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Exclusive Interview: The Invention of the Automist

Yusef Muhammed, the co-designer the 2009 Dyson Award-winning firefighting kitchen faucet, discusses the challenges it meets and the concepts his team discarded.

Automist

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In 2008, Yusuf Muhammed and Paul Thomas were graduate design students at the London’s Royal College of Art, facing a class assignment to create a fire-safety product. That would have been hard enough, but the real world was also closing in, and fast. It was their last year in school, and, as Muhammed says, “We didn’t want to create just a piece for our portfolios. We were really keen on something that could be commercialized.”

What they produced was a fire-fighting kitchen faucet, the Automist, which has just won the 2009 James Dyson Award.

While the solution they eventually reached seems straight forward, the idea didn’t arrive fully formed.

After intensive research, lengthy interviews, and product surveys Muhammed and Thomas produced a bushel of ideas, including “smoke hoods” that could act as temporary gas masks, exhaust systems for the London underground, robotic sprinklers that could move to the site of the fire, and intelligent lighting systems for residential evacuations. They discarded them all for reasons varying from expense to complexity.
But they were also beset by broader challenges, which plague any product purporting to increase safety.
Fire sprinklers are often too expensive to install. Small-bore solutions, such as fire extinguishers, present other challenges: People using them tend to stay too long inside a burning building, thinking they can stave off disaster.

Muhammed and Thomas knew they had to design something cheap and easy to retrofit, passive, and effective.
The Automist is what emerged. The reason it’s a kitchen faucet is that 60% of all residential fires start in the kitchen.



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The faucet has misting nozzles in its base, and is fitted with two parts: A under-sink, high-pressure pump–not too different from car-wash hoses–that diffuses the mist, and a fire-detecting sensor that can’t be thrown off by false alarms. Rather than dousing a fire, the Automist quickly creates a dense fog–an airborne water concentration of 30%, which is enough to contain a fire and control its heat. Tests have shown that in a few minutes, the misting system can lower the temperature in a burning room from a fatal 480 degrees, to 122 degrees. And all without the torrents of water that mark other sprinkler systems, and which often end up doing more damage to a residence than the fire itself.

Before their studies at the RCA, Muhammed was working as a mechanical engineer, but he was keen on “exploring the creative side of things.” Thomas was an accomplished designer in his own right, having worked for seven years at Nokia. Now, freshly graduated, they’re both working part-time as freelance designers, while pushing the Automist forward, in a business incubator, Design London, which joins RCA designers with Imperial College MBA’s. According to Muhammed: “We’re writing a business plan and looking for funding, working on our baby.”

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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