How Dyson convinced a geek that even vacuum cleaners can be cool

As Dyson and its engineers are so fond of saying, Dyson is a “technology-driven company, not a market-driven one.”

A week ago, if someone had asked me what I thought about Dyson, I would have scratched my head and asked them if they were talking about the company that makes those fancy fans and vacuum cleaners. For many in India, especially for those who haven’t experienced a Dyson product first hand, this is, I think, a normal reaction.

As someone who spends his days messing with the latest gadgets and writing about technology for a living, Dyson’s products have always left me a little cold. I mean, why would I be interested in a fan or a vacuum cleaner in the first place, especially one that could match a GTX 1070 for price? And anyway, I’d rather be tinkering with my PC than vacuuming my floors.

Therefore, when Dyson invited me (and a handful of other journalists) over to its headquarters in Malmesbury, UK, I was a little bemused, but also a little intrigued. Why did a maker of vacuum cleaners and hair dryers want to invite a technology journalist? A little research was in order.

The cyclone filter

Dyson’s claim to fame is the cyclone filter. Briefly, the story is as follows: Dyson bought a vacuum cleaner, got frustrated that it got clogged so fast, and then resolved to make a better vacuum cleaner.

The problem, he discovered, was that the traditional bag-based vacuum cleaners would rapidly lose efficiency. Apparently, this is because the suction happens through the bag, clogging its pores with dust. Since the bag is clogged, airflow is impeded and the vacuum cleaner is less efficient.

Sir James Dyson, the founder of the company, hit upon a solution when visiting a local sawmill. The sawmill used a large, industrial cyclone to suck up the dirt and separate it. The technology had never been applied on a smaller scale before. Dyson jury-rigged a miniature cyclone separator using cardboard and a Hoover vacuum cleaner (sans the bag). Thus, the first bagless vacuum cleaner was born.

Sir James Dyson

Sir James Dyson, Founder and Chief Engineer, Dyson Ltd.

This was just a proof-of-concept, however, and there was still a lot of work to be done. As several Dyson engineers reminded us time and time again, it was only after five years and 5,127 revisions that the first, working prototype was created.

It took some time and a trip to Japan before the design was even accepted by the public, but once it took off, it helped transform the company into the multi-billion-dollar enterprise that it is today.

But is that all there is to Dyson?

At first blush, it certainly seems so. A British engineer builds this awesome new filter, thoroughly patents the design and then proceeds to live off the royalties for the rest of his life.

One day at Dyson HQ was enough to prove to me how wrong I was.

Engineering marvels

Dyson’s headquarters in the UK is in a little town called Malmesbury, which is located 100 miles to the east of London. Several things stand out when one first arrives at the place, but most notable is the Harrier Jump Jet that sits opposite the entrance. Glance around and you’ll spot a partially stripped down, 1959 Mini. Look around a bit more and you’ll see an amphibious landing craft in the parking area. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a stunning English Electric Lightning mounted on the ceiling of one of the cafeterias and a jet engine in one of the halls. There are supposed to be assorted engineering marvels scattered around the place as well, but we didn’t have time to see all of them.

What's a V/STOL strike aircraft doing in the parking lot?

What's a V/STOL strike aircraft doing in the parking lot?

Oh, and the only working example of the Whittle Jet engine also resides at Dyson HQ.

I’ve spent half my childhood sketching aircraft in notebooks and to find two iconic aircraft take pride of place at the HQ was heartening, to say the least.

The marvels didn’t stop there. The conference room we were assigned to featured a glass table that appeared to be held in place by nothing more than steel wire. On closer inspection, it was indeed held in place by nothing more than steel wire. I say 'held in place', and not 'suspended' (like a lamp), because the table wasn’t hanging from the ceiling, it was rigidly held in place a few feet off the floor with nothing but four stands of wire.

Look ma, no legs! This table is simply held in place by four steel wires.

Look ma, no legs! This table is simply held in place by four steel wires.

As Sir James Dyson himself explained later, the secret to the rigidity was the crossing of the wires. The table is his design.

He wrote in a piece on Wired, “I am fascinated by ideas that seem impossible. A vacuum without a bag. A bridge without supports. A jet that jumps into the air.”

Yes, that is indeed an English Electric Lightning mounted on the cieling

Yes, that is indeed an English Electric Lightning mounted on the cieling

This fascination with unique aircraft and engineering should give you some idea of the kind of man that Dyson is. He’s an engineer at heart, a problem solver, and it’s this passion for engineering that seems to drive the company. As Dyson and its engineers are so fond of saying, Dyson is a “technology-driven company, not a market-driven one.”

Failure is an option, compromise isn’t

The company’s commitment to that ethos is seen in the millions – £7 million a week – that it’s investing in research. Of the products that Dyson develops, maybe one in three or one in four see the light of day, say the engineers.

Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer 720

The Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer nestled in its carrying case

Dyson explains that the engineers focus on building what they think is a solution to a given problem. To that end, they’re encouraged to fail and fail fast, it’s the only way to move forward and develop a better product. The idea is to fail early so that the projects don’t drag on for years.

Despite all this effort and money, a product may not even be successful. The Dyson washing machine is testament to this fact. A brilliant design involving counter-rotating drums, the machine failed commercially because it was simply too expensive. Rather than brush it under the carpet, the machine (and its prototype) reside beside one of the entrances to Dyson’s research facility. Another reminder of such a failure takes the shape of a jet engine from the Concorde, which also resides in the facility. As an engineer explained, the engine is a reminder that one can get everything right, in an engineering sense, and still fail.

An engine from the supersonic Concorde jet liner.

An engine from the supersonic Concorde jet liner. A reminder to all that even a perfect design can be a commercial failure.

The mantra at Dyson is try-test-fail-repeat, and you keep doing this till you have a winner. Dyson is also a big fan of Newton’s approach to iterative design, which is that you make just one change and test again. With this approach, you better understand the impact that the change has on the design. It’s part of the reason why it took Dyson 5,127 iterations to come up with a viable vacuum cleaner.

The engineers tell us that the company’s willingness to invest in research and development gives them more resources, freedom and a stronger sense of responsibility, allowing them to explore new ideas.

Dyson's 3D printing facilities are top notch

Dyson's 3D printing facilities work non-stop producing prototypes for the engineers

To enable all of this, Dyson does all its prototyping and designing in-house. In fact, it does so much prototyping that Dyson is apparently the largest consumer of nylon powder in Britain. This powder is used in 3D printing.

Attention to detail

Take Dyson’s Supersonic Hair Dryer, for instance, it took the company over five years to develop the product. Why? There was a lot to learn and a great many problems to fix. When they started out, for example, the engineers didn’t know that hair dryers could damage the hair (the heat can get too intense, it seems).

Dyson Hair test robot 720

Dyson actually maintains a robot for that simulates the actions of a person blow-drying their hair

There were other issues as well, like the noise from the motor. Dyson maintains an anechoic chamber for the sole purpose of testing the sound signature of the products it designs. In the case of the Supersonic, one of the initial prototypes was found to make a high-pitched noise in the 15 kHz range. This frequency is particularly disturbing to human ears. The noise is primarily a result of the fan blades chopping the air at regular intervals, creating pressure waves and hence, the sound. The high frequency is a result of the high speed of the motor.

The solution, the engineers discovered, was to simply increase the blade count from 11 to 13, pushing the noise into the 17 kHz range, making for a more pleasant aural experience. The engineer also explained that there is a subjective appreciation of quality through sound. A premium product must sound premium, if that makes sense.

Dyson anechoic chamber 720

An engineer explains the purpose of Dyson's anechoic chamber

Such examples of attention to details aren’t new, HP is known to do the same when designing its printers. The point here is the attention to detail that Dyson is also encouraging.

And speaking of sound, you’ll have to take my word for it, but that motor sounds like a miniature turbine engine. With a tiny little 13-blade fan spinning at over 100,000 rpm, this is understandable.

The fan used in the hair dryer is tiny and the tolerances in the structure are finer than a strand of spider silk, says one of the engineers.

Dyson V9 motor 720

This teensy little motor is the core to the whole Dyson experience. Those tiny blades spin at a staggering 100,000+ rpm

You might be wondering if such a powerful motor would suck up dust and blow it in your face, and it would have, if Dyson hadn’t placed a dust filter at the inlet.

The design of the vacuum cleaners is no less fascinating. The cyclone filters used today are an unrecognisable evolution of the original design. The current model can separate dust by generating a centrifugal force in excess of 200g (200 times the force of gravity). The new, portable vacuum cleaner uses batteries that are designed to last eight to ten years, the bristles at the cleaning head include carbon-fibre strips to prevent the floor and dust particles from getting electrically charged, HEPA filters prevent even the smallest of dust particles from escaping. Even the cleaning mechanism is so well designed that you needn’t touch the dust when emptying the vacuum cleaner’s drum.

Dyson prototype vacuum cleaner 720

This transparent vacuum cleaner was a design prototype

The battery isn’t designed to be replaceable. The engineers tell us that this is because a user-replaceable battery can get damaged. Even damage to the connectors can reduce engine efficiency. If you’re worried about battery life, the engineers tell us that the battery is designed to give you 40 minutes of usage on a 3.5-hour charge and that it will continue to do so for many years. If the batteries do get damaged, they can be serviced.

Everything about the products, be it the vacuum cleaners or the air filters and fans, is elegantly and ergonomically designed. I could interact with everything with impressive ease. Parts that needed to be serviced were easy to access, the fan’s remote control is magnetically mounted, some parts are colour-coded by usage, everything slots in comfortably and so on.

Dyson air purifier

An example of sensible design: Parts that need to be serviced are very easy to access

It’s small touches like this that define Dyson products and have made it the brand it is today.

A product endorsement?

Please don’t mistake my enthusiasm for Dyson as a whole-hearted product endorsement, however. The vacuum cleaners and hair dryer might be marvels of engineering, but they’re still vacuum cleaners and hair dryers, and very expensive ones at that – the bulk of the portfolio seems to sell in the £300-400 range.

These prices are quite steep

These prices are quite steep

You can pick up a generic table fan or a hair dryer for Rs 1,000 and an air purifier or vacuum cleaner for Rs 10,000, and they’ll do their jobs reasonably well. There’s no compulsion to pick up a Dyson product.

But then again, there’s no reason why you’d want an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S8. It’s not like you can’t pick up a phone for under Rs 10,000 or a budget flagship for Rs 30,000. It’s not like these phones won’t make calls or take excellent pictures.

You know all this, but in the back of your mind, there are those of you who know that you want that iPhone or that S8. The justification for it may not be entirely rational, maybe even hedonistic, but once you get a taste for that quality, it’s hard to get back. It’s the difference between a McDonald's burger and one made by Heston Blumenthal.

That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of Dyson’s products.

Dyson seems to understand this very well. Sir James Dyson himself said that Dyson products are expensive, aspirational even, and they’ve embraced that notion.

Dyson wall of dirt 720

This wall of bottles contains 64 different types of dirt, all of which you can use to test Dyson's vacuum cleaners

In what sounds remarkably like an Apple Store, the Dyson stores are designed to be experience zones. There are no check-out counters or boxes lining the shelves. All you see are products on demo and are given the freedom to try them out. There’s even a row of shelves with different kinds of dirt so you can put the vacuum cleaners through their paces.

Dyson Hair Styling 720

Psst! Ladies, if you head to the Supersonic Hair Dryer section, you can even get your hair styled for free.

Dyson points out that the similarity to Apple Stores isn’t coincidence. Dyson apparently pioneered this type of store long before Apple did.

And another thing, these products may even be over-engineered. A couple of people we spoke to (UK residents) suggested that they had been using the same Dyson product for over a decade.

The India connection

Dyson has now, finally, set its eyes on India. After establishing itself in China and a number of other countries, the brand is headed to India later this year. The company is already prepared to invest £150 million in the country, the bulk of which will go towards establishing 20 flagship stores here.

Dyson believes that Indians are tech savvy and that they like doing things in a new way. He also has a particular attachment to the country, owing to his father, and is also vocal about his support for commonwealth countries.

Dyson air purifier 720

Dyson believes that its range of air purifiers will do well in the country

Dyson sees the air purifier range as a good fit for the country and expects it to sell well here. He points out that India does have a severe pollution problem and that air indoors can be five times as polluted as that outdoors. He adds that “professional couples” are a good target for the company’s products.

Later on, he’d like to invest in education in the country and believes that design and technology needs to be an integral part of the school system. The recently established Dyson University in UK focuses on exactly this. Students are, in fact, employees who learn through working. They only spend one day a week on core academics. The rest of the time is spent with Dyson’s engineers in Dyson’s research facilities.

The trip to the Dyson HQ allowed for a fascinating insight into one of the most unique and successful technology brands in the world today. While I'm still in no hurry to rush out and grab a £399 vacuum cleaner or hair dryer, I’m now convinced that even vacuum cleaners can be exceedingly cool.

Disclaimer: This correspondent was invited by Dyson Ltd. to explore its headquarters in UK. Dyson Ltd. was responsible for the flights, accommodation and other related expenditure for the duration of the visit.

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