Homing instincts

Manufacturers are using styling and colour to signal technical improvements in their domestic appliances, as Barry Jenkins discovered at Domotechnica. Barry Jenkins is a director of product design consultancy PSD Associates.

What do consumers look for at the time of purchase? Reliability and efficiency are of primary concern, but ultimately it is the brand, price and styling that have the real appeal. At this year’s Domotechnica, held in Cologne last month, functionality and intelligence were seen as key to the new generation of domestic appliances. While the major producers were showing a definite move towards smart goods, a summary of the show would suggest that trends fall into three general areas: fashion, new markets and technology.

Fashion trends are vital to new products. Although seen by some manufacturers as just changing the shape and colour, used effectively, fashion statements can signal to the consumer that there is something new about the way the product works. Although the Philips Sunrise toaster is bright and curvaceous, it was the need for greater control and efficiency that instigated its development. Using a micro-processor to achieve a range of heat settings and exploiting the curved shape to provide a deep chamber (for different bread types), Philips felt that as an unconventional product it should look different as well. In terms of value the small appliance market is growing. Consumers are prepared to “trade up”, buying lifestyle products where shape and colour are as important as function and where some products may even earn iconic status.

In an interesting blend of steel fabrication techniques used for office furniture, Imperial launched a range of retro-styled free-standing appliances, clearly aimed at a lifestyle. Other large appliance manufacturers displayed new shapes: bow-fronted fridges, contoured washing machines (replacing steel panels with plastic) and a whole jumble of colours from bright primaries through to soft shades offering greater choice for the consumer. From this it is difficult to map a trend, as much was just showmanship and to a degree subjective. What was interesting however, was that depending on the producer’s target market, either cosmetic or automotive trends influenced colours. But white still remains by far the most dominant in all sectors.

For most producers of domestic appliances, some of their business is dependent on replacement cycles. Developing markets will eventually become saturated and stagnate. So looking for new growth areas is one way to keep ahead.

In recent years, PCs and mobile telecoms have been growth markets, reacting to our need for mobility and information. In the Seventies we bought microwaves and in the Eighties video recorders – both of which aimed at greater convenience and increased leisure time. So it’s not surprising that the current interests in health and the environment were reflected in two groups of newish products. First the growth of personal care from grooming (shavers, haircare and so on) through to massage and relaxation. And second, in portable environmental products to control and purify the air quality and humidity. Although both groups are developments of existing products, they show potential growth.

Other new markets result from cultural exchange or migration. Three years ago the kettle market was firmly rooted in the UK. While this is still true, it has developed through the rest of Europe and across North America. At this year’s show, manufacturers were predicting a growth in table-top or leisure cooking (barbecues, grilles and so on) showing one aspect of cultural diversity, but the most notable development was the presence of steam appliances. Popular in southern Europe, especially Italy, there was an abundance of steam generators with snap-on tools to clean windows, tiles, drains and curtains. The German producer, Karcher, better known in the UK for DIY products, launched a domestic range with a complete set of tools, including an iron. In southern Europe, steam appliances are more appropriate than vacuum cleaners due to the preference for hard surfaces. As a cleaning medium, steam is not only very efficient, it is also chemical-free. Despite this, to make their appliances appeal more to northern Europe, manufacturers have had to define new applications for steam.

The acceptance of computer technology in the home is greatly assisted by our exposure to new media at work and school. Fully computerised homes have been advocated for many years, and while there is often a gap between forecast and reality, it is quite evident that there is a convergence in technology between the somewhat humble domestic appliance and the high-tech computer. An ultimate expression of this is the new HES system from Siemens. Described as a Home Assistant, it is a smart software package which manages all your appliances, energy consumption and security. In addition, the CD-ROM is also a cookbook, accountant, directory and so on. It is very clever, but do we want it and can our homes take it? Developed in conjunction with Bosch Telecom, it will use either the existing ring main as a network or Interbus, the new domestic standard network in Germany.

New products like the Home Assistant are ideal for pulling crowds at trade fairs, but the impact of computer technology on other appliances has changed the level of interactivity between the product and user. However, there is still room for improving the mechanical workings of appliances. One such product came from Samsung in its new washing machines with the Can Balance system. Using a sealed ring of viscous oil and ball bearing weights, the system avoids the need for heavy concrete counterweights to control vibration. The ball bearings move in the oil to compensate the distribution of the load, limiting the vibration, noise and long-term fatigue of parts. It is such a simple innovation, it makes you wonder why it has not happened before, but then the simple things are sometimes hardest to achieve.

A new dishwasher from New Zealand company Fisher and Paykle manages it. From a simple idea to replace the conventional front- loading door with a top-loading drawer, the group found that they had to start from scratch. The result is conservative in its look, but unique in its execution. To prevent leaks, there are two one-piece plastic drawer compartments. They are self-contained and therefore independent. As a result the entire internal workings have been rethought, but after eight years of development, Fisher and Paykle have succeeded where others have failed.

At the show there were many other examples of large appliances substituting steel with plastic, thereby introducing more scope for shape and in the case of Arcelik from Beko, the added potential for retailers to style their own vacuum-formed fridge doors.

The convergence of technology from computers to appliances is a direct result of developers using their knowledge of software, materials and user needs to develop new products. The subtle development of smart products like the Miele appliances which indicates the programme is finished by using a pager; or control systems which can be reprogrammed in five years’ time are possible because of what is going on in other sectors. It is important to remember that although some consumers will be drawn to gadgets, the majority will not be fooled. Designers and developers of new products must apply technology in an appropriate and rational way to attract and benefit the user. The makers of the programmable remote control kitchen tap, “as seen at Domotechnica”, probably feel the same way, but somehow I can’t help thinking it is technology gone mad!

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