The Vacuum Man Takes On Wet Hands

James Dyson moves beyond cyclonic vacuums to bring the world a better hand dryer

This test of James Dyson's latest invention is anything but scientific, but it's pretty convincing. You immerse your hands in water, shake them, and then dip them into the curvaceous opening at the top of a sleek, gray hand dryer mounted on the wall that looks like some sort of high-tech fingerprint reader. Infrared sensors trip the "on" switch, and intense jets of air squeegee the moisture off your hands as you slowly draw them out. Elapsed time: 12 seconds, less than half the time taken by conventional machines. And your mitts are dry. No need for the traditional wipe-on-pants move.

Dyson, an English entrepreneur, has earned a small fortune and an outsize reputation as an inventor based on a simple principle. "I like frustration," he says. "I like seeing things in everyday life that don't work very well and try to make them better." His company, privately held Dyson Appliances Ltd., has the leading vacuum cleaner brand in the U.S., Britain, and Japan, with annual revenues topping $1 billion.

There's a lot of excitement these days around the latest consumer electronics gadgets, such as iPhone, but when it comes to practical innovations, nobody beats Dyson. His main claim to fame is the cyclonic bagless vacuum cleaner, which uses centrifugal force to separate dirt from air. Some of Dyson's earlier inventions were a wheelbarrow with a ball in place of a conventional wheel, which makes the thing more stable; and a simple but effective boat launcher, which rolls under the hull as a boat immerses.

Now Dyson is back with the commercial hand dryer, called the Dyson Airblade. It dries with a slim jet of air moving at 400 miles per hour. The Airblade doesn't heat the air, so it uses about 80% less electricity than conventional machines. The dryers, which will be launched in the U.S. on June 26, are getting rave reviews from early customers. "Everybody loves them," says George Denise, general manager for property manager Cushman & Wakefield at Adobe Systems Inc.'s buildings in San Jose, Calif. "They're high-tech. They're unique. They work well. And I'd even go so far as to say they're fun."

Dyson is fun, too. The youthful 60-year-old, who fronts in his company's TV ads, claims to have been a misfit all his life. Growing up in rural England in the 1950s, he developed passions for Greek, the bassoon, and oil painting. He went to art school, where he discovered an affinity for product design and the iconoclastic ideas of futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. Then he attended engineering school, where he learned the disciplines an inventor needs to cross the bridge separating concept and finished product. He worked as an engineer in a corporation until he began dreaming up products on his own.


In the case of the cyclonic vacuum, Dyson's own ire was the mother of invention. The basic concept for vacuum cleaning had been around for nearly 100 years when Dyson became irritated with clogging and poor suction while cleaning house in 1978. He took the machine apart and noticed that the pores of the vacuum bag were clogged with fine dust, making it difficult for the machine to draw air through the paper. His solution was to dispense with the bag altogether and use cyclonic action to capture dust. Other companies now offer such vacuums, too, but Dyson's are among the top-rated ones by Consumer Reports.

Dyson spent 14 years and produced more than 5,000 vacuum prototypes before he was satisfied that he had come up with a radically better design. The company he later built still relies on extensive prototyping. His designers and engineers begin by using the latest in computer-aided design programs, but quickly switch to real-life models. "The way to really learn is to build a prototype and watch it, see it fail," says Dyson. Often, he says, the original idea doesn't work out, but lessons learned in the process provide a different way to make a better product.

Engineering experts respect Dyson for his willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of bringing a product to market. "He's different from other inventors," says Glenn Weston-Murphy, a lecturer at Yale University's Faculty of Engineering. "A lot of people have great ideas, but they have no clue how to turn them into products. James takes it to the level where it's commercial and productive."

Dyson's inventions come from two sources. In addition to addressing common frustrations, he and his crew look for new uses for technologies they have already invented. That's the way the hand dryer came about. Two years ago, he and some colleagues were working on a not-yet-released product with "air blade" technology, which blasts air out of a compressor through a narrow slit. They noticed that the blast of air did a good job of blowing water off their hands. A new product was born.

True to his contrarian nature, Dyson looks for solutions where competitors see no promise. "We call what we do wrong thinking," he says. His engineers and designers are encouraged to try ideas that most people would consider crazy. The clear plastic dust collector in the cyclonic vacuum is one example. Market researchers warned Dyson that consumers didn't want to see dirt and pet hair collecting. As it turns out, a lot of people find the sight of their household detritus to be strangely compelling.

For Dyson, product development starts with engineering and technology rather than what the product is going to look like. He "designs from the inside out," he says. The company has more than 1,100 patents and files applications for more than 300 per year.

But Dyson and his team are no slouches at industrial design, either. Dyson products have been put on display in a host of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "He has an important thing going for him," says Niels Diffrient, an independent designer in Connecticut. "[Dyson is] in charge of engineering and the appearance. You can work them back and forth and adjust to the best qualities of each." He is starting up the Dyson School of Design Innovation in England, to teach his principles.

The drawback for customers with Dyson's products is their price tags. Top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum cleaners cost from $400 to $600, compared with $150 to $400 for top-end cyclonic models from other major manufacturers. Dyson insists that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that they're convinced will work a lot better.

He's constantly pushing to deliver cutting-edge technology. Consider this: In some models being tested in Japan, the microchip embedded in the vacuum cleaner's digital motor stores a wealth of information about the device. If something goes wrong, you can call the company, hold your phone up to the running machine, and Dyson's computers learn all about that particular machine and even, potentially, diagnose what's wrong with it. A vacuum cleaner with a brain. Now, that's radically different.

By Steve Hamm

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