Dyson has a habit of burying the marketplace with innovation. That’s a savvy business strategy: As I argue in a feature for our October design issue, in any design-driven industry, companies whose chief advantage is design and engineering have to innovate constantly in order to maintain their edge.
The flip side of that is that their innovations bury the real story bubbling under the surface. Such is the case with its newest vacuum, the Dyson Digital Slim, which is a handheld gadget that also has an attachment floor brush. It’s the first Dyson handheld to have that attachment, which was previously only a feature in upright, plug-in models. It retails for $399, and just recently went on sale. How’s that for a high-design premium?
This might seem like a straightforward mash-up of two successful technologies. So it’s actually more interesting to ask why it never happened before. There’s two answers: For one, battery packs were never powerful enough before to power both a vacuum and a brush attachment. The second answer is that digital motors used to not be powerful enough to really pick up all that much dirt while being small enough to carry in your hand. Those same advances in miniaturizing motors are what lie behind Dyson’s high-profile innovations from recent years.
Notice, then, that the real enablers of the new Dyson vacuum, which is outwardly only just an incremental improvement, are really quite fundamental: Its motors and its battery packs. The latter are particularly important: Behind almost any big piece of consumer tech you can think of lies some sort of power source innovation, whether its the Macbook Air or the Nike+ Fuelband. (With the Macbook Air, it was the addition of a flash drive that allowed more space for a battery, and a thinner profile overall; with the Nike+ Fuelband, it was curved li-ion cells, some of the first ever created, which allowed it to communicate with your phone constantly, via a Bluetooth.)
There are a few very small design details, which would be easy to ignore or dismiss, that tell a story about the power pack’s limitations: For one, the vacuum has a trigger, not a button, which tells you that it’s meant for periodic use rather than an indefinite session of just being flipped on. (The Digital Slim has about a 20 minute battery life.) Second, there’s a turbo feature, which you engage by pushing another button on the back of the motor housing—that drains the battery in just four minutes, but the shape of the vacuum itself means that you have to push that button with a second hand. So the vacuum, in its design, is really telling you: 'Don’t replace your normal vacuum with me. And if you really need power, you better think about it, because it’s going to be a little awkward to engage.'
As far as the motor, Dyson is very quietly building a massive new motor factory in Singapore, which is thought to be focused largely on producing these very small digital motors that will power a new generation of fundamentally new products. Consider that the Dyson Airblade and the Air Multiplier Fan—and now, this tiny but mighty hand-held vacuum—are all enabled by the first generation of smaller motors.
If you wanted a lesson about innovation, there’s this: It often doesn’t happen in great leaps and bounds. Rather, it comes during the process of constant refinement. Dyson didn’t set out to invent a hand dryer or a fan. They first started with building a better vacuum, knowing that continual improvement was the surest defense in an industry that was actively copy-catting their designs. But during that process, they had a good enough core technology that they started thinking: Hey, we could probably make a lot of other things. If you think about it, that’s exactly what made Apple great during the 2000's—in constantly thinking about tiny ways to improve their wares, a collateral benefit was instilling a corporate mindset of: What could we do next?