Dyson did the impossible: It turned boring appliances like vacuum cleaners and fans into cool objects of desire. We get a look inside its Singapore test labs and see how the magic is done.
Vacuum cleaners are boring. On a list of electronics, they rank somewhere between refrigerators and washing machines in interestingness.
Until you see a Dyson. In a sea of mostly similar home appliances, a Dyson vacuum cleaner stands out. Where other cleaners remain modest with plain colors and simple lines, a Dyson shouts with its bright plastic colors and exposed mechanical innards.
For its first feat, Dyson turned the normal vacuum into a supernormal object of desire, and then did the same with electric fans in 2009. Previously another boring appliance, the electric fan had hardly changed its form in more than a hundred years.
The Dyson Air Multiplier knocked the very idea of a fan around its head; it generates wind without any blades. Seeing one for the first time makes you wonder how it’s done — and then it makes you wonder at how somebody made you wonder about a fan. A glamor has certainly grown over the Dyson brand. If you believe the marketing, Dyson Operations Pte Ltd. is an engineering driven company that’s pushed by the ambition to create products that really work, and isn’t afraid to break old idea to do it.
Which is why I’m looking at a mural onthe walls of Dyson Operations, Singapore,and reading about Sir James Dyson, the massive failure.
Dyson is a spectacularly successful company. It remains privately owned, so its actual performance is secret. But it’s no secret that Sir James Dyson, its founder, is a billionaire a few times over. Dyson products sell in over 65 countries around the world, and the company employs over 1,000 engineers worldwide.
The mural I’m reading, in the lobby of its Singapore offices, doesn’t start there. It starts in 1979, after James Dyson gets frustrated with the lackluster performance of his Hoover vacuum cleaner. Unlike the rest of us who would just grin and bear it, Dyson decides to get to work.
He’d recently seen how a nearby sawmill used a cyclone to spin dust out of the air using centrifugal force, and he wonders if a similar cyclone on a vacuum cleaner could do the same, spinning dust out of the air it sucks up and depositing it into a canister, thereby eliminating the need for a bag and filter in the cleaner.
Dyson tests it — he rigs a mini cyclone onto his Hoover, using cardboard and tape, and it actually picks up more dirt than the original vacuum. He realizes that he’s onto something, now he just needs to turn his idea into an actual working product.
What James Dyson couldn’t have known was that it would take him five years to make a fully functional prototype. He would go into debt, and his wife would have to teach life drawing lessons, as well as sell paintings, to make ends meet. They would become so poor that they would grow their own vegetables and rear chickens for food.
It would take James Dyson over 5,126 failures before he finally makes a cyclone vacuum cleaner work, with prototype 5,127.
A paragraph on the mural asks, somewhere on the halfway mark: “Would you have given up by now? Be honest.”
“It would take James Dyson over 5,126 failures before he finally makes a cyclone vacuum cleaner work, with prototype 5,127.”
The new Supersonic hair dryer was extensively tested in Singapore.
The Singapore labs are responsible for the RDD of ‘non-floor’ products, which include the fans and air purifiers.
The Pure Cool Link cleverly secures its remote control along its top, using embedded magnets.
Microphones in a semi-anechoic chamber measure the sounds produced by Dyson products.
A Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) test lab measures how quickly a Pure Cool Link cleans the room of pollutants.
Temperature sensors around this room measure how quickly a Dyson heater can bring the temperature up from 9° to 21° C.
A host of Dyson humidifiers are tested in this chamber.
The CADR test lab is slightly radioactive; a charge neutralizer uses a radioactive isotope to remove charge from dust, preventing it from sticking to the lab’s metal walls.
A Dyson Pure Cool Link is being tested for how quickly it can clean the air of cigarette smoke.
And I have to really give it some thought. How many times can I encounter failure before I quit? 10? 100? 1,000? 5,126?
I step into the first lab of the tour. The door closes, and silence pours into my ears. It’s stifling in this room, I feel like I’m being pressed on all sides. I ask James Evon D’Souza, Fluid Dynamics Engineer with Dyson, what’s going on.
He tells me we’re in a semi-anechoic chamber, an echo-free room designed to completely absorb reflections of sound. It’s what the wedge-shaped foam pieces on the walls and ceiling are for. Being inside is a strange sensation, because this level of true silence doesn’t exist in the natural world.
10 microphones are arranged in a hemisphere around a Dyson Air Multiplier, to collect the sound generated by the product. Engineers are looking not just for the volume of sound the product makes, but also the tones, assome tones are more annoying to people than others (think of a mosquito buzz versus the chime of a doorbell).
Dyson Operations, Singapore, spans 2,715 square metersin Alexandra Technopark and employs nearly 1,000 people.Research, Design and Development (RDD) in Singapore is responsible for the research and development of what D’Souza calls “non-floor” products, namely, the fans, hand dryers, humidifiers, heaters, and even the recently released Supersonic hair dryer. RDD for “floor” products, i.e. vacuum cleaners, happens in Malaysia.
Dyson takes its research work seriously; it invests one third of profits into RDD. In December 2014, Dyson announced an investment of £1.5 billion into future technologies, including £1 billion for the research and development of new product categories.
I ask about how much work is done here in the Singapore labs versus the labs in the United Kingdom, andam surprised to hear, “a lot.” The labs in the UK work on early prototypes, and then these prototypes are sent over to Singapore for further development. Once a project has been handed over, it becomes Singapore’s job to push it tofinal development.
Products that arrive can take very early form, even in the form of 3D printed prototypes. “What happens is,” D’Souza explains, “as we move into plastic, tooled prototypes, we want to keep measuring them. These measurements are done in the UK as well, but we want to ensure that performance is made even better.” Even after products go to production, engineers routinely get Dyson products from the market, and test them to make sure performance is maintained.
Over the course of an evening, D’Souza shows me more test chambers, like one that measures the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) performance for the new Pure Cool Link purifier fan. The chamber stinks of heavy cigarette smoke, which is another test the purifiers are subject to.
I’m surprised to learn that not only can the Pure Cool Link purifier fan’s 360° Glass HEPA filter trap odors and pollutants, it can trap objects down to 0.1 microns, including bacteria (for reference, a human hair has a diameter of 50 to 70 microns).
My favorite test chamber is the one used to test Dyson’s fan heater. The room is a chilly 9° Celsius when we walk in, a welcome break from Singapore’s equatorial climate. 24 temperature sensors fill the entire chamber.
When I ask how long it’d take for the Dyson fan heater, which comes up to my knees in height, to heat up the entire room to the target temperature of 21° Celsius, D’Souza says it usually takes around 20 minutes. I think about the larger room heaters I’ve encountered overseas, and am impressed.
Doing the same tests, again and again, is boring. It can also be maddening, frustrating, and in the case of Dyson’s origin story, exact a high price before the first payoff comes.
I leave Dyson’s labs thinking about that: 5,126 failures, before prototype 5,127 finally makes it. Vacuum cleaners, fans, heaters, and hair dryers are boring, but in the alchemy of Dyson’s method, they’re transformed into supernormal designs that reinvent what came before.
The origins of that method tie back to the mural on the wall; a supernormal mindset that is bent on making something just right, and isn’t afraid to test, break and fail many times on the way to success. That, it turns out, is how you transmute something boring into something magical.
“I step into the first lab of the tour. The door closes, and silence pours into my ears. It’s stifling in this room, I feel like I’m being pressed on all sides.”