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issue: September 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

56th Annual Report on Laundry Appliances
The Complexities of a Simple Task


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by Peter Simmons, Assistant Editor

In an era when horizontal-axis washing machines and high-tech features are becoming more prevalent, laundry OEMs continue to bring advanced products to market. Sometimes, however, these companies have differing opinions on the direction their industry segment will take in the future.

How Does The Customer Interface?

Of the many factors that could possibly affect the future of an industry, the two that seem to have combined to dictate the path of the laundry sector are consumer demand and the regulatory acts of world governments, such as mandated energy standards. The futures of different products in this particular industry segment are being debated, because appliance makers have different opinions on what consumers are seeking and the best way to meet energy standards.

Appliance OEMs generally agree that the proliferation of new technology in the manufacture of clothes washers and dryers makes more product choices possible, yet consumers seem not to have made up their minds on whether they want their laundry appliances to be simple or complex.

According to Atul Vir, president of Equator Corporation (Houston, TX, U.S.), part of the difficulty may be that people perceive a relationship between how complex a machine looks and its features and quality. He says that the number of buttons a machine has is often viewed as a sign of its advanced status. "In developing countries, the more buttons you have and features that you can operate distinguish that the machine is more advanced," Mr. Vir tells APPLIANCE. "But after you've passed a certain point - especially for the higher end - the focus is on how to make the machine simpler. The people who can afford those machines are busy people, and they don't have time to read all those buttons." The key, then, he says, is to find the balance between being too complicated and appearing so basic as to have no function at all.

During the development of one of Equator's models, the control panel contained 47 buttons until the company received feedback from a consumer who appears to have mattered most: the woman of the home, who, in the U.S., reportedly still does 90 percent of the laundry. Mr. Vir reports that women wanted to know what they were going to do with 47 buttons when all they wanted to do was get their laundry done as quickly as possible. "That changed our focus," says Mr. Vir. "Now, on our control panel, we make everything larger - the writing is in a large, simple font in dark colors that are visible at a 4-ft distance." Mr. Vir thinks that, along with the number of buttons on a control panel, touch screens are a good idea that must be used carefully. "The danger is that [OEMs] make the touch screen because it is nice and sophisticated, but there is a fine line, and if you cross that, it becomes too technical," he explains.


Maytag Appliances recently introduced the Neptune® TL that uses an agitator-free wash system called TumbleClean™. Instead of an agitator, the washer uses two round tumblers mounted on the sides of the washtub. The tumblers turn the laundry over up to 55 times per min in a concentrated pool of detergent and water, which, according to the company, eliminates the wear and tear of an agitator for better clothes care.

The company reports that cleaning starts before the wash action begins with a Showering Dispenser System that disperses detergent throughout the load. Other available features include an AutoTemp™ internal water heater, MaxExtract™ Plus spin cycle, and LCD touchscreen controls. “Consumers no longer have to compromise on fabric care to get the cleaning performance they expect from a top-loading washer,” says Jay Klosterman, vice president of Laundry. “The revolutionary wash technology of the Maytag Neptune TL gives them the best of both worlds, along with outstanding energy and water conservation.”



Jay Klosterman, vice president of Laundry for Maytag Appliances (Newton, IA, U.S.), agrees that consumers don't want to spend much time doing their laundry. "It's a household chore they want to complete as quickly and efficiently as possible," he says. But that doesn't stop consumers from demanding an increasing level of sophistication from their laundry appliances, according to Mr. Klosterman. He cites the Favorites Cycle on the Maytag Neptune washer's LCD touchscreen control as an example of how the company is "continuously looking at ways to improve both the user interface with the product and the outcome of the laundry process."

For most companies, the problem with the one- or two-button approach to laundry is not the technology necessary to make it work, but the primary consumer. While consumers don't want to spend a lot of time doing the laundry, OEMs say that many of them still want to be in control of how their clothes are washed. According to Bryce Wells, marketing manager for Fisher & Paykel (Irvine, CA, U.S.), the OEM makes use of both simplified and high-tech interfaces. "We've been selling that sort of [two-button control] product for more than 5 years in other markets," says Mr. Wells. "But then, there are also going to be those people who like to have everything up front and like to push the buttonsÉ. They want to have full control over their laundry."

Dan Pigatto, laundry buyer for Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Hoffman Estates, IL, U.S.), adds, "One thing that's always surprised me is that while simplicity and ease-of-use is certainly a positive situation, you'd be surprised at how many women still want to be able to modify the wash cycle because they believe that they know best - and they probably do for their families."


Whirlpool Corporation (Benton Harbor, MI, U.S.) recently released the Personal Valet® clothes vitalizing system, which the company says will remove wrinkles and odors, getting clothes ready-to-wear in approximately 30 min. With dimensions of 3 by 1 by 5 ft, the clothes care appliance is said to hold three items of clothing at a time. According to the company, the Personal Valet uses a patented process utilizing Presiva® heat-activated formula, developed by Proctor and Gamble, to eliminate odors and wrinkles. For ease-of-installment, the Personal Valet can be mounted on a wall and plugged into a 110-V electrical outlet without any other necessary connections.



Front-Loaders vs. Top-Loaders

Are horizontal-axis washing machines going to dominate the U.S. consumer market of the future? While this question may or may not normally be a topic among laundry OEMs, the nearing deadline for a 22-percent reduction in energy usage mandated by the U.S. Government (Jan. 1, 2004), increasing consumer awareness of energy and style issues, and the state of the European laundry industry ensure that it is a topic that should be discussed. There is no consensus in the opinions of various laundry OEMs, however. Some laundry producers are adamant that horizontal-axis laundry is going to be the definitive product in the U.S. marketplace due to consumer awareness of energy efficiency and style, while others are being more cautious and continuing to research both top-loading and front-loading models. There are also signs of a segment of the laundry industry that believes top-loaders are a better investment than their front-loading counterparts.


Fisher & Paykel’s SmartLoad is reportedly the world’s first top-loading clothes dryer. “Rather than having to transfer the clothes from the top to the front, we've made an American-sized top-loading clothes dryer,” says Bryce Wells, marketing manager.

The dryer features reverse-tumble drying; instead of spinning in a single direction, the drum tumbles first in one direction, then reverses and tumbles in the other direction. The dryer also features an automatic lint scraper with a bucket to gather all the lint. “It will take approximately 30 cycles of drying before you need to dispose of the lint,” Mr. Wells says. “That is also an advantage because the filters are constantly operating at maximum efficiency.”



On the side of horizontal-axis clothes washers, OEMs rely on two main reasons to support their claim that vertical-axis washers will not retain their market presence much longer: energy efficiency and style. Companies maintain that consumers are becoming more aware of energy-efficiency issues and their effect on the environment. Mr. Vir of Equator says that public awareness of energy issues has been growing in the U.S. due to the efforts of the U.S. Government's Energy Star¨ program and local utilities.

In Europe horizontal-axis machines have been saving energy and water for many years. According to Mr. Vir, European consumers embraced the front-loading washer more than 50 years ago because of high utility costs for energy and water. "In Europe, the governments actually regulate and have very tough standards," he says. "The laundry OEMs said the only way to comply with these standards is to have horizontal-axis machines, which can comply." Jacob Broberg, vice president of Corporate Communications for AB Electrolux (Stockholm, Sweden) agrees, "The energy efficiency trend is not new in Europe. For years, product development has been focusing on water and energy consumption reduction." Europe has also introduced an energy label for appliances, giving OEMs a standard way to communicate the energy efficiency of a product.

While energy-efficient front-loaders have been in the majority in Europe, laundry OEMs agree that the European market and its products cannot be fairly compared to the present U.S. market. They say that there are fundamental differences between the two markets, and therefore, between the products offered in those markets. According to Fisher & Paykel, the primary difference is how the majority of the population in other countries lives. "In Europe and Asia, there are higher population densities living in smaller living spaces," says Fisher & Paykel's Mr. Wells. "That's where the front-loaders or built-in type of laundry products tend to be more popular, because there is less space."

Because of these space constraints, it isn't merely the type of washer that is important, but also the capacity. "Most of the washers are front-loading, but the prevailing capacity in Europe is only 2/3 of the typical American-sized unit," says Daniel Lee, director of Marketing and Communications for LG Electronics U.S.A., Inc. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, U.S.). "So, in spite of all the benefits of front-loading machines, European models are not suited for the U.S. market due to their small capacity."

Pankaj Paleja, product manager for Haier America (New York, NY, U.S.), tells APPLIANCE, "I feel that the future for front-loads is very bright. People are going to be buying a lot more front-loads." Mr. Vir of Equator goes even further in his endorsement of horizontal-axis machines by predicting that they will completely supplant the top-loading washer's market position by the end of the decade. "The future is with front-loading washers," he elaborates. "That is the only technology that has proven to save water and, consequently, energy."

The proponents of front-loaders believe that along with consumer awareness of energy issues, consumer demand for style will drive horizontal-axis machines forward in the market. "There is a step up toward making them more attractive as opposed to just a washing machine that looks like a box," says Mr. Vir. "Now there is thought going into whether they can look more presentable."

Mr. Pigatto of Sears agrees that styling is playing a larger role in how laundry appliances are bought. He believes that the emphasis on how washers/dryers look began about 5 years ago. He says that something was started at that time "where this [the washing machine] didn't have to be a square white box that resided in your laundry room. People who own these cool machines leave their laundry room doors open now."

Maytag Appliances is of the opinion that sales of front-loading washers will continue to increase, but also that top-loading units are far from being on the way out the door. "The fact is that more than 60 percent of consumers still prefer a top-loading washer," says Mr. Klosterman of the company. "Consumers really want the cleaning power, fabric care, and conservation benefits of a front-load washer, but in a top-load configuration." He says the company's Neptune TL (top-loading), an agitator-free top-loading washer, was developed to meet that consumer demand.

Mr. Lee of LG says that although LG is developing its front-load washers, there is still room for top-loading configurations. "We're going to continue to develop the front-loading system," he continues. "But, again, we need to look at top-loaders - we're going to look across the laundry category at all possible scenarios." For its front-loading washers and dryers, LG has developed the Direct Driveª system. Unlike other wash systems, the Direct Drive reportedly doesn't use belts or pulleys - it delivers power directly from the motor to the drum. According to Mr. Lee, the system helps to improve the energy and water efficiency of the machines, as well as reducing the noise level.

Sears is marketing both front- and top-loading products through its Kenmore appliance brand. Present products include the top-loading Catalyst and Calypso washers and the front-loading HE3 and HE3T, and the retailer says it plans to continue to offer both types of machines. "While it appears that horizontal-axis is the driver behind this high-efficiency wave, there is still a lot of data that says American consumers prefer top-loaders," says Sears' Mr. Pigatto. "We will continue to focus on bringing top-load solutions that deliver best-in-class performance and are Energy Star-approved as we go forward. I would imagine that while the whole segment will continue to grow, top-load will get its share of the overall business."

This belief in the future of top-load machines doesn't mean that Sears will ignore the front-loading market, however. At the end of July 2003, the company released its new horizontal-axis Kenmore high-efficiency washer. The 3.1-cu-ft front-load machine brings the total number of Kenmore horizontal-axis washers to four. According to Mr. Pigatto, the new machine is an electronically operated version of the electromechanical front-load washer that Kenmore already markets. The washer features an Eco Care cycle, which reportedly has one of the most energy-efficient cycles in the industry. "It will use just under 15 gal of water in a normal wash cycle," says Mr. Pigatto.

Fisher & Paykel doesn't see horizontal-axis washing machines taking over the marketplace anytime soon. While some OEMs see the front-loader as the way to meet energy standards, Fisher & Paykel contends that a well-engineered top-loading product can meet the same requirements. "We've never had a problem meeting the energy standards," says Mr. Wells. He says that the brushless d.c. motors and electronics used in the Fisher & Paykel top-loading washing machines have been around since the late 1980s.

"From an energy-efficiency point-of-view, we've always met or exceeded the standards," he continues. "There have been strong energy-efficiency standards in other parts of the world, so we've driven down that track quite a while back." Fisher & Paykel doesn't have plans to add a front-loader to its product line because its machines are reportedly more efficient than many large-capacity front-loading machines. "It would be a backward step for us from an energy-efficiency point-of-view," says Mr. Wells. He observes that energy efficiency is no longer a front-loading story and cites the increasing number of other manufacturers that are offering energy-efficient top-loading washers. According to Mr. Wells, since a front-loading washer is one of the ways to achieve energy efficiency, there is going to be market growth for that type of product, but he thinks that consumers will choose to buy energy-efficient top-loading machines.

Fisher & Paykel believes so much in the consumer's desire for easy-access top-loaders that it is in the process of releasing a new top-loading clothes dryer to match its top-loading Ecosmart washer. The New Zealand-engineered Smartload dryer will be released at the end of this year. "It is doing our final field trials in a lot of homes around America at the moment," says Mr. Wells.


 

LG Electronics recently released its newest front-loading wash system. According to the company, the new system features the largest load capacity available to consumers—3.72 cu ft for the washer (IEC) and 7.3 cu ft for the dryer. Other features include a NeverRust™ stainless steel drum and Direct Drive™ system. “We have several other features, such as washer jets that actually recirculate the water during the wash cycle so it doesn’t need to pull more water from the water system,” says Daniel Lee, director of Marketing and Communications. “It washes the clothes a little gentler than it would without the Direct Drive.” An automatic detergent dispenser divided into four compartments determines when to release the detergent, main-wash, bleach, and fabric softener, while a Delay Wash feature allows the consumer to program the machine to complete the washing up to 19 hr after being loaded, according to the company.



Laundry Survey

According to the book What 21st Century Home Buyers Want: A Survey of Customer Preferences, published by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), nearly all respondents to the survey - 92 percent - wanted a laundry room in their homes.

Approximately 52 percent of those that wanted a laundry room said it was essential, while 40 percent said it was desirable.

As for location of the washer and dryer:

  • 26 percent of those surveyed preferred a location near the bedroom
  • 26 percent near the kitchen
  • 23 percent in the basement
  • 10 percent in the garage

Connected Laundry?

Is there a future for Internet-connected or networked laundry products? Many laundry OEMs apparently don’t see very much consumer interest in such appliances, but that doesn't stop them from thinking about the best way to utilize them. Pankaj Paleja, product manager for Haier America (New York, NY, U.S.) thinks the consumer market isn’t ready to accept Internet-enabled appliances.

“Our company was one of the pioneers in coming out with a whole line of Internet appliances,” he continues. “The current market is a more limited, niche market. We are ready with this technology when there is a greater interest and it makes sense for Haier.”

Fisher & Paykel (Irvine, CA, U.S.) looks upon Internet-enabled laundry products as a platform for something other than a status symbol that seems cool. The manufacturer thinks that laundry appliances connected to the Internet could have practical applications, such as service and support. “If your washing machine is beeping, then from a service point-of-view, it may be possible to isolate faults and correct them straight away,” says Bryce Wells, marketing manager for the company. However, he continues, the company experimented with technologies such as that at least 5 years ago and decided that it wasn’t justified.

 

 

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