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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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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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