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Business

British vacuum-maker Dyson is cleaning up in Asia

Dyson CEO Max Conze

LONDON Air purification technology and battery-powered vacuum cleaners are driving Dyson's sales in Asia. The region has become the company's most profitable, CEO Max Conze said.

While the company's sales in Asia were up 70% last year, those in China experienced triple-digit growth.

Dyson is expanding beyond Japan, its longtime Asian stronghold. Founder Sir James Dyson's first cyclonic vacuum cleaner, which was the color of pink blancmange, went on sale in Japan in 1986 as the G-Force. It was a licensing deal, and royalties helped the company to open a research center and factory in the English market town of Malmesbury, where Dyson is still headquartered. "In many ways, the very existence of Dyson as a company is owed to Japan," Conze told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Dyson's Singapore factory can produce 11 million motors a year.

The company entered China three years ago, and last year its sales there grew 222%. The company makes China's best-selling humidifier, the AM10, which has attracted consumers with its use of UV light to sterilize the water before it is vaporized. Sales are also picking up in South Korea, by 48% last year, and in Taiwan, where they increased 33%.

TRANSPARENT APPROACH The company has always made a point of showing consumers the workings of its machines. The plastic of key parts comes in different colors, and the casing is often translucent. Given the skepticism many Chinese have about quality, showing them how a Dyson product works is particularly important, Conze said.

"We make sure that Chinese consumers understand our technology," he said. "We show them all the tests and certifications that we pass, both Western tests but also the certifications we have in China."

The smog that afflicts China's major cities has been a boon for sale of air purifiers from companies such as Sweden's Blueair and Switzerland's IQAIR. Air quality has become a concern not only in China but across Asia, with local and Japanese brands, such as Daikin and Panasonic, jostling for position.

Dyson has been capitalizing on this with its air purification technology that first arrived in its bladeless fans and has since ended up in a host of products. "We developed that technology for the world, but with particular focus and starting from the needs of Japanese and Asian consumers," Conze said.

The company expects it to be a big driver of future growth.

Some models of Dyson's cordless vacuum cleaners contain high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters that are said to expel cleaner air than what is sucked up. These lightweight, battery-operated vacuums "are a very big part of our growth," Conze said. "We now sell significantly more of those than of the more traditional vacuum cleaners."

They have been a hit in big Asian cities where millions of people live in hard-floored, small apartments. For these reasons, Dyson judged Asia the best testing ground for its new robot vacuum cleaner, the Dyson 360 Eye, which has been launched into an already crowded Japanese market. The company claims it has four times the suction power of competitors' machines.

SOUTHEAST ASIA PRODUCTION In 2002, Dyson moved production from the U.K. to Malaysia. It now employs more than 1,000 people there and in neighboring Singapore, and has a well-established supply chain, Conze said. Over the past several years, Dyson has also invested more than 250 million pounds ($358 million) in its Singapore motor factory, which can produce 11 million digital motors a year. "It's the most sophisticated robot-driven digital motor manufacturing facility in the world," Conze said.

Last year, the number of engineers Dyson employs globally topped 2,000.

In the company's early years, the limitations of motors were one of the main frustrations for James Dyson. Now, improving battery technology is a primary concern, Conze said.

The CEO said there are "a lot of product categories and technologies that people need and want that today are limited by either what batteries can do, or by the cost of aggregating reasonably inefficient batteries."

Last year, Dyson acquired solid-state battery company Sakti3, a spinoff of sorts from the University of Michigan. "Hopefully, over the next three to five years, we can break some of the big energy storage and density paradigms in the world," Conze said. "That would be very beneficial for some of the products we make."

The German-born CEO spent three years in Guangzhou while working for Procter & Gamble, the U.S. multinational.

Having demo spaces, the first of which opened in Tokyo last year, "becomes increasingly important as the breadth of technology expands, from maybe areas we're very well-known for to technology that is quite new and surprising," Conze said. The company persuaded consumers to look again at one of the most banal household objects -- the vacuum cleaner. It hopes to repeat the trick with the release of its newest product, a hairdryer, which was launched last month.

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