Jets, motors and some wild ideas

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on January 11, 2018

Designed to thrill Dyson’s products are made to shock, awe and inspire high standards of engineering. The cafe at its Malmesbury campus has a lightning jet suspended from the ceiling. (Below) Sir James Dyson holding a supersonic hairdryer


A walk through the campus reveals the thinking behind the radical designs of Dyson products

It’s across a most unconventional table that we meet Sir James Dyson, billionaire inventor (worth £7.8 billion, according to some rich lists) and founder of Dyson Technology. The long table has no legs. It is suspended from the ceiling by ropes, and pegged into the floor through the concrete like a tent.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Sir James, whose frustrations with a clogged Hoover led to the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner, the Dyson G-Force, has designed the table himself. “I am very interested in tensile structures. Normally, you think of a table as sitting on legs. This is suspended from the ceiling and yet it is stable. The secret is the ropes crossing over underneath,” he says.

We are at the Moulton Room at the swanky Dyson campus in Malmesbury, a charming old town in the beautiful English county of Wiltshire. The room is named after Dr Alex Moulton, the famous British engine designer who created the unique suspension system for the Mini that helped the car achieve its small size, and the pioneer of the small wheeled bicycle.

Like Moulton, Sir James Dyson has also always challenged existing designs. Each Dyson product – be it its latest cord-free stick vacuum cleaner, the bladeless bell-tower shaped fan, the doughnut-on-a-stick shaped Supersonic hair dryer – have unconventional designs and new technology. Most of these products will be seen soon in India, as the $3-billion Dyson Technology that sells 13 million machines globally is set to enter the country later this year.

All morning, we have been touring the vast Dyson campus to get an idea of what goes into the making of these products. The campus is dotted with engineering marvels from another era. There’s a Harrier Jump Jet in the car park, a British creation that could take off vertically. In one of the cafeterias where shocking pink chairs dramatically offset the white walls and tables, and which boasts a Michelin chef, a lightning jet hangs from the ceiling. Near the main building stands an original Mini Cooper that has been taken apart – Sir James’ 60th birthday present from his engineers.

The idea behind placing them there is to inspire the 3,500-plus scientists and engineers at Dyson to think creatively. Wild ideas are encouraged here. The Supersonic hair dryer is the result of one such idea. A whole £50 million of investment went into this using up 1,600 km of human hair, of all types – from Caucasian to Asian.

And yet, for a company set up nearly 30 years ago, Dyson has produced only a tiny number of products. Ask Sir James why the portfolio is so limited and his joking reply is, “Lack of imagination!” On a more serious note, he explains, “It’s not our business plan to do lots of domestic appliances. Our mission is to make technology that is different.”

There are 200 tech projects going on in Dyson labs at any given time, only some of which may really translate into commercial products. For instance, the washing machine near the reception area. The product was developed but never launched as it was too expensive to be viable. Or take the DC06, Dyson’s first robotic vacuum cleaner. Nearly five years of work went into it. But just before its launch, the product was pulled. The slogan followed is “Good enough isn’t good enough” .

“We don’t bring out a product for the sake of it, we are here to do products that are much better than other people’s and we use technology to great effect to do that,” says Sir James, who confesses that he is dissatisfied with all that he sees, including his own products. “Engineers are mad that way,” says the 70-year-old who still sports the designation of Chief Engineer. Though it was through accident he found his calling – having enrolled at the World College of Art to study design initially. In school, Sir James studied classics and history, and confesses he wasn’t particularly good at Latin. “It was a bit of a detective work figuring out what the sentence meant. Engineering is a bit like that,” he laughs.

Driven by tech

Sir James keeps reiterating that his is a technology-led company, not a market-driven or product-led one. A fact that hits home when you see the range of R& D work at the campus – from aerodynamics to acoustics, robotics to microbiology. It’s a highly international young team – people of over 45 nationalities work here, in fields ranging from fluid dynamics to visual interpretation. The belief is that inspiration can come from anywhere. After all, it was the sight of sawdust being sucked out at a local sawmill that inspired Sir James to invent the bagless vacuum cleaner.

In floorcare, the bets are currently on the revolutionary V8 cord-free cleaner that Sir James thinks will be ideal for young Indian couples. As Charlie Park, head of product development, Floorcare, demonstrates, it’s a grab-and-go product that you can use with just one hand – just lift it off the charging docket and start off. The V8 is named for its motor.

The reason why Dyson has been able to change classic product designs is its motor. It is arguably the world’s fastest, smallest motor and the heart of all its products. Over the last 20 years, hundreds of millions of pounds have gone into shrinking its size. Its latest digital motor, V9, made specially for the Supersonic hair dryer has a speed of 110,000 RPM and yet is stable.

Dyson is able to change its designs rapidly thanks to the 3D printers that help in quick prototyping, and the fact that the environmental and sound control test labs are all in-house.

India launch

India will be the 76th market Dyson will be entering, but Sir James is not taking the launch lightly. Unlike home market London, where it has just one own store, in India, he says they will have at least 20. Most Dyson stores – and the first one pre-dates an Apple store – are almost like art galleries with an experience zone. At the London store, for instance, you can book a free hairstyling session with the Supersonic. Here you meet two Swedes from Malmo who are testing the fans and vacuum cleaners. “Our cat gets agitated at the sound of gadgets. We have heard Dyson gadgets make the least sound and have come to check it out," explains Tomas.

“I don’t ever feel comfortable going into a new market,” says Sir James. “I know there will be a lot of surprises,” he says. But he thinks Dyson can solve some of our problems. “Air-conditioning is a problem in India. It is very expensive and very consumptive. That works to our advantage. If you have a good fan, particularly one giving smoother air flow, it is a comfortable way to keep cool,” he says.

Will India’s unique problems inspire a new product solution from Dyson? What problems do you have, he queries at once. When someone mentions drinking water, he reveals that the Dyson air purifier was launched because the company entered China. “Air purification was a big thing in China. We knew we had to launch a product that could go finer than particulate matter 2.5. So yes, if water is a problem in India and we have a technology to solve it, we could think about it,” he says.

The writer was in Malmesbury, UK, at the invitation of Dyson Technology

Published on July 27, 2017

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