machine. Andrea Wren meets the student who hated ironing

Wednesday 01 April 2009 21:00

Creating an award-winning product is every design graduate's dream, and Oliver Blackwell has done just that with his invention - a drumless washing machine. Blackwell built the contraption for a dissertation project on his design course at the University of Plymouth. It was spotted at a student design exhibition and Blackwell was invited to exhibit it at The Ideal Homes Show, where he scooped the Concept for Living award last month . He won a £5,500 place at the Academy for Art & Design in Guilford and £2,000 cash.

Blackwell believes his "WashDryIron" could really alter the way we do our laundry. Why? Because it saves us from the job that we all hate: ironing.

Blackwell, who graduated last year, didn't realise that he was onto a potential winner when he began his course at the Exeter campus of the University of Plymouth in 2002. He picked the course because he wanted to study in Exeter as he liked the city, having already given up a degree course at a different university because he felt the teaching method was far too structured and theoretical.

However, once on the University of Plymouth course, a BA honours in product design, 23-year-old Blackwell says: "What I really liked about it was that we always had an open brief - so it meant everyone was doing many different things and there were lots of ideas flying about. For example, we'd be told, 'the project must be focused on sustainability' and that was it. This meant we had a lot of freedom and everyone would come up with very diverse designs."

In his final year he realised that he needed to think more like a designer than a businessman, as he had been looking at making money from his concepts rather than considering other aspects. "I realised I had to change my thinking in order to be successful," he says.

A change of tutor inspired him to contemplate projects that not only had the potential to be commercially viable, but that would also be aesthetically pleasing and manufactured from suitable materials. However, the idea of a washing machine that wouldn't cause creasing was one that none of his tutors predicted would be feasible within the time frame available.

Blackwell was convinced he could meet the deadline. "I wanted to produce a household appliance, as these are the ones that make money," he says. "I knew from everyday life that people hated ironing, and I worked out that it was the drum of the machine that makes the problem by causing creases in the clothes. If I could take the drum out of the equation, then I might have a solution.

"I ran some tests to discover whether you could wash clothes upright by vibration, and also if you could dry them in this position. To test this latter aspect, I made an MDF funnel that I stuck out of the sun roof of my friend's car with a wet T-shirt inside. We drove ten miles up the A30 so the wind could run down the funnel, and it was dry when we stopped."

The prototype took four months to complete from the birth of the idea, and cost Blackwell £5,000 to research and build. Because the machine needed expensive materials, he says he had no choice but to fund it on his credit card. He's thrilled to have been exhibiting at the Ideal Homes Show, and feels very lucky that he won an award. But he hasn't yet received any corporate interest for his drum-less wonder.

"This model is bigger than the real production item will be as it attracts more attention at this size," he says. "Currently it's like a walk-in wardrobe. The real thing is likely to be the size of a normal washing machine."

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