From Apple’s HomeKit to Google’s Nest Labs, smart homes are one of the biggest tech crazes of the year. But once your house is rigged up with sensors and Internet-connected gadgets galore, how will you clean the carpets? With a smart vacuum, of course.
The AirRAM is a cordless, bag-less smart vacuum which charges via USB, and can even track the calories burned as users vacuum. At a mere 3.5kg, it's one of the lightest vacuum cleaners on the market, and uses just 100 watts of electricity to do a job most conventional vacuums would require 2,000 watts to carry out.
In other words, it’s as lightweight as handheld devices, while being as powerful as corded units—its power coming from the same kind of lithium-ion battery used in high-end consumer gadgets and electric cars.
"Vacuum cleaners have stayed almost completely unchanged for years," says AirRAM inventor Nick Grey. "They have a head which is about a foot wide, and they suck dirt into a tube. Although people have changed superficial things about the design in about 100 years they’ve not really drastically rethought the concept. We have."
Grey’s work as a designer started out at the bottom of the ladder sweeping the floors in the design lab at Hoover. Having found school and college tough—since he constantly butted heads with teachers who only had one way of looking at a problem—Grey discovered that his constant questioning fitted perfectly into a design studio environment.
"I’ve always had a passion for doing things differently, and I found that that idea was embraced in the job of designer," he says.
For the next 12 years, Grey worked his way up from the lowest position in the department to running it: an achievement he says he is very proud of.
When he finally struck out on his own, he decided to turn his attention to solving the cordless vacuum problem. "Cordless vacuum cleaners have generally been limited to being less powerful, miniaturized versions of main vacuum cleaners," he says. "From a design perspective what this means is that they have a fundamental weakness: The ducts and airways can get clogged up very rapidly. They don’t run for too long."
Grey wanted to create a cordless vacuum that would be both battery powered and as effective as a mains vacuum cleaner. He had some neat ideas, like using a revolutionary brush approach and compressing the dirt into small bales, rather than sucking them into a bag. Initial tests were positive, but it wasn’t until the first model was built that Grey realized quite how well his design worked.
"There was a defining moment when we tested the very first prototype, it actually picked up more dirt than a mains-powered product," says Paul Pickford, AirRAM’s technical director. "To confirm this we rushed out and purchased two of the latest vacuum cleaners from the two leading U.K. brands, and tested the prototype against these using the International standard for testing vacuum cleaner performance. Again we outperformed both—we really did have a cordless vacuum cleaner that performed as well as a corded [one]."
Users get about 40 minutes per charge from the AirRAM’s battery, which is enough time to clean the majority of houses. (Most handhelds get a fraction of this.) An LED display on the side of the vacuum shows the status of its charging process—with four green lights indicating how much charge is remaining.
"Altogether, it’s a very neat solution," Grey says.
The AirRAM sports a surprisingly agile design featuring an aluminum pivoting part in the base. It compares favorably to larger vacuum cleaners in terms of power and the device features a world first in the form of an onboard computer, which lets you quantify your cleaning experience.
This onboard computer can be accessed via a USB port, and allows users to measure calories burned, as well as how much energy they’ve saved using the device. "While energy costs in America vary depending on locale, third-party tests in Great Britain have proven that the cost of operating an AirRAM vacuum is 95% less than what it costs to operate a 2,000-watt vacuum," Grey says.
It’s also possible to switch the AirRAM to a mode that increases runtime at the expense of performance.
"At first it’s a bit of fun," Grey says of his decision to include the device’s smart features. While there’s no doubt that these tools could be expanded upon in future iterations of the device, it’s a neat look at what could wind up being the first step toward becoming the world’s first Internet of Things-connected vacuum cleaners.
"I think in time if you can plug in and get to our support desk, and they are able to see the data on your machine to help troubleshoot, verify the guarantee or spare parts then it could be useful," he says.
While Grey—like many designers—is forward-looking, the general is not always on the same page. As consumers we assume that the buying public represents the ultimate beta test, and that our buying habits automatically bring to the forefront the best products, while marginalizing those which don’t do the job as well. Of course, history has shown that this isn’t always the case. While the best ideas may persist over time, in their first iterations they may be so radically different that people are afraid to embrace them.
"That’s absolutely right," Grey says. "If you take a radically different, innovative product and you stick it on the shelf next to a product that people recognize, nine times out of 10 the radically different product will just end up getting dusty. That’s what happened with us at first."
The story of how AirRAM managed to turn initial bemusement into a viable business is a lesson worth learning for would-be entrepreneurs. For Grey and his team, the key was in finding which corner of the market to target. For designers, products may be problem-solving tools, but as well as knowing what the problem is that you’re solving, it’s vital to know whose problem this is.
"Rather than taking a broad approach, it’s best to target one segment of the market and set out to own it," Grey says. "In our case, we started by aiming our product at older customers. They like cordless products, because they often aren’t able to move around heavy vacuum cleaners. We had a limited ad budget, so we decided to focus our whole campaign on these customers: hitting the TV shows they watched, the magazines and newspapers they read, and the radio they listened to. The aim was to make sure people would hear about this product from two or three different channels."
"There are numerous opportunities in all ‘above the line’ media to test on a smaller scale, before betting the farm on big budget national rollouts," says Jon Collings, AirRAM’s marketing director. In all, adopting this approach allowed AirRAM to upscale their ad campaigns from $170,000 to $5.1 million without ever having the need for capital injection.
"We’ve been thrilled by the response," Grey says. The AirRAM and Gtech has picked up numerous awards since the product’s launch, including a recent Award for Excellence in Innovation.
"The first thing I’d tell any designer is that you need to learn to be very hard on yourself," says Grey. "Even if you’ve got a great new product, with some radically new ways of solving a particular problem, if it’s got any drawbacks you’ve got to ruthlessly push to eliminate these or else to turn them into positives. Many designers fall into the trap of thinking that one great feature will offset the trade-offs, and they end up taking one step forward and one step back."
In the case of Grey and the AirRAM, the vacuum seems to be an unequivocal step forward. Using the device gives you the same sense that accompanies all genuine breakthroughs: that it is difficult to imagine that all products in this category won’t one day work like this.
After all, as our homes and wearables get smarter, why should our vacuum cleaners get left behind?