Cutting the cord: will Dyson’s latest gamble pay off?

The company made a name for itself by making a bagless vacuum cleaner – now it’s taking another risk with its cordless model

British inventor James Dyson: the company  may be taking a further risk in the next couple of years with the development of an electric car

British inventor James Dyson: the company may be taking a further risk in the next couple of years with the development of an electric car

 

Dyson is taking a risk. The company, which has made a name for itself making bagless vacuum cleaners, has decided time is up for another fundamental part of the device: the power cord.

Dyson has been flying the flag for cordless cleaners for a decade. It developed a digital motor that it used to make more powerful handheld cleaners to create a new generation of the devices.

“Ten years ago, we thought we would change the dynamic of a vacuum cleaner,” said founder James Dyson. “Instead of being a big heavy thing with a weight at the bottom on the floor, we decided to put the weight in your hand. It’s a really counter intuitive thing to do, and actually a slightly stupid thing to do.”

But with Dyson’s unique take on things, it worked.

“If you can make it light enough and hold it in your hand, you then transform the way you vacuum. It’s easier, lighter and less energy consuming way of vacuuming,” he said. That created a new genre of vacuum cleaners, one that could be used anywhere around the house – and out of it – and Dyson has been developing its digital motors ever since.

It isn’t the first time that Dyson has taken a leap of faith. Developing the now-familiar bagless vacuum cleaner was also a risk. In an industry where replacement dust bags were a revenue source, Dyson found some resistance to his concept. He ended up selling the device through mail order catalogues, until eventually it was manufactured for the Japanese market. It was expensive – about $2,000 – was branded as G Force, and it was bright pink.

It wasn’t until 1993 that the first vacuum bearing the Dyson name was produced.

The rest, as they say, is history. The company now employs more than 8,500 people worldwide. Dyson holds almost 1,000 patents, and its often-copied design has been the focus of many court battles.

Power issues

More than 15 years ago, it entered the US market, which caused a few issues of its own thanks to the difference in power on both continents. In the UK you have 240 volts, in the US it’s 120.

While that made for a very quiet vacuum cleaner and a great slow motion view of the dirt spinning around in it, the disadvantage was that the vacuum wasn’t very powerful – not an ideal way to sell the merits of a vacuum cleaner to a new market.

It wasn’t the first time Dyson had issues with transatlantic travel and his products. His original product, the Ballbarrow, also suffered.

Jake Dyson (son of James Dyson): chief engineer with the company’s new model of vacuum cleaner. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Jake Dyson (son of James Dyson): chief engineer with the company’s new model of vacuum cleaner. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“I used to have a few problems because, whilst I went in coach class, which was reasonably pressurised, the poor old Ballbarrow went in the hold, which is not,” he explained. The end result? A flat ball. “I used to push this flat ball across the concourse and stop at the nearest filling station near JFK to pump up the ball.”

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Dyson used this – what he called a “shaggy dog story” – to tee up the launch of the new Cyclone V10, a battery driven vacuum product that won’t suffer from the same power limitations because it’s cordless.

The company said the Cyclone V10 features its latest digital motor, which is so powerful that a plug-in full-size cleaner is no longer necessary. It’s with that in mind that Dyson has drawn a line in the sand and said the company will no longer invest in developing its full-size cleaners.

It doesn’t mean that Dyson is ditching the category altogether. But the company and its founder are quietly confident it’s the right move from the number of customers they say have ditched full-size machines once the cordless Dyson was set up in the home.

Automation

It’s not a clean run, however, and the company is still battling a few perception issues.

“There are three problems. One is that people don’t believe it’s powerful enough because it’s a battery machine and they’ve been stung before. They think batteries fade and they don’t have enough power. We’ve now got to the point with our battery development and motor development where we are as powerful as a machine with a cord,” he said. “And of course we have no loss of suction, which is a really key point.”

Bin capacity is another anxiety for customers, he said, and battery life is a third.

The latest machine will clean for more than 60 minutes under certain conditions. Add the direct drive tools to the mix and that run time will fall; bump the power up to max and you’ll see a further decline. But the idea is that no one really holds the trigger for longer than a few seconds at a time, and once they do, the machine instantly kicks into life.

“Our motor accelerates in 0.81 of a second from zero to 125,000 RPM, which is pretty quick acceleration,” said Dyson. To put that in context, a jet engine runs at 15,000 RPM, a Formula 1 car runs at 19,000 RPM.

The motor detects it is on a hard floor and slows down the brush bar. “It’s sort of artificial intelligence,” he said.

Dyson has gone down the connected product line for some of its devices, with the Dyson 360 Eye robot cleaner and its air purifiers allowing for remote control. Will we see a day when all Dyson products talk to the web? Probably not.

“I think it’s necessary for some products,” he said. “Talking to the web is easy. Having an app is easy. My own view? I’m not sure that’s the future. I think it’s much more important that the sort of mundane products we make do all these things automatically without you having to get out an app or get hold of the controller. We’re into automation. I want it to do it itself.”

The Contrarotator

Not everything has been a success. There was the attempt to revolutionise the washing machine, with the Contrarotator. The device, which had two drums rotating in opposite directions, was intended to replicate the effect of hand washing clothes, which engineers discovered was far more effective at removing dirt. But it was short-lived. In 2005 Dyson stopped making the washing machine because it was proving too expensive.

Dyson himself has also been something of a controversial figure in recent years. He’s been outspoken on Brexit, arguing in its favour ahead of the vote and feeling Europe will suffer more than Britain in a no-deal Brexit.

He has criticised disclosure requirements for private companies, saying it gave foreign rivals an advantage.

In 2002, he came under fire for shifting production of his vacuum cleaners from Britain to the Far East. But his company now employs 3,500 people in the Cotswolds market town of Malmesbury, including hundreds of engineers. The campus even has its own university in an attempt to plug a skills gap in engineering.

Even without the washing machine, it has added to the product lineup over the years – entering new markets with fans and air purifiers, and in 2016, it launched the Dyson Supersonic hairdryer.

Dyson may be taking a further risk in the next couple of years with the development of an electric car. It is common knowledge that the inventor has turned his attention to the future of modern vehicles, and the company is currently assembling a team that will help it work on the project over the next couple of years.

But the company’s founder is not adding any fuel to the fire of expectation. The only reason the story even came out, he said, was because the company needed to talk to potential suppliers.

“We announced it because we were having difficulty talking to suppliers because they wanted to know who we were and we didn’t want to tell them who we were,” he said. “We made the announcement and it’s public knowledge that we’re developing solid state batteries, and that’s really all we have to say at this stage.”

Whether Dyson’s latest gamble – ditching the cord – will pay off is yet to be seen. The company isn’t completely cutting the cord; it will still sell plug in machines, but for how long is anyone’s guess.

“That’s up to customers,” said Dyson, predicting that competitors would follow the company’s lead and that sales of corded machines will fall off a cliff.

“That’s my own belief, and it will happen quite quickly,” he said. “It’s scary. I could be wrong, I could be completely wrong and none of you will buy my battery machine. I just believe in doing what we think is right.”