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More than hot air? Inside a Supersonic hair dryer.

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Take 100 engineers, 600 prototypes, 100 patents pending and half a billion rand in motor technology, and you get a hair dryer from the future, writes TIANA CLINE.

A heater, a motor and pushing out some airflow – making a hair dryer sounds quite simple. Yet, most of today’s technology innovation in this space seems to revolve around LCD displays and Nano ionizers. And then James Dyson put forward a challenge: How quiet could Dyson’s team of engineers make a hair dryer?

About 1600 kilometres of hair testing later, the Dyson Supersonic has hit South African shores (and tresses).

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“Hair dryers haven’t changed much since the 1960s,” laughs Brett Coulton, Dyson’s Design Manager in New Product Innovation. “We were initially looking to create a super silent hair dryer, that’s how it all started. But we also wanted to make it the most powerful that we could.”

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James Dyson has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in digital motors. Dyson has been making digital motors for the better part of 20 years. But it’s not about micro-scaling the architecture; the goal is to help the motors team define what they’re trying to get out of a product.

The V9 is Dyson’s smallest digital motor to date, specifically built for the Supersonic. Every millimetre counts.

“When we started, the motor was 40ml in diameter and now we’re down to 28.6ml. The whole purpose was to push for the motor to get into the handle. All the light weight components are at the top. The motor is both smaller and lighter than conventional hair dryer motors, which are top-heavy- which also makes the hair dryer heavier on the arm. We were constantly trying to push for the diameter to be reduced, which is why, now, our motor is the size it is. It all fits into the Supersonic’s handle, which feels comfortable in most hands.”

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Brett Coulton, Dyson’s Design Manager in New Product Innovation

The V9 spins at 110 000 revolutions a minute, generating high pressure air. That’s five times faster than a Formula One engine (and yes, we’re still talking about a hair dryer here). It’s also six times faster than a conventional hair dryer, at one inaudible frequency, yet is a third of the weight.

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“The good thing about high pressure air is that you can squeeze it into really small spaces,” says Coulton. “It’s an incredibly dense and compact design and the high-pressure motor allows us to push air into an annulus, based on our air multiplier technology. The extra pressure on one end allows the motor to be smaller in the handle.”

The flow has been designed to be as concentrated and laminar or consistent as possible – it comes out at a 20-degree angle. Inside the Supersonic’s head, you’ll find a heater and thermistor. The thermistor – essentially a tiny glass bead – is connected to a microprocessor. The two, through wires which run down the handle, measure exit temperature 20 times every second, and report it straight to the microprocessor.

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“No matter how you restrict the flow, the Supersonic manages to keep a constant temperature. We know from testing that, if you exceed 150 degrees, you start getting irreversible damage to hair. With thermistor technology, that’s never going to happen.”

Most hair dryers don’t offer this level of control. But then again, the creation of Dyson’s Supersonic took 100 engineers, 600 prototypes, 100 patents pending (16 on the attachments themselves) and half a billion rand in motor technology.

“Four years ago, Supersonic was double-handled. We found that the digital motor was spinning so fast that, if you had a silencer at either end, you could keep it very quiet. That said, it wasn’t nice to use and it didn’t look great,” recalls Coulton.

“We started from scratch and some of the things we did to make it quiet was changing the motor. We could give the same level of performance using 11 blades, but we added two extra blades, which takes the frequency that the motor produces to an inaudible range of the human ear.”

Unsurprisingly, Dyson has a semi anechoic chamber – an echo-less, sound proof area – at their lab. They set the product up in the middle to test the hair dryer and pick points in the design which are noisier. The Supersonic has 25 bits of foam strategically placed inside the handle.

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“Every little bit counts! A rubber mount takes away any form of vibration or noise from the motor. Tiny little rubber pips mean there is minimal contact with the motor and casing.”

The Dyson Supersonic is the result of a $65 million investment in the science of hair: during the development, Dyson engineers studied hair from root to tip, understanding how it reacts to stresses, how to keep it healthy and how to style it.

“We’ve got laboratories that just deal with how we look at hair, we’ve got electron microscopes, tensile testing machines.. it’s been a real learning curve, but a good one.”

* Tiana Cline is a freelance content writer, technology journalist and digital strategist. She likes cats, data science, long-form and violent video games. 

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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read about Netflix’s international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement,” he adds. “To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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