Sir James Dyson is lauded as one of the greatest innovators of our time, but how was this enterprising entrepreneur able to build a company that continues to innovate and disrupt ‘The Dyson Way’?
How it all began
Dyson’s beginnings have become the stuff of entrepreneurial legend. In 1974, after discovering his passion for industrial design, Dyson reinvented the wheelbarrow by replacing the front wheel with a large ball to improve both stability and maneuverability. He formed a business partnership to manufacture and market the “Ballbarrow,” which quickly became popular with gardeners. (Unfortunately, Dyson left the company in a disagreement over marketing and lost all rights to the design).
In 1978, Dyson noticed that the air filter in the Ballbarrow paint room was constantly clogging with dust and powder, so he designed and built an industrial cyclone tower which removed the particles using centrifugal force.
Later, when renovating his home in the Cotswolds, the inventor realised he could solve a common frustration with vacuum cleaners using the same technology. His first vacuum cleaner prototype sucked dust into a cone in the middle and spun it out to the edges of the canister using centrifugal force, from which it could then be removed.
An Opportunity to Disrupt
Dyson spent eight years trying to license his dual cyclone concept to established vacuum cleaner manufacturers, including Hoover, but they all turned him down. The industry's response to Dyson's invention epitomised 'the way we do it around here' closed innovation. Dyson's technology negated the need for vacuum cleaner bags, a profitable market for the manufacturers, so the incumbents created a competitor when they could have gained an asset. Eventually, a small Japanese company contacted Dyson after seeing a picture of his vacuum cleaner in a magazine. This led to the production of the G-Force vacuum cleaner, a luxury goods item for the Japanese market. With the money from this development, Dyson opened a research centre and manufacturing base in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.
Innovation The Dyson Way
Having trained at Art College, Dyson’s innovations began from a design perspective. First, he would propose a radical innovation on a product - for example, a cyclone instead of a bag – and create a prototype to test his ideas.
Then, through a process of discovery and experimentation, hundreds of small, incremental innovations are made to the product until it is a high-functioning and thoroughly tested item. Over time, this process has allowed the Dyson brand to develop a reputation for producing a well-considered and quality products, whilst becoming a disruptor.
It's all about the prototyping
Dyson famously took 15 years and 5,127 prototypes before creating a vacuum cleaner that worked perfectly and would become a household name. Lengthy R&D and prototyping phases continue to be a core part of the production cycle and innovation at Dyson.
Dyson’s engineers start the product design process with card and foam models, which they use to map out what needs to go into the product and roughly where the components should go. Then they build prototypes, which are often failures.
At Dyson, however, failure is seen as positive: it allows the engineers to use maths, science, and creative thinking to find solutions, build great products more quickly and identify other areas for innovation. In the prototyping phase, solving one problem often raises other questions for the engineers. (For example, adding a ball increased the weight of the vacuum cleaner, so engineers had to redesign the engine to make it lightweight and energy efficient.)
Dyson engineers also use maths and statistics for quality control. With any manufacturing process you get parts of different sizes, so the engineers use mathematic formulas to incorporate ‘intolerances’ to ensure that the parts will fit together every time. Later, they use statistics to test the quality of various products in a given sample to ensure all are above the minimum standard.
Incremental innovations can still be disruptive
The idea to have a transparent case for the novel cyclonic vacuum cleaner is a case in point of how small incremental innovations can still be disruptive, whilst being surprisingly cheap and easy to implement.
Dyson thought that, far from feeling revolted when seeing their vacuum cleaners filled with dirt and grime, his customers would be thrilled to see how well their machines were working. The costs of transparency were minimal, but the perceived customer benefits were immense. Customer research affirmed that being able to see how well the Dyson cleaned was a valuable feature. In addition, transparency differentiated Dyson from its competition – a classic disruptively incremental innovation.
Dyson’s most wonderful educative failure
In the early 1990s, Dyson launched their first washing machine: the CR01 contrarotator. As with the cyclone vacuum clean, the contrarotator was an example of radical product innovation, using two drums instead of one to mimic the motion of hand washing.
However, Dyson stopped manufacturing the washing machines in 2005 as they were losing the company money. Dyson commented, “The problem was that we didn’t charge enough for it…As a washing machine, it was a great success. As a business, it wasn’t.” He added, “But you learn a lot from all that failure. Making this washing machine was the most wonderful educative failure.”
Reimagining the Fan
In 2006, the Dyson Airblade launched. Rather than using a broad area of warm air, it uses 430mph sheets of air to dry hands quickly and hygienically in 10-12 seconds, preventing bacteria and viruses from being blown on to your hands, a common problem with other hand dryers. This technology enables remarkably low running costs and can shrink a business’ carbon footprint. The running costs of these new-age hand dryers are up to 80% less than other hand dryers and up to 98% less than paper towels, plus they produce around 80% less CO2.
The bladeless Dyson Air Multiplier fan was launched in 2009. It works by drawing air in through the base before forcing it through a circular structure. This video explains the technology in more detail.
Like the vacuum cleaner, the fan’s longstanding banality allowed Dyson to create something that seemed totally novel and the company has continued to develop the technology, acoustically re-engineering it to be significantly quieter. Dyson’s commitment to “changing things for people at home everyday” is powerfully reinforced on the Air Multiplier product webpage with the image of the fan next to a sleeping baby.
In search of a good hair day
In April 2016, Dyson unveiled its first every beauty product, the Supersonic hair dryer. The hairdryer is the result of over £50 million in research, including the construction of a dedicated beauty lab, where over 1,100 miles of human hair were used to test 600 prototype hair dryers.
Dyson combined ultra-power, directed airflow with intelligent heat control to prevent extreme heat damage when drying hair. By putting the V9 - Dyson’s smallest, most advanced digital motor - in the handle instead of the head, the hair dryer is much easier to use and much quieter.
As well as providing the fastest ever blow-dry, the always-cool nozzle smooths hair as you dry, resulting in a silky and shiny finish.
Creating robots that suck. And see.
Dyson has had a keen interest in robotics since 2001 when their prototype robotic vacuum cleaner – DC06 – nearly made it into production. To develop the core computer vision algorithms for the next generation robotic cleaner, Dyson approached Professor Andrew Davison, a pioneer in visual SLAM research who has been leading the Robot Vision Group at Imperial College from 2005.
After over a decade of working together and £28 million worth of research, the Dyson 360 eye™ vacuum cleaner was announced, with computer vision at its heart. The robot uses a fish-eye camera lens, allowing it to analyse 30 frames per second of data, and triangulate its position in the room.
Both Dyson and Professor Davison were keen to build on this relationship - so the Dyson Robotics Lab at Imperial College was created. Dyson have provided significant funding and support to build a team of robotics experts. Led by Professor Davison and Dr Stefan Leutenegger, the lab's focus is on developing computer vision programmes that will enable robots to move beyond their controlled environments and successfully navigate and interact with the real world.
What can we learn about innovation at Dyson?
Dyson’s early success can be attributed to perseverance, but also to a commitment to continuous innovation and development. These attributes are now a core part of the Dyson business model and culture in the form of structured and incremental innovation, which has allowed Dyson to continue innovating, disrupting markets, and outpacing the competition. By thinking laterally and re-structuring conventional notions about how products work, Dyson has been able to reimagine mundane domestic appliances in order to spectacularly enhance their utility. Innovation doesn’t get much more revolutionary than that.
Sources & Citations
- The Dyson Case - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-WRgQlzES8