For James Dyson, vacuum cleaners are just the start of the debate
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 12/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Dyson's namesake founder tinkering with a vacuum cleaner that empoys his revolutionary electronic switch-reluctance motor.
His clog-preventing bagless "cyclone," which uses 100,000 g's of centrifugal force to filter dust and remove dirt from the airflow. The DC07, Dyson's first model released in the U.S.
Constance Spry was the last straw for inventor James Dyson. In his September resignation from the board of London's Design Museum, Dyson decried an exhibition on the mid-century society florist as evidence of an increasing curatorial focus on "empty styling." Whereas his own billion-dollar empire—built on brightly colored eponymous vacuum cleaners—exemplifies design's greater mission of intelligent problem-solving.
We caught up with Dyson when the IDSA and Apartment Zero invited him to give a lecture in Washington, D.C. Slightly rumpled in baggy black trousers, untucked white shirt, Japanese slippers, and striped socks, the lanky Englishman talked about engineering, environmental consciousness, and the value of mistakes.
Does the Design Museum flap point to a civil war between the Aesthetics and the Pragmatics?
I didn't resign out of pique—I simply felt I could no longer contribute. Terence Conran founded the museum to showcase industrial design, and there had been a seismic shift toward subjects of styling. The thrust was that almost anything is design and that adding flower arranging democratizes the topic. All those lovely buzzwords.
Implying that engineering is dull?
People do want substance. They want the design process explained to them. Furthermore, young people are moving away from styling and toward engineering now. The idea that stylists are separate from engineers and get hired just to make a product sell—that's a 20th-century idea that's fast going out. Designers who work for me do the engineering and styling all together. The charge against Terence and me is that we're out of date and old-fashioned. In fact, we're promoting the future.
You have also advocated making mistakes.
That's what the technology business is about. If you don't make mistakes, you never really learn.
How many can you make before you go bankrupt?
An awful lot. The important thing is to recognize them. It's always better to come to a decision quickly—then, if it fails, change it quickly.
In what ways have you built a better mousetrap?
We really think about the best possible product, about taking on things that are a real nuisance. The bag, how to clean edges and stairs. We have a wand that telescopes into nothing, and we lowered the vacuum's center of gravity to make it easier to carry.
Our most important invention is a very fast motor, which turns at 100,000 rpm. (That's compared to a conventional vacuum motor, which goes at 5,000 rpm. A Ferrari does 8,500.) Because the motor is so fast, we can make it considerably smaller and lighter, and it lasts at least three times as long.
Doesn't the high speed mean more wear and tear?
There's nothing to wear out—no brushes, no copper wire. Our switch-reluctance motor uses just a simple iron rotor, and it's controlled by a microprocessor rather than mechanically. The chip pulses at about 6,400 times a second.
The vacuum has entered the digital age.
And listen to this: We also imprint manufacturing and purchase date, serial number, color, and model on the chip of each vacuum. If something goes wrong or customers need to order a spare part, they ring us up and put their phone to the back of the machine, and it sends a binary signal like a fax. In 10 seconds, we can diagnose the fault and say, "Good morning, Mrs. Smith at 24 Decatur Avenue. You bought your Dyson DC07 on December 1. There's a sock blocking the hose." Everyone talks about interconnectivity—this is a very early form of it.
Is the brushless motor better for the environment?
Yes. It doesn't produce carbon dust, which is very nasty stuff, and it doesn't use all that copper either.
Do you incorporate recycled materials?
We used to produce a model called the Recyclone. We started by collecting people's old Dyson vacuum cleaners. Then it was like a film played backwards: You take the machines to bits, sort them into the correct boxes, and put them somewhere till you've got enough. It costs more money than starting from scratch, and there's a greater cost for freight back to the factory. Part of our manufacturing is now in Malaysia, so the logistics become even more terrifying.
Did the Recyclone sell?
No, even though plastic, when it's recycled, is in fact stronger. But people wanted something new. We'll try again one day.
What else is on the agenda?
That often depends on our customers—complaints are actually helpful. Though it may sound slightly arrogant, our job really is to provide something that people haven't imagined before.