Can Dyson do the double?

7 min read

Helen Knight spoke to James Dyson and asked whether technology–driven products are what the market wants.

The name of James Dyson has become a byword for the entrepreneurial inventor and the developer and defender of new technology, whether it be in the design studio or the High Court.

The story of Dyson’s titanic struggle to bring the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner to the market has become part of UK manufacturing folklore — the phrase ‘doing a Dyson’ is used to exemplify what engineers can achieve, given the right idea and persistence by the bucket-load.

In the five years it took to develop the machine, Dyson built more than 5,000 prototypes and filed over 100 patents. Even when the bagless vacuum cleaner was perfected, it took him a further 10 years to get the appliance into the shops. In 1993, after trawling round the established appliance manufacturers, and failing to persuade any to license his product, Dyson finally decided to manufacture it himself.

Now the head of an established company with a reputation for developing new technology, what has Dyson learned from this experience that he could use in the development of the new washing machine?

At first glance, things look a little different. For a start he could afford to spend £25m on the project, and had around 300 engineers and scientists at his disposal. It took this team four rather than 15 years to design and engineer the new technology.But Dyson maintains that the basic approach was the same. ‘Obviously we now have more people than we had before, things happen more quickly and we have more experts, which is great,’ he says, ‘but I think the same spirit is there.’

And, as with the vacuum cleaner, the design team rejected conventional wisdom, and went back to first principles. It came up with a radically different design, which claims to be more effective — the Contrarotator, with two drums rotating in opposite directions.

When it comes to product development, Dyson is a completely different animal to larger organisations such as Electrolux, also owner of the German AEG brand, and Bosch, according to Paul Kennedy, lecturer in engineering design at Glasgow University.

‘Dyson is very technology-orientated. Its products are based on new technology, not necessarily on whether they are brilliant products,’ he says. ‘But on the vacuum cleaner he [Dyson] spent all that time developing the intellectual property and then couldn’t convince people it was valuable, so that has made him see product development as crucial.’

The company is also very personality-driven, says Kennedy, with James Dyson acting as the product development pioneer for the whole organisation. ‘The most interesting thing about Dyson will be what happens when he goes,’ says Kennedy. ‘He is the company at the moment.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly it was Dyson himself who came up with the idea for tackling the washing machine, the design of which, he argues, has remained essentially the same for decades.

Studying a conventional washing machine, Dyson observed that not much seemed to be going on. Clothes were spending a lot of time just sitting in the machine, rather than being manipulated.

Back to the drawing… and washboard

So the company’s R&D team began studying how clothes are cleaned, going back to methods such as the washboard and hand-washing. Researchers looked at various possibilities, including squirting water through the clothes, manipulating them in different ways, and using ultrasound and even microwave technology.

They discovered most of the cleansing effect came from simply flexing the clothes, as in normal hand washing. Once the team had established this, they started testing the hand-washing process. ‘We discovered that in 15 minutes of hand washing you could get a better wash than in 67 minutes of a wash cycle in the best German washing machine,’ says Dyson.

Even with a team of 300 engineers, converting this discovery into a product still took a little luck. While looking for a better mechanical action to replace the simple, and, according to Dyson, inefficient, action of clothes being spun round in a drum, by chance they hit on the method of using two aligned drums.

‘While trying to build a different type of rig altogether, we came across the method of having contra-rotating drums, which actually produces a very interesting flexing and manipulation of the clothes — they do a kind of dance,’ says Dyson.

Having come up with the principle, building the product successfully and economically remained a significant challenge.

For the contra-rotation itself, the team had to build a new gearbox and clutch mechanism, to allow the drums to rotate in opposite directions during contra-rotation, and to be locked together when spinning. To ensure high performance, the main drum bearing used in the machine is the same as that used for the wheels of the £600,000 sports car, the Maclaren F1.

With a larger drum, allowing the machine to take loads of up to 7kgcompared with the average load of 5kg for most washing machines, a sophisticated protection system of sensors also had to be developed to detect imbalances and use the contra-rotating system to redistribute the load.

Having come up with the idea for contra-rotating drums, many manufacturers might have been happy to market a new product based on that principle alone. But Dyson’s philosophy meant the company’s R&D engineers considered all areas where they could improve on conventional washing machines, rather than concentrating on one idea.

‘Our approach is to try to radically rethink everything, rather than taking the single idea of the contra-rotator, quickly rushing that into production, and selling the product solely on that basis,’ Dyson says.

These ideas include simple additions such as a handle to lift and manoeuvre the machine, and a rethink of problematic parts such as the rubber seal between the door and the cabinet, which has a tendency to wear out and leak, or trap and damage clothes. Each of these parts had to be tested for the equivalent of 20 years’ use.

During the course of this testing process, each prototype product went through over 5,000 cycles. At each prototype stage the testing process had to be repeated, and any mistake meant the team had to go back and start the procedure all over again. It is this lengthy testing procedure that Dyson blames for the four years it took to develop the product, but says this apparently slow progress does not concern him because it is all part of the company’s philosophy.

‘Inevitably that makes life more complicated and takes a much longer time,’ he says. ‘But I don’t mind that, because the whole point of our business is to develop new technology and use it to make products perform better — that is really all we care about.’

The Contrarotator’s striking

combination of grey, yellow and — James Dyson’s favourite — purple plastics has become the trademark of the company’s products. Dyson argues that if a product contains new technology, then it should also look different.

Functional designs

While he firmly believes the form of his products should follow their function, he also criticises manufacturers who consider design as an afterthought. ‘Designers should be building, testing and using the product, not making it look pretty.’

Dyson’s R&D team is already hard at work developing other products to add to its range, and these are likely to be subject to the same kind of media attention that the company faced during the development of the Contrarotator, when journalists camped out in local pubs trying to eavesdrop on engineers’ conversations.

Also planned is an attack on the US market, although the company cannot sell its bagless vacuum cleaner there because of a licence granted to Fantom Technologies in the 1980s.

But however rapid the company’s expansion, Dyson is adamant that it will not be at the expense of his philosophy. ‘We’re not just trying to produce products for the sake of it, or rush to get big in a new market,’ he says. ‘I just believe the right way to do things is to produce a very good product.’

Rivals dish the dirt — but it’ll all come out in the wash

Opinion is divided over whether Dyson’s high-risk tactics will prove successful. The company has pinned its hopes on a strategy based on technology and innovation, aiming to create a product that effectively sells itself, acting as its own marketing tool.

But having invested heavily in developing a product based on new technology, Dyson’s washing machine is at least twice the price of its major rivals. So will it sell? If consumers believe Dyson’s claim that the contrarotator washes clothes much better than other machines, then £999 is not an unrealistic price for a trusted brand, says Dr Arvind Sahay, professor of marketing at the London Business School.

He offers US brand Maytag as an example. Maytag claims its machines clean clothes more effectively and are kinder to the environment, using less water and electricity. Its appliances cost about $1,100, compared with the average $200–$400 price tag for a washing machine in the US — but they sell, nonetheless. ‘Whether an innovation is successful will be determined by the market and whether people buy it. If the advantages are clear, people will pay, and if as a result Dyson starts getting market share, then others will follow his lead,’ he says.

Not everyone is as sure of Dyson’s chances of success. Alessandro Pellis, product development manager at Electrolux, says that unlike Dyson, the company has been making washing machines since the 1950s, and has gained considerable experience in that time.

‘Dyson is emphasising the fact that he has spent four years developing this product, but four years is almost nothing, and won’t give the company a comfortable view of the market.’

The market for washing machines is very competitive. With manufacturers offering more features for the same price, costs are effectively decreasing. And in this current climate Pellis believes Dyson is taking a big risk. ‘The market price of the product is very high,’ he says, ‘and looking at the mechanical parts in the machine and its complexity, I’m not sure he will be able to reduce the price for quite some time either. This price gap will make it difficult for the company to sell in large volumes.’

While Pellis maintains Electrolux is not underestimating Dyson, having seen what the company has achieved with the vacuum cleaner, he believes successfully doubling the price of a washing machine will be a much bigger challenge. He also questions Dyson’s commercial nous in believing he can sell a product at a much higher price based on its wash performance alone.

‘I wonder whether Dyson has looked at what the market really needs,’ he says, ‘because he is pushing on the fact that his washing machine washes fantastically better than those of his competitors. But we have never had any complaints in this area.’

James Dyson counters that the company simply went out and asked people what they liked and disliked about conventional washing machines, and used this information to develop the product. He adds that it is impossible to determine whether consumers will pay £999 for a washing machine before the product is launched.

No one can question the ultimate success of this strategy in the marketing of the Dual Cyclone: the company has now built up a 52% share of the vacuum cleaner market. But it will be interesting to see whether Dyson can pull off this trick for a second time.

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