Inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson used a defect in the Airblade drier as the springboard for an innovative table fan
James Dyson, the British engineer and entrepreneur best known for his bright-orange high-tech vacuum cleaners and hand driers, is relaxing on a couch in a hotel suite overlooking Midtown Manhattan. Across from him, on a coffee table, sits what looks like a modern sculpture: a simple ring of plastic set atop a sturdy base. As he stares into the circle meditatively, his closely cropped hair ruffles slightly. Yet all the windows are closed, and he insists that the air conditioner is not turned on.
It turns out that the "sculpture" across from Dyson is actually a fan—with no blades. The product also marks a departure for Dyson's eponymous company, which until now has stuck to cleaning and personal hygiene devices, like the Airblade drier. The new fan, branded the Dyson Air Multiplier, is being launched on Oct. 12 on Dyson.com. The 10-inch version sells for $299.99, while the 12-inch model sells for $329.99.
Dyson says the device came out of a defect in the Airblade, the energy-efficient hand drier for public restrooms that his company, Dyson, launched in 2006. Despite its jet-like exhaust, engineers noticed that the machine was trapping a lot of air inside. "We had no intention to make a fan," he says. "But the failure made us curious. We asked, What could we do with this high-speed air?"
Dyson and his staff studied the air flow, which was akin to a comfortable breeze. They thought they could harness the wind, but it didn't really apply to any existing products. So they moved on to consider what other everyday household products could be improved if they generated a focused breeze. They decided on the typical electric fan, which uses rotating blades to hack air into pieces that are then propelled at an uneven pace.
Building an Innovation Library
Matching technical discovery to existing consumer-product problems is an exercise that Dyson has engaged in since he was a student and budding inventor. "We watch things in the lab that aren't working," he says. "We're critical of objects around us. We build a library."
Exhibit A of this approach to innovation is Dyson's iconic bagless vacuum cleaners, which were the first to use centrifugal force to trap dirt and were inspired by Dyson's own frustration with existing, messy vacuums. Dyson has now sold 20 million of the cleaners, takes in $1 billion in revenues a year, and accumulated 1,200 patents since it was founded 16 years ago, according to the company.
Once the team decided that the extra air generated by the Airblade's inner mechanisms could be used in a new type of fan, Dyson began designing. Knowing that it is important to give new devices a form that signals what they do, he created a silhouette that suggests a standard table-top fan. "A desk fan has a pleasing shape, so we kept it as that," Dyson says.
To keep the fan both functional and good-looking, Dyson fashioned a system in the fan's base to draw in air, which then moves up to the ring. The ring's curved surface features a 1-mm slot, and when air passes through the slot onto a slightly angled tier of plastic, it creates a suction-like effect that increases the airflow. The result is a smooth waft of air, rather than choppy bits of wind. The product boasts other advantages: Because it has no blades, it is easier to clean and safer.
It took about three years to develop Air Multiplier. Dyson says that's fast for his company. He spent 14 years and produced more than 5,000 prototypes before he was able to launch his initial Dyson vacuum cleaner. The speed means less R&D investment to recoup.
But recessionary 2009 hardly seems like a year to bring out a premium-price gadget. A 10-inch oscillating fan from Hunter Fan sells for $66.20 on Amazon.com (AMZN) and $67.49 on Overstock.com—a quarter of the retail price for the first batch of Air Multipliers, which will be available only at design-conscious boutiques in New York (the Conran Shop), Los Angeles (Twentieth), and Chicago and Miami (Luminaire), in addition to Dyson.com.
Next March, Dyson plans to go more mass market—selling the fans at the same price at retail chains such as Best Buy (BBY) and Target (TGT). (A cobalt-blue version will be limited to stylish shops, though, to keep the chic-factor alive.)
Still, Dyson's strategy might be smart. "Getting too conservative has its own set of risks," says Darrell Rigby, head of Bain & Co.'s Global Innovation Practice. "If companies fail to accelerate, when competitors are taking prudent risks, they can get left far behind. Companies have to learn how to build a culture of innovation to succeed."