There are a handful of consumer tech companies around the world that truly focus on innovation. There’s Apple and Google and then across the pond, there’s a company called Dyson. Since the time the company was founded in the early 1990s, we’ve seen futuristic vacuum cleaners and air purifiers from the Dyson stable and, yes, they seem innovative and premium. But after spending a day at the company’s headquarters in Malmesbury and an exclusive interaction with the man after whom the company is named—Founder James Dyson—I can safely say that the company and its engineers are not just focussed on innovation; they’re borderline obsessed with it.
The trip to the sunny countryside of Wiltshire in the UK began by checking into a quaint little hotel called the “Old Bell” in Malmesbury. Its claim to fame is that it is England’s oldest hotel, with its origins dating back to the 13th century. It’s ironic that one of the world’s oldest hotels—situated a stone’s throw away from the Dyson facility—is inundated with futuristic Dyson products. From the latest air-dryers in the toilets to hair styling gadgets in the rooms—Dyson products were ubiquitous.
After a short drive to the Dyson campus, we headed straight to D9, a cryptically named research lab where engineers and scientists experiment and innovate, and come up with pitches to present to the founder himself in the neighbouring building. If not found up to the mark, several such pitches are rejected by the hands-on 75-year-old billionaire in what conjures up images of a Shark Tank set in my mind. As I march towards his first-floor cabin for an exclusive media interaction, an affable engineer on the campus says, “We try to make sure it’s perfect before we present anything!” After this revelation, the short walk to his office sounded like a daunting one, given the number of bright engineers who might have pitched several prototypes to James Dyson in his corner office and perhaps not found success. “What if I blank out during the conversation? What if it’s not a perfect interview?” A lot of these fears were quelled the minute we exchanged salutations.
A couple of icebreakers later, we are ready to roll. Speaking of prototypes and pitches, when asked how he has dealt with failures in the past, James Dyson says: “You can’t make progress unless you experiment. And if you experiment and do something different or something new, you are almost bound to fail multiple times before you make a success of it. So, we just have to get used to the fact that our whole day is going to be full of experiments and failure.” And he is quick to add: “I find failure much more interesting than success.” He explains that there’s nothing to learn from success, but from every failure you learn something “viscerally—feel it and remember it”.
The Dyson EV project was one such instance that remains a pipe dream. It cost the company $500 million, and the project had to be scrapped in 2019 because it was not “commercially viable”. But while talking about resilience and dealing with failure, James Dyson says: “The car seemed a very logical thing to do. An electric car is a battery, motors and air filtration, cooling and heating, and that’s what we do [at Dyson]. So, it may well be something we will come back to.”
Made for India
It was at this point that it all made sense. Engineers at the company pay attention to the smallest of details—the kind of stuff most people would ignore. The sound profile on each vacuum cleaner or the size of dust and dirt particles being monitored by its AI sensors, or the adaptive levels of clean air thrust onto your face with its latest invention, a pair of air purifying headphones—which Dyson showcased during the interaction. A day later, these headphones were revealed to the British press. Of course, in typical Dyson fashion, the product was only presented to the media after working on 500 prototypes and the engineer tasked with the job kept it under wraps for a couple of years.
The company calls these noise-cancelling headphones Dyson Zone, and they look like something straight out of a sci-fi movie set. It’s a big move for the company which recently announced massive plans in the robotics space, especially robots capable of doing household chores, as it looks to expand beyond vacuum cleaners, air purifiers and driers. The Zone is the company’s foray into the audio space and is its first wearable device. It comes with a two-stage air purification system in the headphones itself, which can filter out the polluted air surrounding you and in turn provide you with purified air to breathe. Unlike other face masks, this device has a visor that doesn’t touch your nose or mouth and magnetically clasps onto the headphones.
Music sounds great on the Zone, and it is comfortable to wear, while the air blown onto the nose and mouth feels a lot like the air circulated on an aircraft. But it would be interesting to see whether a product like this would work in Indian cities where AQI levels are notoriously high (in triple digits) for a large part of the year. Also, Dyson products aren’t known to be affordable and a pair of noise cancelling headphones by a company like Apple, without air purification capabilities, already costs upwards of `66,000. So, pricing will be key if the company were to launch the Zone in India. That said, James Dyson is confident that this is a product made for the Indian market.
As he excitedly demonstrates the product, the founder says no one’s seen anything like this before. “Walking on the streets or sitting on a train or a subway or bus, you’re breathing in all those traffic fumes and tar dust and whatever’s going on around. And this is a way to have clean air and music, and not be affected by your environment. So, that’s an example of a product which was very much developed with India in mind.”
Make In India?
James Dyson accepts that Dyson is a very different company from what is was 22 years ago when its market was substantially in Britain. He says it would be “arrogant” to think that products for Asia and the region could be developed only from the labs in the UK. In 2019, the company faced a lot of criticism for moving its global HQ to Singapore, especially since James Dyson is known to be an outspoken Brexiter and despite pushing for Britain to leave the EU, the company’s legal entity was moved to Singapore in order to “future-proof” the business. A lot of the production happens in Malaysia. Although the company was originally a British success story, it is now perceived as a global tech company with a strong focus on Asian markets.
Dyson has been in India for around four years and has pumped in nearly £100 million into the India business. At present, the company only sells in India via Dyson demo stores and its partnerships with other electronics sellers. But James Dyson says the company is not averse to manufacturing in India. “I can’t say yes, but it [Make in India] is very much on the cards. It’s a really interesting and important market for us for lots of reasons.”
The Indian concept of “jugaad” or frugal innovation, usually piques the interest of most India watchers. But frugal innovation isn’t a new concept for James Dyson. He says with a chuckle that his engineers at D9 are familiar with the concept—only they call it “lean engineering”. Sharing this priceless piece of information, James Dyson says goodbye, as I head back to the oldest inn in England to ruminate over Dyson’s future prospects in a land thousands of miles away.
The author was in Malmesbury at the invitation of Dyson
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