American consumers have used some variation of the basic design of the first electric vaccum launched in 1907, to sweep their carpets and hardwood floors ever since. Waves of innovation periodically swept the industry. Mass production and plastics turned this once-luxury item into a household necessity. Companies introduced accessories to clean upholstery and hard-to-reach crevices. But, by and large, it was a staid industry whose players fought for business through marketing rather than engineering. But over the past few years, an eruption of technological innovations have turned the industry on its head. This article takes a deeper dive into those technology advances.
The average American despises vacuuming.
The reason? The very device that is supposed to take the work out of cleaning floors is often a serious pain in the neck to use.
Yet people get passionate about vacuum cleaners, exhibiting a love-hate relationship with their preferred brands, said Mark Connelly, senior director of product testing at Consumer Reports, a non-profit organization that reviews consumer products.
That’s not surprising.
“The vacuum is something you have to interact with,” Connelly said. “And your vacuum cleaner is also somewhat of a reflection on the cleanliness of your home. It’s about ease of use, but also there’s a psychological component there.
Vacuums appear rather straightforward. All they have do is balance suction with dust containment while exhausting air. The concept remained largely unchanged for many decades since 1907, when department store janitor James Murray Spangler patented the first portable electric vacuum, a mashup of a ceiling fan and a rotating brush that used his wife’s pillowcase as a dustbag to collect dirt.
American consumers have used some variation of this basic design to clean their carpets and hardwood floors ever since. Waves of innovation periodically swept the industry. The first upright vacuum appeared in 1926. Mass production and plastics turned this once-luxury item into a household necessity. Companies introduced accessories to clean upholstery and hard-to-reach crevices. But, by and large, it was a staid industry whose players fought for business through marketing rather than engineering.
But over the past few years, an eruption of technological innovations have turned the industry on its head. These include “dual cyclone” suction, bagless debris collection, higher-powered motors, double-brush systems, powerful long-life batteries, and a variety of attachments meant to handle everything from fancy drapes to pet hair.
At the heart of this tsunami of technological advances in floor cleaning, you’ll find two brands duking it out for top market share: Dyson and Shark Ninja.
“There are a lot of vacuums out on the market that clean very well,” said Liam McCabe, lead editor for appliances at Wirecutter, a product review website owned by the New York Times. “We still get people who write to us about their parents’ Electrolux that lasted for 30 years or the Kirby they inherited from their grandmother that still works.”
“But today, you tend to hear a lot about Shark and Dyson.”
And no wonder. Both companies have not only mastered appliance engineering, but have also learned how to market those engineering advances to a broad and general audience.
Balancing Product and Consumer Needs
Before the turn of this century, not many people got excited about a vacuum cleaner. James Dyson, a British industrial designer and founder of Dyson Ltd., was one of them. His story is a textbook case of perseverance.
His fascination began in 1979, while helping his wife with household chores. He noticed that the suction in his vacuum cleaner kept dropping. When he took it apart, he realized the vacuum bag was clogging with dust.
Dyson had recently built a cyclone tower for his factory. It used centrifugal force to separate paint particles from air. He wondered if he could use the same principle to separate carpet dirt from the vacuum stream. It took him five years and 5,127 prototypes to get it right—and a decade of disappointing licensing meetings, false starts, and patent battles before he decided to produce a vacuum under his own name.
Dyson’s pioneering bagless vacuum was sleek and well-designed, a Ferrari among Fords. And its cyclonic technology did a better job of picking up dust without blowing it back into the room. It launched in Britain in 1993. Within two years, it was the nation’s best-selling vacuum.
“The innovation of that cycling technology helped to set the tone for the company,” said Matt Jupe, a Dyson design manager. It defined Dyson’s mission, to “solve problems that others ignore.”
“We are looking for innovative ways to solve problems,” Jupe said. “Our end goal is to create the best possible products. The job of a vacuum cleaner is relatively straightforward. But we like to set as many design challenges for ourselves as we can, to find ways to drive the most powerful battery life, the most energy efficient kind of motors, and the best possible job of getting dirt out of carpets.”
While Dyson carefully considers consumer feedback, engineering comes first.
“In the early days, consumer feedback to James was that people didn’t want to see the dirt in their bins,” Jupe said. “They didn’t like it.”
“Famously, he chose to ignore that advice, believing the clear collection bins were really important to emphasize the performance of the products and to help people see just how much dirt they were picking up. A lot of our competition has copied that since then,” he said.
The company supports several engineering teams that work on specific problems, ranging from battery life and high-powered motors to materials and designs to make the devices quieter, lighter, and more maneuverable.
“We have a lot of resources in-house, including rapid prototyping facilities,” Jupe said. “We’ve got acoustic chambers, lots of specialized chambers for testing pick-up out of carpet, and for testing our separation systems.
“We also have time. James wants products to get out to market quickly but, having said that, we are afforded the time to try stuff out and fail forward until we get it right. It’s important to have that time because we want to make sure our product innovation teams and research teams have explored every avenue,” added Jupe.
While SharkNinja also emphasizes engineering, it prioritizes the consumer experience, said Sabrina Svec, the company’s manager of special engineering initiatives.
“Our approach is to look at different points in the user journey to figure out which ones are pain points and which ones are delighters. We then try to figure out how to minimize the pain points and maximize the fun and results that users get from our products.”
Analysis of those pain points led to one of Shark’s biggest engineering wins. Shark noticed that users had trouble maneuvering large, heavy upright vacuum cleaners when cleaning stairs.
Stairs are almost always narrower than the base of the vacuum. Pushing the vacuum lengthwise along a stair broke the seal between the vacuum head and the carpet. Also, pushing the vacuum across the stair’s width forced users to keep lifting and repositioning the vacuum. If they detached the hose and used smaller accessories, they still had to keep one hand on the vacuum to keep it from falling while cleaning with the other.
Shark’s Lift-Away technology provided an elegant fix. It allowed users to detach the vacuum’s lightweight canister and metal wand (which doubled as the upright’s handle) with just a push of a button. They could then walk up the stairs, canister in one hand and wand in the other. Lift-Away turned Shark, which was then known for its Ninja blenders, into a dominant player in upright vacuums. “We work to solve real challenges that consumers face,” Svec said. Solving those challenges requires intensive engineering.
“People want vacuuming to be easy,” Svec explained. “In engineering, however, you always have to trade off different things. We try to take the requirements from consumers and figure out how to give them a high level of cleaning performance at a lower price point. And to do that, we host five-day design sprints to come up with new product solutions.”
Their commitment to intensive engineering has made both Dyson and Shark frequent fliers on various consumer “Best of” lists—depending on the specific features being tested. Consumer Report’s Connelly says that both Dyson and Shark vacuums run “neck and neck” in terms of performance.
“These are both vacuums that are going to get your floors clean,” he said. “The one thing that the Shark has that Dyson doesn’t is a smaller price point. It’s about $100 less than the Dyson. But these two brands are at the top of our bagless upright category.”
A Matter of Marketing
Given all the chatter about Dyson and Shark, you might wonder if there are any other vacuums on the market. Marissa Barrett, a brand manager at Hoover, a company once synonymous with vacuums, said they do not spend nearly as much as Dyson and Shark on marketing.
“We have a bit of a competitive advantage in terms of price point and quality,” Barrett said.
“We also have a really good sense of legacy. What we want is to be in that sweet spot where we can offer a quality product that isn’t going to cost you $1,000 to get a good clean.”
The price is probably an exaggeration, since most Dyson and Shark models sell for a few hundred dollars. Yet the reputation of legacy brands like Hoover, Kirby, and Electrolux presented an imposing barrier to potential competitors. The question when both Dyson and Shark entered the market was whether engineering innovations were enough to turn the heads of potential consumers.
The answer, in a word, was “yes,” said Wirecutter’s McCabe. While most potential buyers cannot explain the dynamics of the latest suction or separation features, they do care about what works.
“Consumers understand the innovations that matter to them, that help make it easier for them to vacuum,” McCabe said.
“And, while I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the marketing, both Dyson and Shark have done a good job of explaining, in their own way, why their stuff works.”
Jupe credits Dyson’s commercial team for translating engineering into a message that customers can understand. The company invests in sleek, sophisticated print ads that highlight both the aesthetic design and performance of their vacuums. Dyson’s first U.S. television commercial in 2003 did the same, adding the smart, clipped British accent of James Dyson to position the vacuum as an upscale choice.
McCabe credits the company with both excellent marketing and excellent packaging.
“The whole design just makes you feel good about buying the thing,” he said. “Dyson has done an excellent job building their brand, building an identity for themselves, and making people aware of what they do.”
Shark, on the other hand, went with the same marketing approach that worked when it started selling Ninja blenders—the infomercial.
These long television ads provided Shark the time it needed to put its vacuums through their paces.
Powerful vacuum suction can have a downside. While some vacuums do an excellent job of sucking up debris, they also blow a mess of particles back out into the home, explained Sue Booth, Consumer Reports’ senior project leader for vacuum testing. Most brands now use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to catch those particles, but Booth and her team evaluate each vacuum in a special air quality chamber to ensure they offer more suck and less blow.
“We measure the particle concentrations in the room with a laser spectrometer connected to an air dilutor and data acquisition system,” she said. “We then determine the change in particle concentrations due to brush agitation, airway leakage, and porosity of the dust bag or collection bin.”
To test emissions, Booth’s team vacuums 50 grams of wood flour into a clean vacuum and uniformly spreads another 20 grams over a standard plush medium-pile carpet. They then prop the vacuum cleaner over the floor and run it for five minutes to evaluate bag or bin emissions. Then they vacuum the floor from the carpet to check emissions during operation.
“This is often the most surprising test,” she says. “People expect us to do tests for total air flow, embedded carpet cleaning, fluid testing, noise, and pet hair. But this is the one that makes sure that the vacuums aren’t just spewing the dirt that is being picked up right back into the consumer’s breathing space.”
“A demo is often the most effective way to show consumers how to use a product,” Svec said. “Particularly when launching the Lift-Away, you kind of need someone to show you how it works so the light bulb goes on about how you could use it.”
Both approaches rely on showing how engineering makes a difference.
The Future of Floor Cleaning
As Dyson and Shark continue to battle it out for control of the floor cleaning market, both are working hard to balance new design features with affordability.
Dyson committed more than $1 billion to better batteries (that may eventually lead it to producing electric cars). Shark continues to focus on innovative designs that give its vacuums the type of capabilities ordinarily associated with Swiss Army knives.
Neither company, however, is resting on its laurels. Both Jupe and Svec say their respective companies have their eye on the future—and that includes robotic offerings. While both Dyson and Shark already market robotic vacuums, neither has caught up to Roomba, the original robotic vacuum created by iRobot.
“In the robotics world, the Roomba really was what you’d call a ’killer app,’ and for a long time, we were really the only option in the space,” said Ken Bazydola, director of product management at iRobot.
“These competitors are coming in because they now see what we saw a long time ago—the benefit of robotic vacuum cleaning by relieving consumers from an extra task they really don’t want to do.”
Creating a great robotic vacuum, however, is easier said than done, said Sue Booth, Consumer Reports’ senior project leader responsible for vacuum cleaner evaluations.
“I was testing Roombas way back when they first came out,” Booth said. “There’s been a lot of innovation, and there will probably be more innovation as more manufacturers come into the marketplace.
“If companies like Dyson or Shark can get to the point where they can do a great job of picking up embedded dirt with a robotic vacuum, or one that could navigate the stairs, it would be the ultimate. It’s a matter of someone saying, ’There’s an opportunity here, let’s do something about it.’”
Time will tell whether Dyson or Shark will manage to get there first—and if their engineering will continue to make them the most talked about companies in the vacuum wars.