Master of invention (or does Dyson suck?)

James Dyson unveiled his latest product yesterday, a hand-dryer that he claims will revolutionise our washing habits. Martin Hickman went along to a characteristically well-orchestrated press launch

Wednesday 04 October 2006 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


An unexpected interruption yesterday disturbed the slightly odd press launch of James Dyson's latest invention, a whizzy new hand-dryer that he hopes will revolutionise our trips to the lavatory. As journalists repeatedly rinsed their hands under a tap and plunged them into Dyson Airblades, two burly punks with nose rings and spiky hair noisily arrived and began thumping and booting the dryers.

Security guards finally evicted the intruders, who executed one last flying kick at the wall-mounted machines as they left. Knowing smiles crept across the faces of the executives employed by the pricey PR agency Bell Pottinger. The vandals had been hired to demonstrate the sturdiness of Dyson's £549 dryer.

The stunt at once underlined the confidence of Britain's most famous living inventor in his latest product - and his showmanship. For Dyson's talent lies not just in inventing and manufacturing the funky appliances that clean our homes and please our eyes, he knows how to market and profit from them too.

According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the former theatre designer and his artist wife Deirdre (who designs rugs) have accumulated a fortune of £1.05bn.

Dyson's fame rests on his vacuum cleaners, the powerful multicoloured models that became a design icon in the 1990s. But he has invented plenty of other things too including an award-winning boat, a wheelbarrow with an innovative ball instead of a wheel, a washing machine and, now, the Airblade.

Like his other inventions, the dryer works on different principle to its forerunners. A conventional hand-dryer blasts hot air down onto the hands to evaporate water, taking about 30 seconds. The Airblade blasts cold air from either side of the hand to brush off water, taking 10 seconds. The water falls into a compartment and is turned into mist.

A clever piece of kit powers the whole thing; a motor which spins five times faster than a Formula One racing car engine. The Dyson Digital Motor took 11 years, 20 brains and £18m to perfect at the company's laboratories in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

The Airblade represents what Dyson intends will be a "step change" in the breadth and depth of his products. For despite all his inventions, Dyson currently sells only carpet cleaners - albeit some of the most popular vacuum cleaners in the world.

His clever Ballbarrow wheelbarrow was pushed out for the last time in 1990 and the expensive CR01 washing machine - the big break-out from suction - went out of production in 2005 after just two years.

Still, the Dyson vacuum has overtaken Hoover in the key US market. In Japan, the hand-held DC12 was the biggest selling carpet cleaner last year, outdoing such Japanese brands as Sharp and Sanyo. This May, Dyson's profits broke the £100m barrier for the first time. And all from an invention that became one of the great David and Goliath stories of modern business.

Born to academic parents in north Norfolk, James Dyson studied Latin and Greek at his private school rather than science and played the bassoon, a suitably complicated instrument with "eight feet of pipe and millions of keys".

Ironically, although he was warned against "ending up in a factory", he became friends with an engineer and took up design. After studying at the Royal College of Art in London, he decked out New Stratford East Theatre and later, London's Roundhouse. Then he designed a ship, the acclaimed Sea Truck.

A few years later, his eureka moment while cleaning his house: surely vacuum cleaners did not have to have bags. Some 5,127 prototypes later in 1983, his pink bagless G-Force made the cover of Design Magazine. A model sold well in Japan but the multinationals were not interested in his technology. Undaunted, Dyson launched the DC01 in Britain in 1993 and it became the best-selling vacuum cleaner ever produced. More than 20 million Dyson cleaners have now been sold.

Despite their appealing design however, they have been dogged by complaints about their performance. The writer Stephen Bayley, an early admirer, remarked: "First I put one in display in the Design Museum, then I bought one for use at home and immediately felt more of a sucker than the vacuum cleaner itself. The Dyson was awkward to use, embarrassing to look at and mine at least was woefully inefficient in its appointed tasks."

Two years ago, a survey for the consumer associationWhich? found Dysons had "below average reliability" though they were highly recommended by owners.

Meanwhile, the unions deplored Dyson's decision to close his factory in Malmesbury in 2002 with the loss of 590 jobs and switch production to Malaysia - cutting costs by 30 per cent. Dyson insisted he had no choice: "I've been manufacturing in Britain for almost 50 years. I invested £40m into a vacuum cleaner factory ... but it simply wasn't possible."

Dyson now offers a five-year guarantee on his cleaners. He has 10 of his ball-mounted models at his Gloucestershire home - one in every room. He keeps a low profile but publicly laments the low status that Britain accords the technically minded.

His hero is the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and he has spoken of his admiration for plumbers. He resigned as chairman of the Design Museum because it was concentrating on aesthetics (such as an exhibition on Manolo Blahnik shoes) at the expense of product design. His design laboratories are a hub of activity, employing no fewer than 430 engineers. Indeed, it was while one of them was testing another product that he discovered an "air sheet" could be used for drying hands.

Dyson says the Airblade works twice as fast as a normal dryer and uses a fifth of the electricity, meaning buyers will "get their money back in a year". It is also reputedly more hygienic.

Yesterday, he hinted his business was poised for dramatic expansion. Although cagey, he confirmed that he was likely to re-launch his washing machine as well as new vacuum cleaners. There were "quite a few" products occupying his engineers, he said. "Hopefully some of the ones we're working on now will come out in the next three years."


DC01 vacuum cleaner

Launched: 1993

Withdrawn?: Only recently

Cost at launch: £200

Development: time 15 years

Selling point: First bagless vacuum cleaner. Does not lose suction like conventional cleaners as bag fills up.

Engineers: One (James Dyson)

Verdict: The public was smitten with the Dyson DC01 because of its striking multi-coloured looks and its ease of use. It became a style icon and an essential for aspirational, image-conscious householders. However, there were complaints about its reliability. According to recent Which? research, 31 per cent of Dyson cleaners up to six years old required repair. Nevertheless, many owners say they would recommend a Dyson vacuum cleaner to their friends.

Since the original model, Dyson has also introduced a special pet hair model. And although the grey and yellow DC01 is no longer on sale, the introduction of a free five-year guarantee in July has been welcomed by Which?. In a new edition published tomorrow, the consumer organisation says: "We are pleased to see that Dyson has taken this action, and have made two of its models Best Buys."

CR01 washing machine

Launched: 2003

Withdrawn?: 2005

Cost at launch: £799-£999

Development time: Four years

Selling point: First washing machine that had two drums, which rotated in opposite directions. It also had a coin trap to catch stray change from trouser pockets.

Engineers: 60

Verdict: Which? rated the machine - which cost £300 more than its nearest rival - "best for washing" out of 20 machines. Its large drum and quick wash impressed researchers but Which? was unable to rate it a best buy because it was unsure about the new machine's reliability. It was also quite noisy.

Airblade hand-dryer

Launched: October 2006

Cost at launch: £549

Development time: Three years (at a cost of £10m)

Selling point: Faster, cleaner and green than conventional hand dryers. Works by blasting air from two 3mm vents at 400mph. A filter cleans the air before it is jetted out. Another filter cleans the waste water and removes 99.9 per cent of bacteria.

Verdict: Clive Beggs, professor of medical technology at the University of Bradford, says the Airblade is "hygienically superior" to warm-air dryers: "We all know that washing your hands helps to prevent the spread of infection. However, what many of us don't realise is that the hand-drying process can be as important as hand washing itself."


Launched: 1975

Withdrawn: 1990

Cost at launch: £19.99

Development time: Two years

Selling point: The replacement of a conventional wheel by a ball makes the barrow stable and prevents it from sinking into the mud. It also makes the barrow much easier to manoeuvre round corners or along twisting paths.

Engineers: One (James Dyson)

Verdict: Although Which? did not pronounce on its efficacy, the Ballbarrow was a critical and commercial success. It became the best-selling wheelbarrow within three years and remained on the shelves for 15 years. It also won Building Design magazine's Innovation Award.

DC15 ball vacuum cleaner

Launched: March 2005

Withdrawn?: Still on sale

Cost at launch: £319

Development time: Four years

Selling point: Works on the same principle as the Ballbarrow (see above). The ball makes the vacuum cleaner more manoeuvrable, especially around furniture and stairs.

Engineers: 20

Verdict: Which? rates the innovative ball-mounted cleaner as a "best buy." It said: "In our tests it made light work of picking up dust on laminate and was a real star at removing pet hairs. For a bagless model, it's relatively straightforward to empty."

It was not so good at cleaning wooden floors, however.

DC16 hand-held vacuum cleaner

Launched: October 2006

Withdrawn?: Still on sale

Cost at launch: £99.99

Development time: 18 months

Selling point: It uses Dyson's patented Cyclone (TM) technology to remove dirt so it does not clog or lose suction. It claims to have twice the suction of competitors and boasts an extra-wide nozzle. Consumer tests also reported that it could be operated for longer without recharging, making it a good choice for cleaning cars.

Engineers: Eight

Verdict: Which? has not pronounced on the mini Dyson.

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