Skip
Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Winds Of Change At Dyson

Can the pioneering vacuum maker transform itself into a full-blown tech company? An exclusive peek inside the house that suction built.

  • <p>"We're both very passionate about technology," James Dyson (right) says of son Jake, who is now a senior executive at the company. "We love making things and designing them, engineering them."</p>
  • <p><em>Fast Company</em> received an unprecedented tour of Dyson's R&D facilities. Here, the V6 Absolute, attached to a robotic arm capable of swinging a vacuum back and forth for days on end, is tested for stress points and suction volume.</p>
  • <p>A chamber in Dyson's R&D area tests for radio interference between products; the antennae can pick up a range of frequencies.</p>
  • <p>A desk in James Dyson's office displays some of his design inspirations: model cars, electric motors from various Dyson products, and one of the first fans the company made.</p>
  • <p>Household debris (kitty litter, sand, rice) awaits its vacuum-cleaner foes.</p>
  • <p>Dyson's new autonomous vacuum cleaner, the 360 Eye (aka the Robot).</p>
  • <p>The front entrance to Dyson's headquarters features a decommissioned Harrier jet, known for its lightness and maneuverability.</p>
  • <p>Computers in the rapid-prototyping room are able to turn a wild idea into a tactile object in a matter of hours.</p>
  • <p>A close-up of the copper pipe used inside Dyson lights.</p>
  • <p>3-D models generated at the company's rapid prototyping room.</p>
  • <p>The 360 Eye trolls for dirt.</p>
  • <p>Construction is underway on a $400 million technology campus adjacent to Dyson's Malmesbury, U.K. headquarters.</p>
  • 01 /12

    "We're both very passionate about technology," James Dyson (right) says of son Jake, who is now a senior executive at the company. "We love making things and designing them, engineering them."

  • 02 /12

    Fast Company received an unprecedented tour of Dyson's R&D facilities. Here, the V6 Absolute, attached to a robotic arm capable of swinging a vacuum back and forth for days on end, is tested for stress points and suction volume.

  • 03 /12

    A chamber in Dyson's R&D area tests for radio interference between products; the antennae can pick up a range of frequencies.

  • 04 /12

    A desk in James Dyson's office displays some of his design inspirations: model cars, electric motors from various Dyson products, and one of the first fans the company made.

  • 05 /12

    Household debris (kitty litter, sand, rice) awaits its vacuum-cleaner foes.

  • 06 /12

    Dyson's new autonomous vacuum cleaner, the 360 Eye (aka the Robot).

  • 07 /12

    The front entrance to Dyson's headquarters features a decommissioned Harrier jet, known for its lightness and maneuverability.

  • 08 /12

    Computers in the rapid-prototyping room are able to turn a wild idea into a tactile object in a matter of hours.

  • 09 /12

    A close-up of the copper pipe used inside Dyson lights.

  • 10 /12

    3-D models generated at the company's rapid prototyping room.

  • 11 /12

    The 360 Eye trolls for dirt.

  • 12 /12

    Construction is underway on a $400 million technology campus adjacent to Dyson's Malmesbury, U.K. headquarters.

Sir James Dyson, inventor and honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire, works out of a glass-walled office on the second floor of Dyson world headquarters, in the village of Malmesbury, 100 miles west of London. The space is airy and bright, and filled, museum-style, with tokens of Dyson’s design influences: a book on the history of the Toyota corporation, an old but durable plastic Sony flip phone, a toy 1961 Mini Cooper, a die-cast model of a 1970s-era Hawker Siddeley Harrier warplane. "The Harrier was a revolutionary machine," Dyson tells me. "It could take off and land vertically, and it had a one-piece carbon fiber wing that made it very, very light. It wasn’t the fastest battle plane out there, but it was the one all the RAF pilots wanted to use, because its extreme lightness made it so maneuverable. And, of course," he emphasizes, "it was a British invention." A few years ago, Dyson located a real-life decommissioned Harrier jet on the Internet and paid to have it hauled from an airfield in nearby Essex to Malmesbury. It now sits at the main entrance to Dyson HQ, directly beneath the founder’s office windows.

At 6-foot-1, Dyson is all angles—jutting jaw, slender fingers, pronounced cheekbones. In commercials, and in the photographs that appear on the boxes of Dyson vacuum cleaners, he typically eschews glasses, but around the office, he favors a round pair that give him an owlish look and amplify the intensity of his blue eyes. On the June day we meet, he is wearing a steel-strap Suunto Ventus watch, along with a button-down shirt and drawstring pants designed by his daughter, Emily, who owns a popular boutique in London. He apologizes for running late: He’d spent the afternoon downstairs in the R&D lab, inspecting prototypes. "It was difficult to break away," he says. "I can’t man the lathe anymore, but I can be down there every day, going from project to project."

Dyson is 68. His air-circulation-product enterprise, which did a company-record $2.1 billion in global sales last year, has given him a net worth currently estimated to be just shy of $5 billion. Not surprisingly, he is frequently asked if he will ever take the business public. He always demurs. "I’ve always thought it depended on what kind of company you wanted to be, whether or not you bring in other shareholders," Dyson says. "Our interest is in technology and engineering and design, and as a family business, we are able to keep the focus and philosophy there. We’re able to think very long-term, to develop technology that might be 20 to 25 years away. We can afford to do it. We can afford to make mistakes without anyone being sacked. We can take a long-term view of everything."

He gestures to the products lining the walls of the room, a highlight reel from Dyson’s 22-year corporate history that seems to prove his point nicely: The DC01, the first Dyson vacuum cleaner built for the U.K. market, and a national best seller. The DC07, with its Lamborghini-yellow paint job and translucent bin. The digital-motor-powered V6 Absolute, a cordless wonder that retails for a cool 500 bucks. The Airblade hand dryer. The circular Air Multiplier—essentially a fan without blades—and its elliptical, climate-controlling cousin, the Hot + Cool. With this kind of success, Dyson acknowledges, there is always the temptation to "rest on your laurels, to slap your name on more products, to think purely in terms of business decisions. But," he smiles, "that’s not where I’m headed."

Instead, Dyson is aiming for a bold and potentially risky expansion of his brand, which some employees have taken to calling "Dyson 2.0." Last year, the company broke ground on a more than $400 million technology campus adjacent to the Malmesbury headquarters. When it is completed next year, it will house 3,000 designers and engineers. Already, the company has brought in hundreds of software and computer hardware specialists and tripled the size of its engineering staff. The company currently funnels $2.5 million into R&D every week; it has spent $8 million on a cutting-edge robotics research lab at Imperial College, in London, and put another $15 million in the American-based solid-state battery company Sakti3.

In coming months, the technology campus will serve as a launching pad for a range of new verticals, some of which Dyson has disclosed (robotics), some of which seem imminent (the Sakti3 investment appears to indicate a further interest in household electronics), and some of which are entirely classified. Meanwhile, a few months before I arrived in Malmesbury, Dyson announced it was acquiring the LED lighting company founded by James’s eldest son, Jake, and bringing Jake on board as a senior executive. (Jake and his younger brother, Sam, the owner of a record label, Distiller, both have seats on the board of directors.) Jake’s lights will be sold under the Dyson name; all manufacturing will be transferred to the Southeast Asian facilities used by Dyson proper, and Dyson will gain market share in yet another industry.

If Dyson has no interest in an IPO, does Jake’s new role at the company signal that he might at least be looking to step back a bit? Dyson swears to me that he has zero interest in retiring; the very word sent him jolting forward in his leather chair. "No," he says. "No, no, no."

Still, it’s impossible not to see all of the changes underfoot at Malmesbury—the new campus, the new products, the newly empowered son—as an effort to look forward to the next act in Dyson’s evolution as a brand, one that will be defined, at least in part, by a fresh influx of talent and ideas. If it succeeds, Dyson might no longer be known as a cutting-edge appliance company, but as a cutting-edge technology company, full stop.


Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had the Apple I. Bill Gates had BASIC. James Dyson had a worn-out Hoover Junior vacuum cleaner that he jury-rigged with a cardboard cone—a scaled-down version of a device he’d once observed, as a budding inventor, at a nearby sawmill. The mill’s "cyclone" used centrifugal force to spin dust out of the air. Dyson’s prototype vacuum did the same with household debris. In 1983, a Japanese company agreed to sell the machine, which had a transparent bin, for a list price of close to $2,000. It was a success. The first vacuum Dyson built after starting his own company, in 1993, also featured a transparent bin. "We did market research and discovered that nobody wanted to see the dirt," Dyson says. "But as engineers, we couldn’t understand that. We loved seeing what went on inside—how much the machine picked up every time you ran it. So we ignored the research."

He still hasn’t given it another glance. Dyson, which owns 20% to 30% of the vacuum market in Europe (depending on which white paper you consult) and 6% in the U.S. (according to Euromonitor), has long touted the superior suction power of its vacuum cleaners, but much of the continuing popularity of the brand has to do with Dyson’s functional transparency. The products, and the prices they command, confer a status on the owner in the same way a MacBook Pro does: Here is a person who is willing to invest in style and quality. Indeed, in England, Dyson employees are accustomed to having their company compared to Apple under Steve Jobs. But the analogy can chafe. A few Dyson staffers I spoke to pointed out that Apple often puts the emphasis on design for design’s sake, intentionally shrouding the workings of its computers—anathema to Dyson ideology.

A few hours after I meet with Dyson in his office, I stand with engineer Mike Aldred at the edge of a small model living room the company uses to show off new technology. He places Dyson’s latest product, an autonomous vacuum cleaner known as the 360 Eye—referred to around Malmesbury simply as "the Robot"—on the carpet. The vacuum, which has been in the works for more than 15 years and will go on sale in Japan in December, and in Europe and the U.S. early next year, is identifiably a Dyson creation, with a digital motor and familiar cyclone cones visible inside a see-through bin. At the same time, the device is clearly a major leap forward for Dyson into computer programming, software design, the Internet of Things. "It was a very, very steep learning curve," Aldred says. "When we first started out on the robot, we had great motor teams but not a lot of electronics expertise."

For help, he turned to a dozen hardware specialists and software developers poached from British tech firms who improved the 360 Eye’s computer systems and created a new Android and iOS app. "We’ve polished this thing until it’s exactly right," Aldred says. He digs his iPhone out of his pocket and swipes a finger across the screen. The Robot hums to life, and working its way outward from the center of the room, climbs up a short ledge and weaves between a pair of table legs. Faced with the edge of an armchair, it stops and seems to fall into deep thought. "It’s incredibly light, and all the weight is on the chassis," Aldred says, speaking as a father would of his star athlete son. "So as it comes to something, it will just gently nudge it, detect that it’s hit something, and go, ‘Oh, okay! Time to back off and move away.’ "

Aldred says that Dyson could have released the machine earlier but kept waiting: The batteries weren’t lasting long enough, the sensors were too finicky, the camera had blind spots. "There are moments, obviously, when you’d love to see your product out there," Aldred says. "But I’d hate to have it out there knowing it could be better. And I’m lucky, having someone like James, who is prepared to let us spend all this time getting it exactly right."

He points to his iPhone, which displays a map of the area the vacuum covered. "Now what’s nice," he goes on, "is let’s say you’ve gone out for the day and programmed it to clean the whole ground floor, but you forgot to leave a door open. It will remember what remains to be cleaned, and when you get back home, you can put it back down in that uncleaned area, and away it’ll go."

In the 15 years Dyson spent painstakingly perfecting the 360 Eye, a range of autonomous floor cleaners have entered the market, including iRobot’s Roomba and several models from Samsung. Dyson says that the 360 Eye will offer better suction, more advanced sensors, and longer-lasting battery life than its competitors. Still, in a sense, the device is illustrative of the challenges Dyson faces as it attempts to expand into categories already thick with deep-pocketed rivals: What happens when a company accustomed to being hailed for its innovations decides to play catch-up?


More than 2,000 people work at the Dyson complex in Malmesbury, many of them fresh-faced and hoodie-clad. (Walking the serpentine halls of the main building, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived at the home base of a Silicon Valley software developer.) But only a small fraction are allowed to step foot in the research and development area, which lies behind a set of frosted glass doors—and a finger-print scanner—on the ground floor.

Visitors are rare here, and journalists unheard of. In order to gain access, I had to surrender my voice recorder, place my iPhone in a sealed plastic bag, and don a bright blue-and -yellow vest, so employees would be able to see me coming and have adequate time to drop a tarp over anything off-limits. "We’re extremely careful about security," Alex Knox, the global new development director, says by way of apology. (Not that it’s always paid off: In 2012, Dyson said it caught a former employee selling confidential documents to a rival.)

The birthplace of most of the company’s major innovations, the R&D area is where the next 10 years of Dyson devices are being crafted. "We’re on a design-build-test loop," explains Knox. Over the course of an average week, the company’s top-secret New Product Innovation team comes up with a dozen prototypes, which are modeled and shown off to other engineers. The most promising, no matter how seemingly far-fetched, are sent up the food chain to the top execs, often to James Dyson himself.

Knox, the third engineer recruited by Dyson in the 1990s—his first gig was working on the design of the original DC01—helps to oversee that process. "Way back in the day, the prototypes would be cardboard, or they’d be built by in-house model makers," he says, pushing open the door to a room dominated by a large steel crate. "Now we’ve gotten a little more advanced." The crate, Knox explains, is an EOSINT P 760, an $800,000 device that uses lasers to sinter prototypes out of metal powder. An engineer could work up his prototype with CAD software on one of the computers down the hall, he says, and have it in hand by the end of the day.

Our next stop is the EMC chamber, a room used to test prototypes for electronic or radio interference with other devices. The 20-foot walls are covered in large slabs of foam that absorb extraneous sound; there is no testing going on at the moment, and the quiet is unearthly. The room next door is bristling with microphones that measure the sonic output of Dyson products. "We want to make sure there are no unpleasant sounds," Knox says, "because the sound a device makes can be as important as the way it looks, or the way it performs."

Dyson is fond of saying that it overtests its devices, far beyond the parameters stipulated by U.S. or European regulating agencies. Before leaving the R&D area, Knox leads me into a small trailer where a late-model vacuum cleaner is being run, by a robotic arm, back and forth across a stretch of carpet. This will continue for 50 hours or more, Knox says. Nearby, on the wall, are canisters of debris: One is marked SAND, and another, KITTY LITTER.

"It’s not just kitty litter," Knox grins, turning the canister toward me. "See? It’s marked Japanese kitty litter. We like to make sure we cater to all different kinds of markets." (There was an American/European kitty litter sample, too, he assures me.)

All this testing serves a purpose, Knox continues. Only through almost endless repetition can you truly discover what doesn’t work, and what does. "We’ve found it can be really serendipitous," he says, and gives an example: Heavy-duty testing on the first cyclone vacuum cleaners led engineers to realize that a by-product of the suction was a so-called coandra effect—air could be directed to spit out as quickly as it had come in. The Airblade hand dryer followed, which led to the Air Multiplier.

"There are different ways inventions come about," says product innovation head Stephen Courtney, who devised the first Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner to address maneuverability issues on previous machines. "It’s not always just thinking of an idea. When you’re testing things, if you’re observing everything properly and if the engineers themselves are doing the tests, you can make these incredible leaps."

Dyson will unveil the result of one such breakthrough "in the near future," the company says. During my time in Malmesbury, I am given a preview of the device—actually the precursor to an entire new line of products—under the condition that I not reveal any details about it. Suffice to say that the product represents both a radical departure from and a logical extension of the Dyson brand.

Dyson himself gives me a demo in his office, removing the machine from a metal box that looks as if it could withstand a tank shell. He turns it to and fro, marveling at its shapely lines. He is proud of it, clearly, and simultaneously wowed by it. This particular amalgamation of motor and metal, he believes, could be a major part of the future of his company.

Once this device launches, I ask, are there any other markets he is eager to get into? He answers indirectly. "I think the better way to think of it is that we’ll only get into a field if we believe we can transform it—if we have the technology to really make a difference. This isn’t a commercially driven venture," he says of the company. "It’s not about just making good business decisions. It’s about much more than that."

It’s about finding perfection.


Jake Dyson’s lighting business is situated in an old elevator factory in Clerkenwell, London’s design district. The floors are rough wood, the walls gallery white. A sliding garage door opens up into the main room, and Jake will often drive his bright red Fiat 500 directly inside and park it next to his desk. Downstairs, in the basement, worktables are stained with grease and strewn with wrenches and spare bulbs.

On the day I visit, staffers are busy testing a new overhead light, code-named Ariel, which Dyson will release in late 2015. Ariel is rectangular and long, with the wide metal wings of a satellite; Dyson sees it primarily as a commercial product, for restaurants and hotels. "With most LED downlights they have to put diffuser over the top, and you get this glare," says lighting specialist Karoline Newman. "It can be unpleasant. Ours is much more concentrated and direct."

"And we can use it with baffle blades, which can crop the light to make it exactly fit your workplace," adds senior engineer Doug Inge, so that the light can drop off exactly where a table does, for instance. "You get this magical, targeted illumination." He flips off the house lights, leaving only the glow of the Ariel; the light is precise, clear, sharp.

Over the next few months, several of Jake’s lighting engineers will join the core Dyson team in Malmesbury, but Jake plans to keep his creative team here in London. "We’ve formed very good relationships with local architects and lighting designers, and they come and see us regularly, and we get feedback," he says. "You have to be here for them to come out and have a coffee with you."

Jake, 42, has tousled ginger hair, blue eyes, and his father’s quiet intensity. ("We’re both very passionate about technology; we love making things and designing them, engineering them," James says of Jake. "We both believe in the same things, which is not quite true of my other two children.") Jake grew up in the Wiltshire countryside and studied industrial design at Central Saint Martins. "I enrolled with no one knowing who James Dyson was and left with him being tipped as the greatest British inventor/designer of his era," Jake recalls. "It was quite a transformation." But it was also somewhat of a burden. After five post-college years in Malmesbury, developing products with Dyson’s New Product Innovation group, Jake left in 2004 to open his own business.

He found a work space in London and spent some time developing a new breed of ceiling fan—"it created two hurricanes in the room and oscillated around; quite lethal, actually," he says—before moving into lighting, a multibillion-dollar industry that seemed to Jake to be stuck in a bygone era. The products he found in showrooms were pricey, and their technology unevolved. Jake knew that he wanted to work with LED bulbs, which last much longer and consume much less energy than their incandescent counterparts. But he quickly encountered the same problem that had befuddled other engineers: LED bulbs are extremely hard to cool properly. "We looked at a lot of different options. Active cooling, with motors and pumped fluids and fans, is very effective, but you get a lot of noise. We wanted durability and lifetimes of 37 years, at 12 hours a day," Inge says. "We had a lot of customers say, ‘Well, I’ll be dead by then.’ And we’d say, ‘That’s the point.’ "

In 2011, Jake and his colleagues settled on a solution: a rectangular aluminum rod that sucked heat away from the LEDs. In proper Dyson fashion, the function of Dyson’s first LED light, called the CSYS (short for coordinating system), dictates its form: it is stripped of embellishment, reduced to a sturdy, T-shaped alloy frame. Eight LEDs are mounted at the end of a boom inspired by a construction crane. A tap of the finger sends the boom shuttling from left to right; another tap adjusts the elevation. The device went on sale in Europe in 2012 for $699. By last year, Jake was supplying to 405 dealers in 27 countries (a U.S. version is due in late 2015). He and his team were still building every unit in shop, at a grueling pace.

For years, Jake had held off on returning to Malmesbury—he’d wanted to prove himself first. Now that he had, why not join forces with his father? Malmesbury could offer the R&D and manufacturing power he’d need to grow. More important, he could protect his father’s vision. "I could never sit by and watch a corporate company come in and destroy it. And they would!" he exclaims, eyes widening. "They would just play on the brand, with no improvement in technology. They would destroy it."

In a way, Jake, who will spend the next year managing the lighting vertical while getting up to speed on the hundreds of products under way in Malmesbury, is the ideal ambassador for Dyson 2.0: an inventor steeped in traditional engineering, but raised in the electronic age. During our conversation, he stresses the importance of investing in software and computer hardware and devices that would fit into the Internet of Things. "The business may have to change a bit," he says. "All businesses do, to stay on top." He pauses and toys with the base of the CSYS light in front of him. "But I think it’s important not to worry too much about the markets or upcoming trends. The key is to focus on Dyson’s core strength"—building durable, innovative products. "You should take being afraid out of the equation," Jake says. "Is it possible? And am I excited about it? If the answer is yes, then you go for it."

Jake, James Dyson admits, "is going to be much more inventive and adventurous than me, probably. But the benefit to the way we’ve structured things is that the central philosophy will carry on. It’s now a family business." And he’s always played the long game.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.

ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE?
Register now to make sure you have a voice in the election.
loading