Dyson: A name that spells clever designs

  • TECH
  • Monday, 23 Oct 2017


 ONE minute the man is talking about digital motors and axial flow impellers; the next, he’s on about hair styling.

If not for the fact that he is an engineer at Dyson, this would be a bizarre conversation.

New Product Innovation design manager Ed Shelton is showcasing Dyson’s latest product, a hair dryer they named Supersonic. It has, literally, upended a design that has remained fundamentally unchanged for 60 years.

At the core of all Dyson machines is its digital motor. The Supersonic is powered by the British manufacturer’s most advanced to date, the V9. It is just a smidgen wider than a 50 sen coin. With a maximum speed of 110,000 revolutions per minute, it is engineered so some of the noise of the motor is above the range of human hearing.

The V9 is Dyson’s most advanced digital motor to date. It is housed in the handle of the Supersonic hair dryer.
The V9 is Dyson’s most advanced digital motor to date. It is housed in the handle of the Supersonic hair dryer. — Dyson

The fact that it is much quieter – and we know how tonally irritating that noise is especially so close to the ears – than other hair dryers made it less stressful for the hair stylists and models backstage at the recent fashion weeks in London and New York.

Dyson’s reputation has been built on domestic appliances that – no pun intended – suck and blow.

The origin story of the company is well documented: In a nutshell, James Dyson’s frustration with insufficient suction led him to invent the bagless vacuum cleaner 34 years ago. The most recent iteration is a cord-free machine that’s said to have changed the way people clean their homes.

Between that first vacuum cleaner and the Supersonic hair dryer, Dyson has developed other household machines that include the robot vacuum, bladeless fan (plus air purifier/heater combo) and hand dryer.

Shelton was one of the people who worked on the hair dryer at the beginning.

The V8 digital motor powers the V8 cord-free stick vacuum.
The V8 digital motor powers the V8 cord-free stick vacuum.— Dyson

“As with all projects, you make progress very quickly. We had the motor within the first week, and we glued together parts to make a machine that could blow things across the table.

“It seemed to the uneducated eye, me at the time, like the best hair dryer you could possibly have,” he says at the Dyson campus in Malmesbury, England.

“Later, we had a few more girls in the team with more credibility in the hair department (well, duh) who quickly pointed out there were practical challenges to using this kind of wind tunnel device to style your hair.”

Four years, £50mil (RM277mil), 7,000 acoustic tests and 1,600km of human hair tresses later (that’s the distance between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu), the Dyson Supersonic was born. It is a faster, more balanced and quieter device, but what was just as important to the team developing it was protecting hair while drying and styling it.

Are you dyson-ing today?

If anyone has used the word “Dyson” as a verb like another vacuum cleaner brand (Hoover, since you ask), it certainly hasn’t caught on. That’s absolutely okay with head of product development for floor care Charlie Park.

“If we were ever known as that UK company that makes vacuum cleaners, then that’s way under the ambitions that we have as a company.

“That’s where the company started but it’s the innovation that’s the key, not the product.

“What you’ve seen over the last few years, and will continue to see, is diversification of our product portfolio. We’re not a UK vacuum cleaner company, we’re a global innovation company, and will continue to invest in innovation.”

That investment is not a trifling sum. In research and development on next-generation products alone, Dyson spends £7mil (almost RM39mil) a week.

According to figures provided by Dyson, 67 million people around the world own one of its products. A lot of people covet them, but the common complaint we hear is that they are expensive (at least for us in Malaysia; especially since the brand has a manufacturing plant in Johor).

Various types of dust and dirt used to test Dyson vacuum cleaners.
Various types of dust and dirt used to test Dyson vacuum cleaners.— JANE RAGAVAN /The Star

Dyson is unapologetic.

Says Park: “They are premium products, they’re not for everyone. The point is if you want the best technology, that’s absolutely what we do, that’s where we’re focused as far as possible.

“We don’t skimp on the design or materials; we make sure they last a long time and go through the rigorous test process, with confidence that it is an investment.”

Every machine designed at Dyson undergoes rigid testing at the facilities in Malmesbury. Vacuum cleaners, for example, are run for 1,500km on various types of carpets and flooring, and rammed into skirting boards and table legs over 20,000 times. All this to make sure they are tough enough for long life in the real world.

“Testing is something we obsess over,” says Evan Stevens, from the environmental control division. No kidding – we saw a lot of it at the various labs we visited on the campus tour.

Many of the budding ideas are worked on and nurtured at a building on the campus simply called D9. On the outside, it’s a massive box designed like a large mirror that reflects the beautiful Wiltshire countryside in which it sits; on the inside is 8,000sq m of space where top secret inventions are tested and refined. (Think Dyson’s recently announced electric car.)

Dyson files 450 patents a year (it holds over 8,000), although only 5% of its initial ideas make it all the way through to a product.

“That’s not because 95% of the projects are rubbish,” says Shelton, “they’re just waiting for the right project to feed into.

“Technology just hasn’t caught up with the vision we’re trying to execute. That’s the biggest frustration.

“I think we’re very good at Dyson at big thinking and being very ambitious about what we’re trying to achieve. We set the bar really high for ourselves. We don’t work on technology for technology itself, we always try to solve a very real problem.”

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