Whirlpool's plant in Schorndorf, Germany steps up the company's global manufacturing platform with the Access Project that produced the successful Duet horizontal-axis washer for the U.S.
By the late 1990s, executives at Whirlpool Corporation realized that a significant segment of the North American market was ready to embrace a high-efficiency, big-capacity, front-load clothes washer. It also realized that the washer it eventually would launch had to take the industry by storm - a killer appliance that would dominate the market's relatively small, but growing, front-load segment.
Shown is the Access' 8-kg drum. (APPLIANCE magazine photo.)
Fortunately, Whirlpool had a leg up on its North American competitors, thanks
to its earlier acquisition of Philips Electronics N.V.'s appliance business
in Europe. The company already had in-house engineering and manufacturing expertise
to make horizontal-axis, front-load washers. The trick was to "Americanize" the
washer for a U.S. audience, which traditionally prefers top-load washers that
use an agitator.
Thus was born Whirlpool's Access Project, which eventually produced the Whirlpool brand Duet washer-dryer pair, the HE3t under the Sears Kenmore brand, and the European versions that debuted in 2002 as the Whirlpool brand Dreamspace and Bauknecht brand big. And the company promises that more will come out of the Access Project in the months ahead.
Access, say Whirlpool executives, is a prime example of what a global manufacturer can create when it pulls together its global customer research, product design, and manufacturing know-how into a team to deliver ground-breaking innovation - in this case, laundry innovation for the global market.
As Whirlpool wanted to leverage its global product development capabilities, global design for Duet was preferred over a short-term solution for the American market. The company turned to its Schorndorf employees, who were already experienced in developing high-end, front-loading washers, to help lead the development and production of the Duet.
The Access washer unit is mounted in the casing in the Bauknecht factory.
the concrete counterweight on the top: horizontal-axis washers
need weights for stabilizing during spinning. (APPLIANCE magazine
Beginning with customer research, teams of European and American engineers and marketing personnel were assembled to conduct in-home interviews with U.S. horizontal-axis washer owners. The research was designed to give European engineers an insight into American customer habits, particularly their laundry behaviors with front-loading washers.
Sean Chapman, Whirlpool's director of the Regional Home Laundry Product Development Center in Germany, says, "We found that the main reasons that customers switched to front loaders were the environmental advantages, the gentler treatment, and better washing performance. Most customers turned out to be satisfied with their horizontal-axis appliances, and recommended them to friends and family. Features that Americans wanted - but which were unavailable in typical European-style, front-load washers - were stackable machines, large door openings, and a pedestal drawer for easy loading and unloading. An interesting insight was that U.S. customers wanted a washer with a see-through glass window. They just love this feature, which is standard in Europe."
Thus, the Whirlpool brand Duet washer has been ergonomically designed for easy loading and unloading. The Duet washer offers the largest basket opening of any residential front-loading washer worldwide, and an optional pedestal drawer that raises the unit 13-in off the floor. This pedestal helps minimize potential back and knee strain during the clothes-loading process. The tilted drum also eases access and addresses the problem with traditional European washers. The front-loading design of Duet eliminates the agitator found in traditional washing machines, and results in less pilling, fading, and shrinking of fabrics. Four sensors inside the machine measure the water quantity, load saturation, water temperature, and motor speed - gathering information to control all elements of the washing process. This intelligent system allows the Duet washer to customize the performance of each load, maximizing the cleaning and energy efficiency of every cycle.
Special attention also was paid to child safety. The door will only lock after the wash program begins and can be opened from the inside when switched off, unlike current European washers that have a double door lock. A ventilation opening in the tub of the washer, along with a child panic phase, are additional child-safety features.
New in Production
A new production line was constructed in Schorndorf specifically for the Duet washer. Many new production techniques were involved with the production line. For example, pre-painted metal sheets were specified in the production design, requiring several innovations in sheet bending at the facility. The side panel line for the washer is new, as is the drum manufacturing line, which is from Italian drum manufacturer Miramondi.
An Access washer leaves final testing street. Note the inlet and outlet
hoses mounted on the lower right side; test stations connect
automatically to the pallets for full functional testing.
Testing of the Duet washer products is done in nine fully automated test stations. The connections (water, power, control unit) are attached to the pallet, so the test stations connect themselves. Weight and movement sensors are mounted automatically to collect test data.
"After the user requirements were specified, we chose to use existing European technology, mainly from top models in our German Bauknecht brand," Mr. Chapman says. "That is the reason that our machines scored high in tests; the drum washing process is very complex. The experience of the European development center paid off.
"Of course, improvements were made," Mr. Chapman continues. "The suspension was changed to deal with greater forces (8- and 9-kg loads), and three-phase induction drives were implemented. The main controller is an adapted Bauknecht design. There are three PCBs: the main controller, the motor driver, and the user interface, which was completely redesigned for the U.S. consumer. Because new aesthetics were needed, the door was redesigned, including a wide opening, as well as new hinges. The bellow and the door lock are new as well."
Duet's Front-Loading Results
The Whirlpool brand Duet washer and its companion dryer, which is produced at a Whirlpool plant in the U.S., was introduced to U.S. consumers nationwide in 2002. And the company could not be more pleased. Demand quickly outpaced production. In addition to its appealing design and cleaning efficiency, the Duet washer delivers outstanding energy conservation, using 68-percent less water and 67-percent less electricity than standard washing machines. For U.S. consumers, this represents annual savings of approximately 12,000 g of water and nearly 600 kW-hr of electricity per household.
The Duet also has approximately 28-percent more usable capacity than the average conventional washer - the equivalent of a 3.7-cu-ft conventional washer. In the real world of the laundry room, this means the Duet washer can wash up to 22 bath towels in a single load, compared to 14-in standard conventional washers. The Duet washer also features a sanitary cycle that eliminates 99.999 percent of certain bacterias, as indicated in preliminary testing.
All in all, U.S. consumers have been quick to recognize the value of the Duet washer and dryer pair. In Northern Europe, it is quite normal to pay up to U.S. $1,000 for a premium German washer, and washer manufacturers were happy that there were many Americans who valued the better performance and corresponding price tag of horizontal-axis machines. The global view of Whirlpool paid off: U.S. consumer tests of the Whirlpool Duet and the corresponding Kenmore models were exceptionally successful.
Likewise, Duet's European spin-offs - Dreamspace under the Whirlpool brand and big under Bauknecht - are enjoying their own early success in markets long accustomed to front-load washers. Both washers deliver the customization and design introduced in the U.S., along with the market-leading performance of the German-made washers. In short, it's one of the increasingly successful matches that are coming out of Whirlpool's globally interconnected manufacturing, design, and purchasing platforms.
Magazine Whirlpool Special Section - April 2003