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issue: January 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

From The Top
The Road to Innovation

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by Dick Topping, director of Appliance Research , TIAX, LLC

If you traveled the U.S. interstates this past summer, you may have noticed, as I did, that there seems to be an ever-increasing number of recreational vehicles (RVs) on the road.

When I looked into the industry more closely, I found that my observation matched recent industry trends. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), there are currently 7.2 million RVs on U.S. roads, and the number is growing by about 300,000 RVs each year. The market is expected to grow steadily as baby boomers - a target market for the industry - move closer to their retirement years with disposable income to spend.

When you stop to think about it, the growth in this U.S. $11-billion industry shouldn't be a surprise. RVs offer much of what consumers are looking for - flexibility, convenience, comfort, and the freedom to move about as you please. In a large nation linked by an excellent highway system and a nearly endless array of scenic areas and regions to explore, the RV is a natural form of transportation in the U.S.

While the RV category includes many models with relatively limited amenities (e.g., folding campers, truck campers, etc.), the motor home segment, which accounts for about one-quarter of all RVs sold, offers most of the comforts consumers expect to find in their homes. High-end motor homes now offer "pop-out" external walls to expand the available living space. Inside, you may find flat-panel plasma TV screens with theater-quality sound, high-speed Internet access, and more than 300 channels on in-motion satellite TV.

RVs provide a challenging environment to apply new technologies to meet the expectations of demanding customers. Beyond traditional power generation systems, several companies are exploring ways to power RV appliances in the future using fuel cell technology. Given their quiet, efficient operation and long life, fuel cells could provide auxiliary power to a parked RV - silently running the air-conditioner, refrigerator, TV, lights, hot water heater, and other systems.

Many of the appliances you will find in an RV have been engineered to meet the specific needs of this challenging environment - low-profile furnaces, gas ranges, and cooktops designed to meet space limitations; gas-fired absorption refrigerators/freezers and wine cellars; aerodynamic rooftop air-conditioners; and dual-use washer/dryers.

Innovative design approaches are needed to reduce appliance size and weight, improve efficiency, and deliver high performance while providing the durability necessary to survive all those dirt roads and potholes. The resulting products not only serve the RV customers, but can also be transferred to meet the needs of other markets, including modular homes and the boating industry.

Beyond these engineering challenges is the opportunity to make the RV a more supportive environment. Safety and security are important to RV owners both while in motion and when parked for the night. Some RVs are already equipped with diagnostic systems, navigation tools, and onboard cameras to monitor blind spots while driving. It's not outrageous to consider systems that monitor the health and attentiveness of the driver and systems that ensure excellent indoor air quality and minimize the concerns associated with living and cooking in confined spaces. Also, it is not too much of a stretch to see those $750,000 motor coaches offering high-end, built-in appliances rivaling those found in the finest kitchens.

I'm not suggesting that all appliance producers turn their attention to the RV industry (although you never know where you might find a market opportunity). Rather, I'm advocating the value of context shifting - generating innovations by looking at a traditional problem in the context of a new or more challenging environment. Through context shifting, we are forced to embrace radical change, instead of incremental improvement. How can we do this with half the power, one-third the weight, or in half the size?

The RV industry and similar niche markets offer fertile ground for the development of creative solutions to product design challenges. Whether you are involved in supporting one of these markets or you are just considering their requirements as part of a design exercise, the process of context shifting can help promote innovations that you would probably never identify when focusing solely on your traditional customers. And you never know down what road that innovation may lead.

Dick Topping

Dick Topping is director of Appliance Research at TIAX LLC (www.tiax.biz). He can be reached by phone at 617/498-6058, by fax at 617/498-7206, or e-mail at topping.r@tiax.biz.

From the Top appears bimonthly in
APPLIANCE Engineerâ„¢.


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