It is rare but refreshing when a top technology executive can explain how their product actually works.
Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder, was great at this — the pitchman who could explain deeply why a new device was special; the specific engineering or design trick that made it work like magic.
Watching Dyson founder James Dyson unveil another sort of gadget — his company’s latest vacuum cleaner, the Cyclone V10 — earlier this spring in New York conjured a similar feeling. In another Jobsian move, the legendary inventor Dyson says he’s managed to create a handheld, battery-powered vacuum so powerful that he’s no longer investing in developing new vacuums with cords.
In this case, it’s because the tiny, precise, digital, electric motor, which weighs 125 grams, uses “secret” magnet technology and spins 125,000 times per minute, its turbine blades developed in the same lab as those for Rolls Royce.
And it’s good enough to usher in, as Dyson says, a new “genre” of vacuum — reminiscent to this technology writer of the transition from desktop to laptop, or PC to smartphone.
“We believe this is the future, and this is the way you should clean your home in the future,” he tells an audience gathered in a studio space in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. “It’s quite a brave step for us, but we think we’re doing the right thing.”
Later, over smoky lapsang souchong tea in a Midtown hotel lobby, Dyson spoke with Recode about our changing relationship with our devices, how he balances a gadget’s capabilities with its cost, which part of an electric car he doesn’t want to make, and about those Dyson “blade” hand dryers. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and lightly edited.
Dan Frommer, Recode: What did you learn making these latest products?
Sir James Dyson: Technology is now moving so fast and is becoming ever more complex. Even we, who started off as hardware engineers, now employ more software engineers than hardware engineers. And vision systems people, artificial intelligence people, robotics people. We now have five times the number of engineers to do a product than we were doing 10 years ago. It’s a massive change.
Dyson strikes me as a company that uses hardware industrial design as its main competitive advantage. Do you also need to be doing your own machine-learning software?
Yes. Things like voice recognition — we wouldn’t attempt to do that. But interpretation of vision — what you see with the camera — we are doing. We think that’s key for us.
We think batteries are key for us. And robotics. And with the car, there are certain technologies that we’re doing ourselves and it’s certain that we’re buying in. The thing is to be selective and to choose the ones which are really, really important to you and which you can make a real difference. And then buy or direct others in.
What’s your job now? How involved are you in developing new products?
That’s what I do. In the beginning, I did everything — I was on my own, building those 5,127 prototypes, every day. That’s what I was doing, totally hands on, making them myself, testing them myself, and coming in at the end of the day covered in dust.
As we’ve gradually become successful and now have 5,000 engineers. I’m obviously not the person making the prototypes, and most of the time I’m not the person coming up with the ideas. My role is that of a sort of old tutor, a slightly grumpy old tutor, going around, saying what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and listening to their ideas and encouraging them.
The people are very young, by the way, I’ve really exclusively recruited graduates, and now undergraduates — because we now have a university — and I find working with people who haven’t got experience much more exciting than working with people who have got experience.
Experienced people always say why it can’t be done or how it should be done. And I want people to be pioneering and do all sorts of wrong things and make mistakes and understand from their mistakes what could be possible.
I have very little to do with sales. I have a little bit to do with marketing.
I think it’s important — if you’re making those sort of decisions in front of the engineers — to explain why people will like that thing or why people won’t like that thing. And also to make sure the marketing people say the right things about it. And don’t get carried away with thinking that the brand’s going to carry it through. The performance of the product is what carries it through, not the brand. I hate the word brand. It’s banned from our building.
In your demo, you called extra attention to the specific, clever task of emptying your new vacuum. Why?
We feel quite vulnerable on that point. If the dirt goes into a bag, in theory, it’s sealed in the bag. It isn’t, but that’s what they claim.
So emptying a bagless vacuum cleaner is, in theory, a slightly messy task. We’ve wanted to overcome that issue for quite a long time. And I think we’ve gone quite a long way to overcoming it. So I wanted to explain that in some detail.
Dyson products are not cheap. How do you balance design and functionality versus cost?
Cost? We don’t worry about the cost! No, I’m joking. I’m really joking.
I’ll tell you what I don’t do. I don’t design down to a price. You can say that’s my undoing.
Inevitably what we’re doing costs more and is usually more expensive than what other people are doing. But. A lot of the time you have to make a decision about, “Do I include that?” “Do I not include that?” “Can I afford that?” “Can other people afford that?” And we know that if we add a dollar to the production cost, you’re adding many more dollars to the price in the shop.
I’m sure we get it wrong half the time or three quarters of the time — our products are too expensive. But that’s what they are. That’s what we wanted to make and that’s what it is. And, of course, you can buy one that’s cheaper if you want to. And a lot of people do.
How is our relationship with devices changing?
It’s going to have to change, and it will change a lot. They’re going to get incredibly complex — sensors, cameras, artificial intelligence, machine learning. All of this is going to make products very powerful and do extraordinary things. It’s happening. We have the technology now, we can see it happening.
But what we don’t want to do is make them complex and difficult for people to operate. I don’t want for people to have to reach for an app to make it work, or to reach for a remote control, which would be wholly inadequate anyway. So I’m for automating things so these things just happen for you.
What parts of the home do you think will become automated? And how is our relationship to our home going to change?
Lights are going to get very interesting because of your circadian rhythm and that kind of thing. That whole thing is going to change. The idea that you come in and switch on the light is in the past. You don’t need that, so you can save the light switch. That’s an obvious, crude example.
But I think people are becoming acutely aware that humidity, dryness, it’s important to control that. It’s obviously important to control all the things that make smell and pollution in the home. Floorboards create formaldehyde.
Dealing with hidden things and making the home a really safe place that reacts to you and monitors your health and keeps you in the best possible health. Home isn’t just going to be a place that keeps you dry and warm. It’s going to be a lot more.
How do you sell design in an era of great uncertainty?
I’m old enough not quite to remember the second World War, but certainly the Cuban Missile Crisis and the whole Cold War, so I think now is actually quite a calm time, in spite of what everyone is saying.
How do you think about which new product markets to enter?
Not very intelligently! We think more about the product.
We had the idea for a hand dryer at a time when we were making products entirely for the home. We didn’t do any market research, we just did it because we thought it was a better hand dryer. And it was difficult because you don’t sell it how we normally sell things. You have to go and sell it to architects or B2B.
We were actually developing air knives — a very thin blade of air coming out at a very fast speed is called an air knife. They’re used for various drying applications in industry, or as a gate — you can make an artificial door with an air knife. There’s nothing new about air knives.
But we were playing around with one for a particular job and we ran it across our hands and discovered it scraped the water off our hands. And so we thought: That’s very interesting. Because a hot-air hand dryer uses a vast amount of heat — I mean, they’re 3 kilowatts — and they’re trying to evaporate the water off your hands. In the process, they’re using a lot of energy. It takes a long time, and also it’s not good for your skin.
So we realized with this blade of cold air that we would use very little energy and we would’t harm your skin and we’d do it very much quicker. So we said: Right, we’ve got to do a hand dryer. We just produced it and started selling it. And of course we made terrible mistakes.
There’s a sort-of cult of people who really feel ... weird ... about Dyson hand dryers. Some guys I know even tweet photos of them at each other as an in-joke.
I mean, the problem is that it’s not obvious how to use it. That’s the trouble. They’re used to this tube that’s blowing air at your hands and you’re supposed to rub your hands. Ours you have to use in a particular way to get the blade to work effectively.
But the one I really like is the tap. Because you go into the washroom and you’ve got the tap and the dryer that’s part of the same device, and you can stand there and do it all there and then get the hell out. Whereas the other ones, you have to go and wash your hands and then drip across to the dryer, or queue for the dryer.
And also the water that comes off your hands goes onto the wall or onto the floor with a normal hand dryer. But with the tap, it’s all going into the basin. And when the water turns on, it’s actually flushing out the basin. So it’s a very good thing. But it’s difficult to get facilities providers to fit it. It’s been very slow to take off.
The hair dryer is quite interesting because that’s a weird market for us to go into — beauty and personal care. What on earth is a vacuum cleaner company doing going into beauty and personal care? It’s a mad idea.
But we had the motor. We had the technology. So we went into personal care, which is a very different thing. You have to go into beauty salons and hair salons and talk to people. We’ve got a hair salon in our own shop just around the corner. So it’s a very odd thing for us to do. But we did it because we had the right technology.
Funny enough, the car is the same thing. We’ve got what we think are the right technologies.
We suddenly realized we’re developers of electric motors. Air flow is really a key thing of ours, because we develop turbines, and of course the fans — they’re all about air flow. And not sort of crude air flow, very subtle air flow around all those shapes — creating something out of nothing, that’s what that is doing.
We’ve been developing batteries for five years. Not specifically for cars, but last year we sold 100 million cells. We’re a big, big consumer of batteries. So electric motors, batteries, air purification and air temperature, and circulation is a key thing of ours. And robotics and vision systems and interpretation of images and what’s going on. And apart from the chassis, that’s a car. We won’t make tires, but we will make a chassis.
What companies do you look up to?
I used to enormously look up to Sony in the early and mid ’80s. The Walkman came out and I really admired that, because making a tape recorder that doesn’t record takes guts. But he had the vision about that and people suddenly tweaked and off it went. I admired that enormously. Almost everything they did then was magic and great.
And when Akio Morita died, they lost their way a bit, I think. They’re still a great company — they’re one of our battery suppliers and we work with them on that.
I mean, anyone, really, who introduces new technology and bravely pioneers things, I admire that.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.