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How Dyson Invented A $399 Hairdryer With Nuclear Tech

Dyson bought 1,300 miles of hair tresses and used machines built for nuclear weapons to develop the ultimate hairdryer.

Today, Dyson pulled the covers off of a new product, in a new category: a hair dryer, dubbed the Dyson Supersonic.

As you’d expect of any new Dyson product, the Supersonic, which retails for $399, is very expensive, intensely engineered, and comes on the heels of a very long development process. But it sure is nice. “I’ve spent four years trying to get this quiet,” says Tom Crawford, head of the new product’s development, while holding the gadget in a hands-on for Co.Design. The quiet of the thing when turned on at full blast is indeed surprising. The gadget also runs at 73 DB, compared to 80 DB. (Since the decibel scale is logarithmic, a reduction of 7 DB means about 60% less noise.) Even more noticeable is the form factor, which resembles a handheld Dyson fan. Like that fan, the hairdryer sucks in air at the base, then the fan sends it rushing out a thin opening at the edge of the circular rim. The angle of that rim’s face then focuses the air into a carefully calibrated stream.

Air gets taken in from the base and blown out in a focused stream through the front of the perpendicular ring. In doing so, it pulls along more air, multiplying the volume of air that the user feels.

Both the quietness and the unusual shape are the direct outcome of what makes the hairdryer special, and expensive: A tiny bespoke digital motor, which Dyson claims is 300% more powerful than those of the most powerful hairdryers on the market.

Getting the motor right meant actually working backward. The Dyson team didn’t start with the motor, rather, they settled on a form factor and a size that felt good in the hand. “Your hands can detect even a half millimeter different in size,” explains Crawford. And so every minute adjustment mattered. Once the form factor was right, Dyson worked to engineer the motor.

A sampling of the hundreds of prototypes used to develop the dryer.Image: Dyson

A Big Investment and Nuclear Technology

Dyson’s first ideas about the form factor were borrowed from the wraparound handles of the company’s handheld vacuums. But all these designs—which would have been fine for handheld vacuums, which you hold a steady angle—were awkward for a hairdryer, because you maneuver a hairdryer in all different directions, with a wide range in precision. Dyson’s designers eventually realized that for the hairdryer to feel more like an extension of your hand, its weight had to be right on the centerline of the device. The motor therefore had to be at the top of the handle.

Here you can see the motor in the handle.Image: Dyson

There probably aren’t many companies in the world that could have identified the right form factor, and designed a digital motor around it. But that capability speaks to an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, years in the making. Ever since its first handheld vacuums, Dyson has laser-focused on creating smaller and more powerful digital motors—both because they allow for better handheld vacuums, and because better motors allow them to rapidly expand the types of products they make. Dyson expects to launch 100 new products in the next four years, with a significant number in new categories according to Dyson’s CEO, Max Conze. Already, devices other than full-size vacuums have gone from 20% of the company’s business five years ago, to 80% today.

For the Supersonic, digital motors offer specific advantages. Because this one can get up to full speed in a mere .3 seconds, the electricity that would otherwise be expended spinning the motor up can be almost instantaneously devoted to the resistance element that generates heat—thus, the Supersonic spews hot air almost immediately after it’s turned on. Of course, heat can actually damage your hair very quickly, so Dyson created a computer chip that dynamically changes how much power the device is drawing, so that it always spews hot air in a very narrow temperature range.

And then there was the matter of keeping the device as small as possible, and making sure there aren’t any loose elements that generate noise. A mere 50 microns separates the fan inside the handle and the shroud around it. Getting that tight of a tolerance meant that to hold those pieces together at the right distance while they were being assembled, Dyson had to use stabilizing machines ordinarily used to assemble nuclear weapons—which in turn meant that it had to get a special license for the machines from the British government. (The shroud itself has a very thin groove that’s a clever engineering trick. When the motor runs, any hair caught inside gets spun outward, and when the hair hits the shroud, the grove cuts it and hair gets expelled.)

A hair scientist works with tresses of human hair for testing. Image: Dyson

Dyson’s Philosophy Of Innovation

Dyson has always had a very focused philosophy about new product categories: They choose ones that haven’t seen too much innovation in a long time so problems hide in plain site. Fans were a good example. Though expensive, they remained relatively loud and hard to clean. Vacuums were another. No one had thought to solve the problem of losing suction, or being able to see how much dirt your vacuum had actually sucked up.

The hairdryer is another example of Dyson’s formula–of using an engineering-focused product-development story to help command a massive price premium. But in some ways, the hairdryer is an even better example than a fan or a vacuum. Dyson believes that a product that users rely on for how they look—one they pick up at the same time, day in and day out—will make the higher price of the hairdryer an even easier sell, simply because it’s a part of a daily ritual that goes to the very personal feelings of how they look.

That focus on women, and that focus on personal appearance, caused Dyson to rethink its design teams at the outset. It staffed the engineering team with a mix of women and men, and sent them all to local cosmetology classes, to learn the subtler details of dressing hair. It hired a team of hair scientists—yes, there is such a thing—to figure out how much heat hair can withstand without damage. In all, Dyson estimates they bought 1,300 miles of hair tresses. “We were buying so much that they couldn’t farm enough,” says Crawford.

All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Celine Grouard for Fast Company

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.