Dyson wants to create a hair dryer revolution

The Supersonic is a first foray into the world of beauty for a company known for vacuum cleaners

Dyson wants to create a hair dryer revolution

Sir James Dyson, the British designer and engineer, sporting sneakers and a voluminous thatch of silvery hair, stood in his vast glass office in the depths of the English countryside. He was clutching a device that he contends could change the monotony of bathroom routines forever.

“There has been zero innovation in this market for over 60 years,” said Dyson, 68, a billionaire who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006. “Millions of people use contraptions daily that are hideously inefficient, waste their time and are causing them long-term damage,” he said. “We realised that we could and should sort this situation out.”

He triumphantly held up what appeared to be a sleek black and pink plastic doughnut on a stick. “Four years, 100 odd patents and 600 prototypes later, I think we might have found the answer.”

Known as the Dyson Supersonic and unveiled in Tokyo on last month, the device is his response to a question many never thought to ask: Is it possible to make a better hair dryer?

This may not seem like a big deal. A few burned scalps and frizz issues aside, people have been doing just fine with the standard hair dryer for decades. But, as Dai Fujiwara, a Japanese fashion designer who collaborated with Dyson on a runway presentation, wrote in an email, “Because everyday life is too common, people rarely realise there is a problem.”

Dyson, Britain’s best-known living inventor, is the Steve Jobs of domestic appliances. He has built a fortune from making otherwise standard products seem aesthetically desirable, in the process persuading consumers that they really, really want cordless and bagless vacuum cleaners, air purifiers, bladeless fans and even household robots.

“His inventions are disruptive – beautifully so,” said Terence Conran, the British restaurateur, retailer and furniture designer. “Who would have imagined that a bagless vacuum cleaner could become a highly covetable status symbol? He has made other businesses think differently about how to use design, creativity and innovation.”

Dyson said 103 engineers were involved in the creation of the Supersonic, which included the taming of more than 1,010 miles of human tresses and 7,000 acoustic tests as teams tackled 3 core issues: noise, weight and speed.

Ground zero for the project was the Dyson research facility, a Willy Wonka-like world, deep in the rolling Wiltshire hills, with a Harrier fighter jet and spliced Mini car in the visitors’ parking lot.

Projects are kept shielded from outsiders – as well as many within the walls itself (which, like those owned by Roald Dahl’s flamboyant fictional chocolate factory owner, are often painted a lurid purple).

Ed Shelton, a design manager for the Supersonic, said: “It was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. Beyond having to crack the science of hair, we’ve had to tackle a highly subjective user psychology. There are many more approaches and angles to blow-drying than vacuuming in the world. British women want volume. Japanese women want straightness. No one wants hair damage. And then we had to create a fleet of robots specifically to test that over and over again.”

The company says the key to the Supersonic is its high-speed 13-blade motor. About the size of a quarter, the motor is small enough to fit in the base of the hair dryer handle, rather than in the conventional motor position at the top of the device, a shift that creates its unorthodox streamlined aesthetic.

The smaller motor allows for high velocity flow but not pressure, the company says, which is how temperatures shoot up on traditional hair dryers and users burn themselves if the dryer is too close to the head.

The company says the positioning of the motor in the hand also limits the dumbbell effect of old-guard models, where top-heavy weighting can cause arms to ache. Weighing just 370 grams, the new structure allows for a longer silencer tube and smaller fan, cutting down drastically on noise.

Coupled with the high motor speed, the fusion of new technologies gives rise to Dyson’s claims that the sound waves can operate at an ultrasonic level. It also has magnetic heatproof nozzles and intelligent heat sensors to prevent hair burn.

“Frankly, I’m rather terrified,” Dyson said. “We had to learn a great deal with the Supersonic, and there have been a lot of firsts on all fronts, including the fact that I had to grow my hair especially for a launch.” “It hasn’t been this long since my 60s student days, when I wore flowered shirts and flares,” Dyson said.

As with any other Dyson device, research and development didn’t come cheap: The investment, including a state-of-the-art hair laboratory, reached $72 million.

As a result, the Supersonic will retail at $399 when it arrives in the United States in September, a price at stark odds with the low-priced high-volume business model that has traditionally defined the competitive hair dryer market. Hair dryers sold by Amazon in the US retail for $12.99 to $219.98.

History of hot air

The first hair dryer was invented in 1890 by French stylist Alexander F Godefroy. The device was a large metal bonnet attached to the chimney pipe of a gas stove, which a user sat beneath.

In 1911, Armenian-American inventor Gabriel Kazanjian received the first patent for a hand-held hair dryer, and during the 1920s early metal portable models arrived on the market. Slow, heavy at around 2 pounds and prone to overheating, there were multiple cases of electrocution.

Seated devices continued to be popular in salons, with cubicle models emerging that offered magazine stands, ashtrays and even speakers so clients could listen to music as their hair was being set. Soft bonnet dryers were introduced into hairstyling salons. With short, tight curls being the rage, a small box-shaped dryer attached by a tube to a shower-cap like plastic bonnet with holes blasted air continuously and evenly all over the head.

The rigid-hood dryer – a large, hard plastic bonnet – arrived in 1951 and went on to become a mainstay of the salon market over the next 30 years. While working on the same premise as the bonnet, it was able to conduct a much higher wattage level, resulting in quicker, tidier styles.

Portable hand-held hair dryers continued to attract large interest thanks to the increased privacy and efficiency from using a device within the home. Over time, plastic housings were developed, motors were made lighter and more powerful, and safety circuit interrupters were incorporated to limit accident or injury. By the 1970s hair dryers had become a mass-market consumer product.

Many models have also become more compact. The portable hair dryers of the 21st century could produce over 2,000 watts of heat. The Dyson Supersonic is a first foray into the world of beauty for a company known for fans and vacuum cleaners.

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