Two hours away from the hustle and bustle of London is a very, very old town named Malmesbury. It is, in fact, the oldest borough in England, the site of an Iron Age fort, and the place where the first king of the country was buried in 939.
And because it is also the place where Sir James Dyson chose to set up Dyson’s headquarters, each day, more than 2,000 engineers with an average age of just 26 converge on the campus-like space to dream up fresh ideas for improving everyday lives, giving new life to the quiet English countryside.
One Wednesday afternoon in August, we were given a tour of the space, the chance to get a strand of our hair analysed and picked apart in one of its many labs, and to speak with some of the engineers behind Dyson's cool technology.
At the size of roughly 42 football fields, the £250m (~$451m) HQ is massive. One secretive building (accessible by only selected employees) houses the R&D teams and keeps away prying eyes with a fully mirrored exterior.
Another just opposite is occupied by the Lightning cafe (pictured above), a spacious staff cafeteria named after the Cold War-era English Electric Lightning Jet that is suspended from its ceiling - one of the many design icons James Dyson places around the sprawling campus to inspire his engineers.
And yet another (but not the last) is the building for the one-year-old Dyson Institute of Technology, which offers engineering degrees and aims to groom UK’s next crop of engineers - a fruit of Dyson’s belief in young engineers and concerns about the country’s shortage of engineers.
As we snapped photos with a cut-in-half Mini Cooper, a 60th birthday gift for Dyson by his employees, Dyson’s biggest project so far also came up in the conversation. If you haven’t heard, Dyson is building its first electric car. The company’s 400-strong (and expanding) automotive team has already moved to the restored Hullavington Airfield at Wiltshire, where Dyson is planning to invest at least £200m on over 16 km of vehicle test tracks, a new development space to fit over 2,000 people, as well as a cafe, sports centre, recreation space, and supporting technical facilities. In total, it says it would be investing £2b into the development of the vehicle, which is scheduled to be launched in 2021.
But before all of that - before the now £9.5b empire that is Dyson Ltd, everything started in the late '70s with a man who was frustrated with his Hoover. That frustration with how his vacuum loses suction as the dust bags get clogged then famously led to 5,127 prototypes and five years before Dyson invented his "G-Force" cleaner which uses no dust bags, and the rest is history.
You may have now noticed a common theme here - that when the 71-year-old inventor does something, he goes all out. That is why eight years ago, when engineers at his company created a powerful but super compact motor just to see if they could, and realised that it could possibly power, say, a hairdryer (as opposed to a smaller vacuum cleaner), the company rolled with it and set up a new Personal Care department, where engineers and researchers dedicate all their energies to examining and manipulating the human hair, in order to create and perfect tools that would help us manage our own locks in the best way, with the best results.
Specialised labs were built to measure the noise generated by its devices (above), to study human hair samples, to subject all kinds of hair to all kinds of tests and situations, and to quickly 3D-print prototypes whenever a design is tweaked.
The result was the revolutionary and wildly popular Supersonic hairdryer, which, when launched two-and-a-half years ago, changed the way most of the world thought about the prosaic tool.
But of course, the Supersonic will not be the last of what we will see from Dyson from the personal care arena.
Today (October 10), the company has unveiled the Airwrap, a hairstyling tool that was developed at the cost of £24m over the last six years, alongside the Supersonic. And like the latter, it promises to make grooming your mane snappier and sexier.
On our trip to Dyson's UK headquarters, we had the chance to check out the machine ourselves and to speak with the people who developed it.
Below is everything we know about it and how it works.
Photo: Veronica Tay
What it is:
A wet-to-dry (you are supposed to use it on damp hair for longer-lasting results) hairstyling device that uses air flow to help you curl or straighten your hair, with the help of eight different attachments for different looks. You won’t be able to get the pin straight hair only a flat iron can achieve, but you’d be able to create medium curls, large curls, loose beach waves, natural-looking straight hair, or even natural-looking straight hair with a C-curl at the ends.
How it works:
Photo: Veronica Tay
Unlike traditional flat irons or curling tongs, the Airwrap does not use heated metal plates to straighten or curl hair.
It comprises of a “control centre” - one baton-like machine that expels heated air (pictured above), and eight different attachments that go onto the machine individually to create different hairstyles for different hair types.
While hot air is used, temperatures will never go beyond 150 deg C - the temperature that engineers at Dyson have discovered to be the maximum hair can tolerate before it begins to be significantly damaged. Therefore, the company promises that you do not have to use a heat protectant product when using the Airwrap.
Says Ben Bobillier, hair care engineering lead at Dyson, “With our research, we found that we can get a good style without damage if we keep it to below 150 deg C, so we optimised the Supersonic and Airwrap to work below that temperature. Our competitors have tools that can go up to 230 deg C, but you will never reach those extreme high temperatures with the Airwrap.”
The build-in glass bead thermistor that regulates temperature in the Airwrap measures the temperature 40 times a second – a step up from the one in the Supersonic, which measures 20 times a second.
Photo: Veronica Tay
The attachments include:
- A Pre-styling Dryer (pictured above) to help turn freshly-washed wet hair into damp hair.
- Three brushes: A Firm Smoothing Airbrush for straightening thick and coarse hair, a Soft Smoothing Airbrush with softer and more flexible ball-tipped bristles for straightening finer hair, and a Round Volumising Brush to create volume and shape for finer, thinner and straighter hair.
- Four Curling Barrels: They are available in two sizes - 30mm and 40mm for medium and large curls respectively, and with each size in two types that will curl your hair in opposite directions so you get more natural curls.
According to Bobillier, the long lead time to launch is because the team was set on perfecting the tool and making it truly work for all hair types. "The product was actually almost completed last year - we had the dryer, the curlers and the straightening brushes - until some testers mentioned that they would love to use it with a round brush too, because that's what they are used to. So we shelved launch plans and went back to work on adding a round brush, and now we are quite confident that this tool would work for almost all hair types - from straight, to wavy, to really kinky and coily."
The brushes are straightforward. Pop one onto the main body of the Airwrap, turn it on, and heated air emerges from slots at the base of the bristles. Your hair is straightened by the heated air when you run it through the brush.
Photo: Veronica Tay
The curling barrels can be slightly trickier to figure out at first glance. Each barrel has six slots running diagonally down its sides, which expel heated air when attached to the Airwrap. Due to the curved surface of the barrel, the airflow wraps around it even as new hot air is continually being pushed out (due to a nifty phenomenon called the Coanda effect), creating a swirling vortex of heated air around the barrel.
Take a section of hair, bring the ends near the Airwrap, and the hair will automatically curl around the barrel too, guided by the flowing air. As you move the Airwrap closer to your roots, that section of hair will continue wrapping around the barrel. Hold it in place for a few seconds, push and hold the Cool Shot button to blast a quick shot of cool air, then turn the machine off and slide it out. What you get: a section of curled hair, obtained not by having to manually wrap your hair around the barrel.
How it is sold:
Three different sets are available. It comes as a Complete set with all eight attachments at $699, as a Smooth + Control set with all four barrels and a Firm Smoothing Brush at $649, and as a Volume + Shape set with two 30mm barrels, one Soft Smoothing Brush, and one Round Volumising Brush at $649. All sets come with the Pre-styling Dryer.
The Airwrap will be available soon in Singapore. Stay tuned for details.
PHOTOGRAPHY VERONICA TAY
ART DIRECTION SHAN