The CEO Behind the $399 Hair Dryer Opens Up About the Future of Robotics

June 1, 2016, 11:00 AM UTC

Dyson, the British technology giant primarily known for selling vacuum cleaners, plans to sell its first hair dryer in the United States this September. It’s a big moment for Dyson given that it wants to be known as not just a vacuum cleaner specialist, but as a bleeding-edge manufacturer that knows how to keep abreast of changing consumer trends.

Dyson executives believe that most consumers aren’t satisfied with their hair dryers and would be willing to pay $399 for a device that’s lighter and less cumbersome to operate. It’s a hefty price tag for a device that can cost as little as $12.99, but Dyson is willing to bet that once people try one of its hair dryers, their minds (and hair) will be blown.

The company has miscalculated on new products in the past, such as its foray into washing machines in the 2000s. But CEO Max Conze believes that the new Supersonic hair dryer as well as its recently launched robotic vacuum cleaner demonstrate that the company hasn’t lost its knack for creating compelling products.

Conze talked with Fortune about the new hair dryer, Dyson’s work with robotics, and other areas of technology in which the company is investing. Here’s an edited version of the interview:

Fortune: Tell me about your new hair dryers.

Conze: In many ways, hair dryers form a category that has seen no meaningful innovation for decades. They’re clunky, they’re heavy, the air-flows are well-regulated, and for those people who dry their hair every day, it’s actually quite a chore. You do it every day, and the machines are frustrating. They’re too hot or they’re too cold, and they can burn your hair. We became interested in this because we know quite a bit about motors and air.

How did you learn that people are frustrated with hair dryers?

Our engineers look at the products as they exist and whether they actually do a proper job. Often our insights come from our own personal lives and the personal lives of the engineers. We look at the things that are not as satisfying as they could be and areas where our technology and our approach to reinventing and revolutionizing things will make a difference.

We never had anything to do with hair, so we set on a mission to discover it all. I think we’ve now gone through something like 1,000 miles of hair. We set up hair labs, and we sent our engineers to hair salons and cosmetic studios to make sure that we can really learn and understand.

Because we have a very small, precise motor that’s digitally steered, we can reinvent the whole format around [the hair dryer]. In our case, we put the motor in the handle because hair dryers are usually quite heavy. Because the motor is very small and fast, it creates a tunnel of air pressure, and that air pressure is very precise. It’s the only hair dryer that has electronics in it, so we can actually control the temperature. One of the biggest issues with most hair dryers is they actually overheat. When they’re overheating, they end up burning the hair.

Where do you build the hairdryers?

In Singapore, in our own motor factory. We need to invest tens of millions of dollars in robotic equipment to make this because the [motor] spins 110,000 times [per minute], and it needs to do so precisely day in, day out for years.

What robot companies do you use for manufacturing?

A few. It’s mostly Japanese [companies] like Hirata.

I can’t help but think of a vacuum cleaner when I see your hair dryer and its different attachments for different settings.

There’s an engineering link, I’m quite sure. I think, in general, we have that engineering obsession to not tinker with products but to really fundamentally reinvent them. As we’ve launched it, the response in the world has been overwhelming, because if you use a hair dryer every day—which most women with longer hair do and many men do—then it’s a product that you interact with 10, 20, 30 minutes every day of your life. People get incredibly passionate about this. We were starting to expose Dyson Supersonic to a lot of hair stylists, kind of the beauty players of this world—the Vogues, the Marie Claires, the big beauty bloggers, and so-forth—they live in the world of all these products and they’re not easily fooled. When we gave people the machine to test, we had trouble retrieving it afterwards because they never wanted to give it back.

Explain how you design products to accommodate many different cultures.

One, you find that fundamental needs are quite universal around the world. If you look at a hair dryer, the fundamental need is for a machine that is well-balanced, that is quiet, that dries hair faster, that doesn’t damage hair, and is universal for anyone that has hair anywhere in the world.

Then there is a degree of differentiation in the case of hair because of different hair types. In Asia, hair tends to be thicker. So you need to make sure that as you develop your machines, you spend enough time trialing that technology in different parts of the world. Having the right degree of customization to make sure it absolutely works is relevant. In the case of hair dryers, for example, it is the adjustment in some of the tools or other things. In the case of vacuum cleaners, most apartments in Japan have hardwood floors and tatami mats, which are very sensitive surfaces and they’re non-carpeted surfaces. We developed a floor tool for those surfaces that we call “fluffy,” because there’s a fluffy [component] that is particularly suited to do the best possible cleaning on those surfaces.

Interestingly we found after developing it for Japan, because we all had the machines in our homes, we said, “Well, hold on a minute. This is a great piece of technology. I want that as well.”

We have machines in Dyson employees’ homes and also in consumer homes all the time in places ranging from China to South Korea to the U.S. to everywhere.

You’re used to selling a vacuum cleaners. What are you doing that’s different to sell hair dryers?

As we launch it across the world and it becomes available to consumers, we are launching our own shops. We have a flagship store in Tokyo. We’re about to open one on Oxford Street [in London]. We’re actively working on and searching for a few sites in America. We’re increasingly investing in what we call “demonstration zones,” which we actually have in San Francisco.

Because we need people to experience the product, I want to make sure that we can train people that know everything about the product and that understand Dyson and can help you as a consumer really experience and get the best out of it. We put all of our energy in engineering great technology. Then we put a bit of energy in making sure that we explain that great technology. I think if we do both of those jobs well, people will be convinced.

You have a robotic vacuum cleaner. What other products are you interested in merging robotics with?

Robotics is interesting for us. We’ve been active in the robotics field for 15 years, both in our own labs and also in academia. We fund a robotics lab at Imperial [College] in London, which is one of the leading robotic labs in the world. They work with us to develop the algorithms and the learning approach in a Dyson 360 Eye [vacuum cleaner], and of course we’re working with them. We’re looking into the future in areas ranging from object recognition to how you work with depths, 3D cameras, and a lot of other areas that we think will have a rich application both in the kinds of products we do today. We have a few ideas on other things we may do.

Can you share some of them now?


How about cars?

No comment.

We have a vast set of interests, and we work now with about 40 universities in the U.K. and abroad. Our interests range from the obvious—because we do a lot with air and aerodynamics and air flows—to motor technology, to robotics, and also to artificial intelligence, to machine learning, to all of these areas. We’re interested in all of them because they have application potential both for products, technologies, and zones that we’re active in today. Then we have ideas about other areas or things we may do. One of the things I can talk about is that we’ve invested quite significantly in batteries. We’ve been in batteries for a long time, and we’ve had a battery lab for seven, eight years.

Explain to me what you are doing with battery technology?

We’ve been working with Cambridge and a few other universities. We’ve acquired a company in Michigan called Sakti3 that is working on solid-state battery technology. Why? Because finding a breakthrough in energy density is one of the biggest game changers for the future. We have a lot of products that are dependent on batteries today, and actually in taking them to the next level of performance, batteries are becoming the key constraining factor. The optimization product on lithium-ion batteries is not entirely tapped out, but it’s flattening, and so the only way that you get next-generation disruption is you need to go to a different format. If you look at the fundamental science on solid-state batteries, that is the format to go to. Now, lots of people are working on it.

There are foundational science challenges with it. If it were easy, people would have already solved it, but we love working on difficult problems. When James [Dyson] set out to reinvent motors, he had never built a motor in his life. We didn’t have a single person that knew how to build motors. 16 to 17 years later, we make the most sophisticated, fastest, advanced, smallest digital motors in the world. It takes kind of the obstinacy of believing that you can do things that are very difficult to solve, staying the course when others give up, along the way having the strength to put investments where they’re required.