Richard Topping, formerly vice president and director of Arthur D. Little Inc., is president of RFTopping Consultants LLC, which provides consulting services to the energy, appliance, and HVAC industries. He received a BSME with honors from Tufts University and an MSME from MIT. He is a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a member the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). He has authored numerous publications and has two patents. To contact Topping, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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When the good folks at APPLIANCE ask me to write an editorial, I start by looking for the most important issues of the day that are affecting the appliance industry. For years, the search uncovered technology challenges and exciting design and engineering opportunities that would surely drive the future of the business.
However, my last editorial (February 2008) and this piece both deal with government regulation. In fact, it is clear that regulation in the United States, North America, and abroad has become—aside from the sour economy that we all hope will get better relatively soon—the most powerful force that will affect our industry now and for the foreseeable future. U.S. President Obama, the U.S. Congress, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, several states, the Canadian Provinces, the EU, conservation groups, and many others are racing ahead to promulgate wide-ranging regulations in an effort to improve energy conservation, reduce global warming and ozone depletion, promote renewable energy, institute cradle-to-grave responsibility for products and their disposal, etc.
To add to the formidable challenge, energy and environmental stewardship apparently are now seen by many as a major part of the solution to turn around the economy, create jobs, restore consumer confidence, cut the deficit, and rebuild our individual savings.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe strongly in these goals and know firsthand that the industry is composed of responsible companies and individuals who want to do their part. The track record of the appliance industry in making its products more efficient (while at the same time more affordable, safe, and reliable) is second to none.
The issue, though, is how to encourage progress without shortsighted, knee-jerk reactions and hastily constructed solutions. The old joke, “the floggings will continue until morale improves,” has some relevance here. In spite of the terrible business cycle the appliance industry is in, the trend toward regulation is accelerating and will require more resources, manpower, and investment at a time when many companies are struggling to survive. Employment is dropping; job retention has replaced job creation as the goal for U.S. industry; and internal funding for R&D has, by necessity, decreased with reduced revenue.
Government incentives are inadequate; there is little support for an industry that has done well. Resources that historically have been invested to develop exciting new products and features to capture the imagination of the buying consumer are being mostly expended on regulations to make conventional designs greener. That’s not all bad, but somehow we seem to have tilted woefully out of balance.
I remember after the last refrigerator rule making in the United States, there was talk of making future regulations “low priority” because the industry had reduced energy consumption so much that future regulations would probably not be worth the effort and expense. But, because there are so many refrigerators in the marketplace and the industry has done such a good job, here we are again facing another stringent rule making that promises to be very costly and may even make obsolete some product classes.
Also, the industry expects to face curtailment of HFC refrigerants due to global warming concerns, with alternatives expected to be less energy-efficient. It seems like all these challenges are ganging up to seriously test the ability of the appliance industry to maintain its health and vitality in the years ahead. It would be unfortunate to see appliances follow the lead of other traditionally strong U.S. manufacturing industries that today are only a shadow of what they once were.
What’s the solution? If I knew, I probably would not be writing this editorial. Yet the media serves an important need to explore situations and alternatives and to invoke serious reflection. The country clearly requires a wise energy policy, and, as consumers, we cannot continue business as usual. But as a nation that relies on its manufacturing industries as a key component of its global strength, we must be mindful of the right balance between aspiration and resources, between dreams and realities. As the United States rebounds from the economic slump and settles into new leadership, let’s hope the pendulum will swing back to center and reason will prevail.
What do you think will put the appliance industry back on track? What can be done (if anything) to create a regulatory balance? See what your engineering colleagues think, and share your own thoughts at the APPLIANCE Talk blog:
Read some of Richard Toppings past APPLIANCE magazine editorials:
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