Dyson's Bladeless Fan: Worth the Hefty Cost?

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Dyson Inc.'s new bladeless electric fan resembles anything but a fan. The company calls it an "air multiplier." To the average sci-fi enthusiast, it looks like a miniature replica of a stargate — but alas, this gadget does not create a wormhole that teleports people to distant worlds.

When introduced recently to students in a cafeteria at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the ring-shaped contraption immediately drew curious onlookers. "It's clearly a fan," said engineering student Sergei Bernstein, 18, placing his palm before the draft of cool air flowing from the circular frame. "But it looks completely different, very modern," said his friend John Berman, 17.

It's no surprise that Dyson, the company behind the bagless vacuum cleaner, would devise a bladeless fan. Since the invention of the electric fan in the late 19th century, the air-stirring apparatus has not changed in any significant way — a quick Google Images search suggests that every model from the classic 1950s table fan to the industrial exhaust fan to a Batman-inspired fan has one consistent, characteristic feature: rotating blades. But Dyson did away with those, replacing them with a graceful ring set atop a cylindrical base. In essence, the device works like a vacuum cleaner in reverse. The motor in the base of the fan sucks in air and pushes it up into the ring. The air rushes out of tiny, millimeter-long slots that run along the circular frame and flows down a gently sloping ramp. As the air emerges from the ramp, it creates a circular low-pressure region that pulls in the air from behind — creating a fairly uniform flow of air through the ring.

Conventional fans, by contrast, are messy, says Andy Samways, senior design engineer at Dyson, explaining the reasoning behind this latest invention. "In a regular fan, the blade is chopping the air up and hurling the packets of air [at you]," he says. The Dyson Air Multiplier bathes users in a constant cool breeze.

But despite its striking looks (compared with a dusty box fan fished out of the basement, the Dyson product could pass for sculpture) and gracious soundlessness (the machine emits a gentle hiss, no louder than the air conditioner in your car), it's hard to see how the new fan is a functional improvement over age-old models. While Dyson's past inventions — such as the bagless vac and the ultra-high-speed hand dryer — significantly enhanced the performance of those devices, the Air Multiplier doesn't exactly make a quantum leap in terms of its primary function, cooling. (On a sweltering day, even "packets of air" can be glorious.) On top of that, the Dyson fan carries a whopping $300 to $330 price tag.

Because there are no outwardly moving parts, however, it's safer for children. At 3.5 lb., it's also eminently portable. And even though the plastic shell looks delicate, Dyson's engineers claim that the product has survived test drops from stairwells and tables. In short, it has all the characteristics of a new gadget that can be copied and mass-produced in some Chinese factory — for hundreds of dollars less. But before you set your sights on a bootleg version, Samways says that the Air Multiplier's deceivingly simple structure is the result of a laborious design process that can't be easily copied. "We have many patents on this [fan], on the impeller, aerofoil and product development," he says. Whether those patents can stand up to the sheer bureaucracy of enforcing them in China remains to be seen.

For now, though, the bladeless fan will cost as much as a couple of weeks' worth of groceries. That's a prohibitively steep price for many Americans in simple need of a fan. So may we suggest that Dyson entice buyers by throwing in the wormhole attachment?