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issue: January 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

Designing Built-In Refrigerators
Creating Value Through Design


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With the help of industrial design firm IDI, Thermador designed value into a new line of built-in refrigerators.

Working with design firm IDI, Thermador created 18 new built-in refrigerator models for the premium marketplace.

In the spring of 2004, Thermador introduced its first line of built-in refrigerators. The company believed the line’s success required a high level of competence at every level of development, starting with a product concept that defined new value in the eyes of targeted customers.

Although the BSH Home Appliances brand is known for its luxury kitchen appliances, Thermador believes competitive advantage is about more than brand; it’s about offering differentiated products that resonate with customers’ perceptions of their individual needs and wants.

The appliance company, however, wanted to achieve differentiation that was perceived as valuable by consumers, not to its own engineers, industrial designers, or marketing executives. But in a marketplace that is crowded with products that are amazingly similar, it was a challenge.

As a result, refrigeration became the company’s focus for product development in 2000. At the time, the company offered full lines of premium built-in cooking and dishwashing appliances, but did not have a built-in refrigerator line.

According to Scot Brown, formerly Thermador’s refrigeration product manager and today director of Sales: “In today’s competitive environment, Thermador’s lack of built-in refrigeration appliances left a potential path to deselection. We wanted to be able to offer home owners a full line, a complete package, so that the brand would be more secure.”

The goal was to design an appliance that was more than just another refrigerator. “BSH requires meaningful demonstrable differences in its products,” Mr. Brown says. “In this case, we chose to achieve differentiation through elegance—elegance in the design and elegance in the sound level. Diana Vreeland, legendary editor of Vogue magazine used to say ‘elegance is refusal,’ and for the new Thermador refrigeration units, that meant total understatement, refusing everything but the essentials.”

Speed to market was also important because of competitive activity in the premium built-in appliance category.

Consequently, Thermador specified that the chassis for the new full-height line would be built from off-the-shelf components. What would make the difference for consumers would be the look, feel, and functional features. Specifications included the following:

• The finished product would express a quality image through design and materials and be consistent with the design of other Thermador kitchen appliances.

• Refrigeration and temperature controls would be state-of-the-art.

• Shelving and bins should be consumer-driven and innovative.

At the time, Thermador relied on outside suppliers for all development work, as it had no in-house design team. To launch the development of its next-generation refrigeration line, the appliance company turned to design firm IDI.

Consumer Diagnostics

To develop consumer-centric strategies for the concept development phase, IDI began with two proprietary consumer diagnostic initiatives, InStor™ and IdeaStorm™.

Using the InStor concept, IDI’s innovation team surveyed the retail landscape by visiting showrooms and Expo Design Centers, Home Depot’s upscale home remodeling centers, by talking with shoppers and distributors and by studying competitive products. Members of the team observed and analyzed how refrigerators were being displayed and merchandised. They talked informally with consumers about consumer perceptions of the category and what drives purchase decisions. They also talked with showroom managers about buying behavior and competitive products. They studied competitive products in terms of design, features, and store presence.

What they found was a surprising degree of sameness and lack-luster design—even at the high end—and clear evidence of dissatisfaction with current products among both consumers and kitchen specifiers such as architects, builders, and interior designers.

Members of IDI’s innovation team, Thermador’s project team, and qualified product users recruited by IDI then participated in a series of structured brainstorming exercises. (All participating consumers were either in the process of replacing or had recently replaced refrigerators as part of a kitchen renovation project.)

According to Gary Grossman, CEO, Innovation & Design at IDI, the IdeaStorm process is highly collaborative and generates real-time sketches of scores of early ideas. “The primary goal is to develop an understanding of consumer needs and wants and to get a preliminary idea of potential areas of opportunity for feature enhancements and convenience benefits,” he explains. “It also gives a sense of what might generate the most immediate acceptance and the greatest excitement in the marketplace.”

Consumers worked with actual refrigerators, putting food away, looking for items, and taking things out. They discussed what wasn’t working for them and what features they wanted to add.

All the while, product developers sketched the seed ideas and posted the sketches for discussion.

Seed ideas that emerged covered a broad range of areas, including alternative materials, such as transparent bins; new refrigerator configurations, such as the location of the freezer; exterior finishes and features, including special door features; ways of adjusting shelving; specialized compartments and areas for specific purposes; ice and beverage dispensing; illumination; and temperature control.

Product Development

Members of IDI’s innovation team reviewed general directions and insights gathered during the diagnostic phase and used them as a point of departure for analyzing issues and synthesizing all the elements.

Then, using their newly gained inspiration and direction, they began to explore a broad range of concepts. When a number of directions had been described, Thermador executives and innovation team members discussed and modified the concepts until they had more clearly defined several directions.

As concepts became more refined, the team started developing what they would look like, how they would be experienced by the user, and how they worked. According to Mr. Grossman, concepts covered every detail, such as bin construction, finishes for exterior and interior elements, freezer area design and features, easily adjusted shelving, shelf fabrication with various looks, materials and finishes for shelf end caps and fronts, door panels and trim alternatives, a signature grill, temperature and air flow control, and miscellaneous features for easy cleaning.

Final design elements were then incorporated in prototypes—three in foam core board and then one identical to production. Alternate elements were prototyped and could be used to replace their counterparts.

The Final Product

What Thermador learned from the consumer diagnostics was that above all, consumers wanted to experience a high-end refrigerator in a way that was different from less expensive appliances and that would make a statement about their own identity.

As specified at the outset, the basis for the final design was elegant aesthetics, as well as features that provide convenience. In addition, Thermador incorporated proprietary technology that is said to achieve quietness ratings of 35 to 37 dB.

The outside of the refrigerators was designed using three stainless steel panels—two doors and a horizontal panel with a narrow curved opening. According to IDI, the key to creating an elegant look was the use of curves to make the exterior and the interior inviting while clearly differentiating Thermador from other offerings. “When you look at the door, instead of the typical top vents, there is a single narrow curved opening, an arc, on a panel above the side-by-side doors,” notes Mr. Grossman. “When you open the door, you see clear bins on the door curved away from you, and clear shelves and bins inside curved toward you. A thin metal pull on the front of the shelves further enhances the curves.”

User value is enhanced by specific features consumers had identified as important, whether they represent category innovations or best-of-breed practices (see Table 1).

The result? A bold new line with 18 models that both IDI and Thermador felt achieved all objectives, both aesthetically and functionally.

As one Thermador distributor tells his customers: “You’re buying art.”

Features Consumers Wanted What They Get
Easily adjustable shelves A new support system with vertical metal strips that make it possible to move-and-click shelves effortlessly. The system is also designed to be easier to clean than traditional systems, which tend to involve slots and holes where dirt collects.
More efficient storage Frameless glass shelves, with polished edges, and a door bin that accommodates gallon-size containers.
Easy-to-clean interiors Molded interior hardware that curves to eliminate corners.
Visibility and ease of access to items Roller gliders on drawers. Shelves and bins that are completely transparent for high visibility.
Additional freezer storage space A proprietary system for making ice in the freezer but storing it in and delivering it through the door.
 

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