Can you answer this: What innovative product weighs less than five pounds, is increasingly popular with consumers, and uses no algorithms?
Here’s a hint: The innovation is in the reinventing of its motor.
If you guessed that the answer is Dyson’s latest vacuum cleaner, the DC59 Motorhead—a battery-operated whiz for short-term bursts of great cleaning—go to the head of the class.
Asking the right question
In the best tradition (to date) of starting down a path towards thinking innovatively, The New York Times reports that Rob Green, veteran Dyson innovative engineer, asked the right question: “We wondered, ‘Why shouldn’t vacuuming be more convenient?’” Why should vacuums have to be unwieldy, plugged in and out to move around, and inconvenient to use?
Looking at all the problems to solve
A number of excellent vacuum cleaners already exist. What didn’t yet exist was a vacuum cleaner that met several conflicting requirements:
a) cleaned well,
b) had a number of attachments for varying floor coverings,
c) was featherweight, and
d) was cordless.
To compete in the product’s ecosystem, the new machine had to work at least as well as a corded upright to attract consumers who cared about cleanliness.
Green and his colleagues had more than one balancing act to solve in order to get this product innovation right. They had to engineer a balance between engine power and size, and between engine power and battery time—and then add workable attachments without upsetting those balances.
To accomplish those steps, it turned out that they had to be willing and able to go back to the drawing board and invent a completely new, small yet powerful vacuum motor.
Getting to launch
One can only guess at the perseverance and testing it took the for the Dyson team to engineer its tiny, brushless motor. As the Times suggests, the difference between relying on algorithms for innovation and rethinking motors is time. So far Dyson’s team has spent 15 years on motor innovation. But that’s not all.
It’s also cost. Dyson already was known for investing in its new products. But this investment is a standout. The New York Times reveals that “Dyson has since spent hundreds of millions of dollars and hired several hundred people to design, build and start selling what it hopes will become the standard vacuum cleaner of tomorrow….”
That level of investment brings its own cost to the product—the product’s price. At $500, the DC59 is pricier than most full-size, corded vacuums. The question is, will consumers like the trade-off in size and convenience enough to make this product a success? Or, as I often ask, does this product create sufficient value for customers that they will purchase it. Price is only one component of value and customers will judge if Dyson has gotten the value equation right.
The ecosystem’s impact
Should Dyson now claim victory, sell its new DC59, and sit on its laurels? Or will the product’s ecosystem force Dyson to continue on its spending and reinventing trajectory?
The market research firm NPD Group is cited in The New York Times as saying that “cordless vacuum cleaner sales grew by over 57 percent in the last two years, and Dyson’s machines accounted for 45 percent of that growth.” The bottom line? “Dyson has no choice but to keep eking out extra performance by constantly updating its motors.” With such large market growth, fast followers will enter the ecosystem and compete for customers.
The innovation questions
Green and his team at Dyson asked the right question to jump onto an innovative track. They certainly persisted and tested until they solved the mechanical problems and were not deterred by the R&D costs involved.
Yet this product development and innovation story poses key questions centered around a cost-benefit analysis of innovation.
- If a product exists that performs a similar function, is it efficient and cost-effective to reinvent its mechanics?
- At what level of investment is a product no longer apt to lead to financial success, even in a proven market?
What are your thoughts?