Distilled from years of experience in the most innovative role at one of the most innovative companies around, Ben Edmonds – aka the 'Cardboard Ninja'- explains how his narrative has left him wanting to make a difference in the packaging sector
Work isn't really work when you're having that much fun.
It's an adage that many people try to force upon their circumstances, but not one that needs reiterating to a man who once drove a cardboard car around a Dyson Christmas party, and also worked with students to build a cardboard bridge that 16 adults walked over.
Ben Edmonds is a designer, inventor, entrepreneur, engineer, and self-confessed 'tinkerer'. But perhaps the most accurate and up-to-date description of a man who has spoken to the Ministry of Defence, Airbus, and a convention of 350 Head Teachers in recent weeks is 'cardboard ninja'.
As a 12-year-old, Ben was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up; he answered, "I want to be a Design Manager for Dyson". And almost 20 years later, that's exactly what he did, becoming a Principal Designer at Dyson.
As a huge advocate for starting future engineers as young as possible, Ben picks up the story in his younger years when the bundles of creativity, ideas and energy were even greater than today.
"I am the biggest advocate for cardboard ever," he told packagingbirmingham.com. "My mum's an artist. She's a sculptor. And an author.
"So, I grew up in such a creative household. We had this ridiculous draw full of cardboard tubes and bits and bobs, and I've just always made stuff.
"I found that adults are just big kids, and they like making stuff too. The benefit of making stuff physically and tangibly today is the ability to better understand the problem more quickly and arrive at a solution cost-effectively.
"Cardboard might not be the end solution that you're making, but, for you guys, a lot of the time, it is. But I can understand an engineering problem with cardboard, and it's not just cardboard, right? It's whatever I can get my hands on."
Ben worked with the world-famous company for over a decade and has participated in numerous projects, including helping develop the world's smallest cylinder vacuum cleaner and, most recently, the 'Mercedes-Benz of air purifiers'.
But a quick flick through his back catalogue of inventions includes everything from the zip line he built in his back garden, using 20m of steel cable, aged 11, right through to the Chubb Delta 6 external alarm system – and quite literally everything in between.
Ben now lives in North Wiltshire, on the edge of the Cotswold Water Park, where he switches from making rubber-band propelled ping pong ball launchers, to cool t-shirts, hoodies, giant wall stickers and furniture.
"I really champion fun," he added. "It's one of the things I talk about a lot in all my speeches because I think innovation should be fun.
"I think, if you ask somebody to go back to their primary school years and tell me what happened, tell me some things, they're going to tell you the fun things. They're the things that they remembered.
"And I think products should be fun. You should have some level of excitement about getting it. But I think the box itself can be fun, too.
"We all remember a time that was really, really irritating and that saw one product or another turn up that was either broken or just incredibly difficult to get out.
"I mean, I used to design purifiers a lot for Dyson, and so we would get in competitors’ products.
There was one product which took 20 minutes to get it out of the box. I'm not even joking.
"There were two of us having a go. It was so hard to get out of the box. It was ridiculous. Nothing about that was fun."
After 12-and-a-half years at the cutting edge of New Product Innovation, leading global teams and inventing cutting-edge products, Ben recently decided to step out on his next big adventure.
After a once-in-a-lifetime chance encounter with an investor in December 2022, he was given the opportunity to solve a well-known furniture problem.
And the pull of a problem to solve proved too hard to ignore.
For the past year, he has been working on designing and developing an innovative flat-packed furniture system that's all about saving time whilst making solid, secure furniture that's easy to put up, a joy to use, and, most importantly, easy to dismantle and rebuild.
"I was still very much working at Dyson and was pitched a problem by a friend of a friend on the 28th of December last year," he said. "I like solving problems, and my friend is not good at solving problems. So, he suggested that I could help, and the problem was largely around flat-pack furniture.
"If you just search for the terms flat-pack and divorce, the stories are all there. It's unbelievable. The number of stories is ridiculous. There's even one piece of furniture from a Swedish manufacturer known as the ‘Divorce Maker’.
"I was pitched the problem of whether we could do fast assembly for a product, principally a wardrobe. But it must have a solid feel, like a solid piece of furniture. And also, because people move house a lot more these days, rather than it being a one-way journey, can you put it up, and easily take it down.
"Our thought was can we start to think about the longevity of the product?
"I came up with a solution within a couple of weeks, and then I made a prototype in early February. I’ve worked on improving the design since then, constantly iterating, we've made three further prototypes, and I've left Dyson as a result of this opportunity."
The neat thing about the packaging he's creating for the furniture is that everything needed for assembly is attached. No more Allen keys for the messy drawer!
And while the challenge of packaging '27 incredibly angry heavy hedgehogs and making sure they don't spike each other' would make most designers run a mile, the love and pursuit of design and technology that has shaped his entire life continues to serve him well.
He has recently been trading his skills and time for favour at a hardware factory in Vietnam, helping him prototype and test these key components for his latest venture.
With the mantra 'F1 races are often won when the car isn't moving during the pit stop' ringing in his ears, Ben will never stop innovating, never stop solving problems and never stop finding a better way to be human. And that gravitational pull increasingly takes him back to his roots, cardboard, and the future of packaging.
He continued: "I've got some ideas of things I'd like to do at some point where, rather than the product turning up, you open the box, get the product out, and the cardboard immediately goes in the bin. There's a real opportunity to do something exciting for the kids with that, with the interior of it.
"You know, how many times has somebody been given a Christmas present and the child ends up just playing with the cardboard box, and you're like, no, it's the thing inside it that I spent all my hard-earned money on, and they're like, no, it's the box.
"I love a box. So why not make it playful? Why not make it a better experience? Because it's then memorable. And that's essentially free advertising.
"And if you can do it and it's not going to cost you more money because it's within the cost of the tooling or it's like a few extra dollars or something for the tooling, why wouldn't you do it?"
Having spent the last 12 years in Senior Management at one of Britain's most influential innovation companies, few people understand the need for innovative thinking better.
"We were constantly trying to do things just a bit differently. I think what often happens is the focus is very much on the product, the product, the product, and at the last minute, there's a realisation that we need to put it in a box. But we tried to do things quite differently and said everything would be recyclable, the product, the box, the packaging, everything.
"You would very quickly realise that's quite hard. We were trying to change everything, just turning it on its head. So, particularly for the product, we said that every single item was made of recycled resin or could be recyclable, and then it was down to people to convince you why it couldn't be.
"And, you know, there are often incredibly good reasons why they can't be. But it's just a bit of a cultural shift."
When Packaging Innovations comes around in February, Ben will headline what promises to be a speaking line-up bursting at the seams with cutting-edge innovation.
Having spent a lifetime creating, making, building, testing and iterating anything and everything, the number one question he gets asked is how to create an environment ripe for innovation. But Ben believes many boundaries are set before you even take up residency on day one of your new role.
"I think companies work very differently," he continued. "I've worked for three companies now, and they often work in very different ways.
"Some are marketing driven, where marketing owns everything. They tell you what to make, and then you engineer and make stuff.
"Whereas the company I've just come from, engineering was king. Solving the problem was king. And then marketing would have to get on board and embrace the thing that we've come up with and the problem we'd solved. They would then have to figure out the story behind it and sell the thing.
"Without doubt, it's the number one thing I'm asked about at the moment, the thing I speak on a lot - how do companies become more innovative and more creative?
"And I think a lot of that stems from whether you're a marketing-based business or a problem-solving-based business, where you need to stay one step ahead of the competitors, need to stay one step ahead of the problems that are around us, like a pandemic and Brexit and all those other things."
Having spent a career at the intersection between creative idea generation and practical business application, his lessons on seeking out highly creative cultures and top-notch learning environments will undoubtedly be highly sought-after.
And while he continues to fine-tune his problem-solving skills to face a new challenge - the packaging waste challenge - one of the biggest issues of the day, his insights and creativity will no doubt be pivotal in helping turn the ideas of tomorrow into reality.