Innovation: Picking up on bits that let us down: The man who redesigned the wheelbarrow has moved indoors. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
WERE he not already successful, one might think James Dyson mad for challenging an established market with a product that is a marked departure from the familiar standard. But he pulled it off several years ago when he launched the Ballbarrow, saying that conventional wheelbarrows were seriously flawed.

Mr Dyson found most wheelbarrows unstable and liable to break beyond repair. His version rolls on a big ball instead of a wheel and is made of heavy- duty plastic instead of light metal. Now, he is taking on another time-honoured product that he regards as unsatisfactory: the home vacuum cleaner.

He said research revealed general dissatisfaction with cleaners, especially with the bag. 'That's why I go into a business - because the stuff is so rotten. If the products were good, I wouldn't want to get into it. That's exactly why I chose wheelbarrows. I thought they were so dreadful.'

So, apparently, did the public. Very soon he was selling 120,000 Ballbarrows a year at three times the price of rivals.

In fact, he already has good indications that his cleaner - which substitutes a see-through cyclone drum for the hated bag - will be a success. For the past decade, he has licensed its manufacture and sale to companies in Japan and the United States - two markets that he feels he cannot crack on his own. With funds produced from selling 700,000 machines under these agreements, he is about to attack the rest with a foray into the department stores and electricity showrooms of southern England.

'We've gone for performance. That's what people really want to get,' said Mr Dyson of what he claims is the first innovation in vacuum cleaner design in more than 80 years.

Although there is some dispute over exactly who was responsible for the development, the idea of a bag and suction first appeared in 1901. 'That's all it was, and that's all it's stayed,' he said. The main problem with other vacuum cleaners, he said, is that very soon after the fitting of a clean bag they seem to have trouble picking up dirt. 'There's an incredible drop in performance,' said Mr Dyson. 'It's like buying a car and 10 minutes down the road you can only go at 20 miles per hour.'

He claims that thanks to the added power produced by cyclone technology, 'you can now have something that's always like new'.

With the help of a special powder and spray, the machine can also be used as a dry carpet and upholstery cleaner, and he believes that the hoses and attachments are more manageable than on conventional appliances.

Moreover, the clear drum is likely to appeal to those who seek 'morbid satisfaction' in seeing the dirt picked up. In Japan, this idea has been refined further, with infra-red signals in the hose telling the user that the dirt is on its way to the drum.

The retail price in Britain will be pounds 199 - comparable with top-of-the-range models from market leaders Electrolux and Hoover. Although he hopes eventually to offer a range of domestic appliances at a variety of prices, Mr Dyson believes he must initially pitch at this end of the market. This is because he only expects to sell in limited numbers at first, and cheaper products would not cover his costs.

Although he is inspired by the example of Vax, which broke into the market in the mid-1980s, he is under no illusions about challenging the dominance of Electrolux and Hoover. 'It's a vicious world out there,' he said.

But the appliance has been deliberately designed to intrigue - he hopes that the ability to see the 'guts' in action combined with the bright yellow colour will make shoppers sufficiently interested towant a demonstration.

If he is right, it will be another success for Mr Dyson, who started out as an interior designer at the Royal College of Art but moved into product design because he 'just got interested in all aspects of products - not just design but technology and manufacturing and marketing'.

Mr Dyson acknowledges that people are always suspicious of new developments and that tough times make them more cautious, but he believes the current climate may be helpful.

'Bringing out a product in a recession is quite good, because the shops need something different to sell. The same thing happened in the 1920s and 1930s,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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