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issue: November 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Some Thoughts on the Future

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by Dick Topping, RFTopping Consultants LLC

With the recent anniversary of September 11, I sit at my desk and reflect on the changes we’ve seen worldwide in 5 years since the terrorist attack on the U.S. As we go about our daily work, home and family activities, travel, etc., we all know the world is different now than before and will remain so.
This puts an article about projecting the future of the appliance industry in perspective. World events can change everything. Pre-9/11 predictions seem somewhat simplistic today; so what chance do we have looking out 10 years from now? Still, planning is always worthwhile and may be a good antidote for fear and indecision.
There seem to be several themes that will increasingly drive the business in the decade ahead. Following the lessons of 9/11, safety and security are no longer taken for granted. We are not as mobile as we used to be, and homes have once again become havens for gathering, nurturing, rest, and recharging. So appliances will continue to fill valuable roles in food preservation and preparation, personal hygiene, comfort—not too different from today. However, added to these baseline requirements will be the need to protect us against germs, both natural and man-made, nuisance or deadly, introduced accidentally or possibly on purpose. Also, as the health maintenance needs of the Baby Boomer generation outstrip the capacity of traditional providers, there will be opportunities for our industry to develop new products that bridge the gap between conventional appliances and healthcare devices.
Globalization has been a fact of life for the appliance industry for quite some time, but its meaning and implications will change. Several months ago, I wrote about the impact of RoHS, the European regulation that will have profound global repercussions. Next, perhaps, will be materials requirements from Pacific Rim countries, notably China, which will pose a significant compliance challenge to all the world’s manufacturers and suppliers. Whereas the U.S. market at one time was dominant and the rest of the world had to learn its rules, tomorrow’s world will truly become one large marketplace, and U.S. companies will need a serious mind-set adjustment to remain competitive. Oceans are no longer obstacles to shipping large white goods to attractive markets if technology, design and value also make the trip. Expect to see companies (manufacturing, retail sales and service) getting larger and the control of more traditional U.S. brand icons moving offshore.
With globalization will come an increase in government regulation to level the international playing field. Issues such as energy, water shortages, indoor and outdoor air pollution, global warming, and waste disposal/recycling will not go away and could threaten our way of life and even our survival if not resolved. Customers will not only expect, but demand that appliance companies actually take the lead in resource planning for the future. Trade associations will have an opportunity to initiate environmentally sound strategies, recognizing their changing responsibilities and the new requirements for success in a global appliance industry. If industry does not step up, watchdog advocates in concert with aggressive state and regional governments and foreign countries will relentlessly exercise every available option, including international legal action and enforcing outright product bans to ensure that products are designed to be as resource-friendly as possible throughout their useful lives.
From lessons learned in other industries, future demands for unsurpassed quality and reliability will become the norm, regardless of a product’s price, origin, brand name, or innovative advertising. Only then will customer satisfaction, not price, determine what brand the consumer buys the next time. For appliances requiring service, the problem will need to be diagnosed and repaired the first time, every time. The customer’s time availability will rule, meaning most service will be on nights and weekends. As a result, products designed for on-line diagnostics and software fixes will definitely be at an advantage over those requiring in-home service calls.
Finally, what will consumer expectations be after several decades of technological innovation? Today’s appliances are more efficient, perform better, last longer, and cost less than their forebears; and customers have every expectation that the trend will continue. While past experiments with “smart” appliances have been mostly unsuccessful, clearly the Internet has become a way of life for most, and digital electronics are everywhere. Our media rooms are better equipped than theaters used to be. How much of this will rub off on appliances? I expect quite a bit. But the question remains: What precise benefit will the customer see?
Performance monitoring, software updates, food inventory, intelligent communication, and useful appliance-to-appliance data transfer seem to offer real consumer value. Add to the mix exciting new developments expected in nanotechnology and biotechnology, and the future appears bright for appliance designers. However, the challenges of universality, simplicity, reliability, and cost will always remain.

About the Author

Dick Topping has more than 25 years experience in the appliance industry. He has a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and launched RFTopping Consultants LLC in January 2006 to provide consulting services in technology strategy, new product planning and regulatory issues. If you would like to contact Topping, please e-mail editor@appliance.com


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