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issue: March 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

Concept Appliances
Conceptual Transformation


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by Erin Biesen, Associate Editor

While concept appliances may look great as mock-ups, the real test to see if a company has a viable new product on their hands is consumer feedback and how it relates to the market.

Like concept cars, concept appliances have an aesthetic appeal and often introduce unique features, but it is usually difficult to bring these products into the mainstream market. Once a new appliance is conceptualized, companies need to take this product and analyze it in various ways, such as manufacturability, cost to produce and consumer demand. It might be a groundbreaking idea, but if it costs too much, proves to be too difficult to manufacture or consumers are just not compelled to buy the product, the concept will not translate into a market success.
Market tests and focus groups can be conducted to see if a product has sales potential if it makes it to market. “If we are adapting an existing product then we do consumer floor testing where we take existing market product and do blind consumer testing.  These evaluations help us see what key features consumers like, what they don’t like, and then we try to adapt all of those into the concepts that we are working on,” says Matthew Kueny, head of new product development for Miele USA. “I think that the biggest challenge is dealing with consumer habits. If a consumer has to learn to use a product differently it is going to be difficult to sell. You really have to find a way to integrate new concepts and designs into products that don’t try to change user habits and still fit what a consumer is used to.”
Lennox International leveraged consumer input when creating its XC15, designed to be an extremely quiet air-conditioner. Conducting interviews with consumers helped Lennox learn more about what consumers value, and it used that knowledge when it worked with an industrial design firm out of England to build models that looked like the real products.
“Then we got roughly 10 competitive products, took all the brand names off of them so a consumer or dealer wouldn’t know if they were looking at a Lennox unit or one of our competitor’s units, and used them to conduct focus groups throughout the U.S. with consumers, dealers and then with a select group of women only. We found that many times the choice is made by a woman,” explains Bill McCullough, director of cooling product management for Lennox. “These were blind studies, conducted by a moderator, and we could watch while the consumers interacted with the products.”
Even with the units not running, consumers would infer attributes in the new products, such as it looks quiet or it looks safe. When evaluating old products they would make statements such as it looks unsafe, it looks noisy or it looks out-of-date. One factor that became apparent was that consumers were ready for new and different styles, while contractors wanted to stick with products that were similar to existing units.
“We found that there are some contractors who would rather product design remain similar to current products because one of their biggest problems is finding, keeping and training technicians,” says McCullough. “They would just as soon not see something come out with different styling or design because they feel they might incur additional training requirements. Whereas a consumer cares more about the appearance of the unit.”
Nordyne focuses on gathering customer input through a process called quality functional deployment (QFD). The company visits customers and uses focus groups to gather information about what consumers want and need. “It is an essential precursor to successful product development,” says Marc DeLaurent, product manager of split systems. “Our approach to developing new products is a more highly customer-focused and technology driven project now than in the past, because advancing new technologies are opening up new possibilities for product. Conceptualizing any new product for us in the light of new technologies requires that we expand our horizons to envision the possibilities that are out there for exciting new products that involve technology enhancement.

Artistic Creation

Matthew Kueny describes a brainstorming session that included himself, a product manager from Germany and others from throughout Miele. The group was considering new market areas that held potential for the company and throwing around new product ideas. After putting sketches together, a new floor care appliance called Art was created.
“We came up with the concept of this very maneuverable, flexible cleaning device, which wasn’t really a stick vacuum, a canister vacuum or an upright. It was a combination product that served all three purposes,” says Kueny. “When it finally came to market it was difficult for consumers and our retailers to define its niche, and I think that is ultimately one of the biggest challenges with concept products. If something new and innovative doesn’t fit neatly into an existing category, it can still fall by the wayside.”
Miele holds a company-wide new product roundtable once a year. “We discuss the feasibilities of each of the products and in many cases we do some rough economic justifications,” says Kueny. “We go down a lot of different roads before we really come to fruition.”
Typically it takes the company about 3 years to get a product to market; however, the process can slow down and take as long as 6 or 7 years. “It can really depend on the consumer testing, the dealer feedback and the foreign market feedback,” he notes.
The design process can change or alter the concept appliance. “You can come up with a great concept, but then you have to deal with the reality of bringing the product to market, and that process can alter the design rather dramatically,” Kueny says.
Even after the concept is optimized for the market in the design process, it still might be difficult for the general public to appreciate what the product has to offer. “Art is a great example, where the need was there, the appliance itself is a great product, but the consumer can’t define it very easily, creating a barrier for the product.”

Innovative Ventilation

Gaggenau is currently bringing its backsplash ventilation to market. This former concept appliance is a ventilation system for consumers who dislike having a ventilation hood hanging over a cooktop on an island, where it may interfere with the aesthetics of the kitchen.
“Normally, ventilation works by exhausting air from the hood to the outside, but in most cases it is impractical for the user to break through a hole in the wall to push out the exhaust,” explains Marc-Oliver Schneider, general manager for Canada, North America, Latin America, and South America for Gaggenau. “We developed a system that recirculates the air and filters it underneath the cabinetry, then blows it out of the toe kick.”
The process that Gaggenau generally follows for conceptualizing new appliances begins at a worldwide company meeting called World Alliance, held twice a year to discuss the trends, developments and demands in the market. “We discuss new product ideas and if one or more country groups are really able to sell their product we set up a project to develop the product and present it during the next meeting,” Schneider explains.
Gaggenau first conducts research to determine if there are similar or existing products on the market. Then the company works with professional chefs in order to create a high quality product that could be used in a professional setting. The company feels that if it is acceptable for professional chefs, it will be more than sufficient in the residential market. Once it receives a stamp of approval from professional chefs, the company focuses on creating a design with a sleek look.
A prototype is then created for the next World Alliance meeting and presented to Gaggenau representatives from every region. “Every country will commit to buying a certain number of units, which helps us determine the total amount of units we might sell worldwide, which tells us if it is worth starting production,” Schneider says. “In the end, it has to be a profitable project, which means there needs to be a market price that seems to be realistic.”
Innovations are coming to the market much faster than in the past. Today, companies like Gaggenau can create prototypes in weeks instead of months. That doesn’t mean a concept appliance can move into the mainstream quickly. Appliance companies aren’t in the habit of bringing products to market that have not demonstrated consumer appeal—or products that can’t be manufactured at a cost that would make them marketable at a realistic price-point.

in.kitchen Design

In the article “Waging a Conceptual War” (April 2006), the in.kitchen design project from Whirlpool was described as a new way for consumers to look at and interact with appliances.
“It starts with a program that includes workshops and continuous research to gather information. From the information that is gathered, we begin to see if there is an opportunity to move from concept to production,” says Alessandro Fineto, director of global consumer design (GCD) team in Europe for Whirlpool (Benton Harbor, Michigan, U.S.). “We use internal and external designers as a way of mixing our internal experienced team with designers who don’t normally work with Whirlpool.” This creates different teams, some that are used to creating and working with appliances everyday, and some that are simply focused on design ideas.
This process of design for concept appliances has its advantages. “Designing concept products allows us to visualize. And visualization is basically a virtual simulation of a possible reality. With a very low investment we can reveal to a customer or focus group something they are not expecting, something completely new,” explains Fineto.
There are other important elements to take into consideration when creating a concept or design for a new product. The focus can no longer be on an object itself, but everything that goes along with it. “For example if we are designing a new washing machine we also need to understand the process of using the machine,” Fineto says. “We need to look at not only washing the clothes, but loading the clothes, taking out the clothes, drying them, and putting them away.”
He stresses, “If you only concentrate on the machine itself, you are only focusing on a small part of the process. Now the industrial design strategy is more about the design experience than about designing products. I also believe that the context of use and the process of use of the product are sometimes more important than the shape and simple aesthetics.” This is the way that Fineto sees that the design process has changed. Products are not just items to get chores done; there are a variety of tasks that involve the consumer interacting with the product.
Even when the product is not in use it is interacting with the environment around it. How it looks and fits into the home is equally important as energy efficiency and sound. “Especially in countries where the washer and dryer are installed in the kitchen, bathroom or somewhere else besides a laundry room, the look needs to complement its surroundings,” he says. “I think the product needs to adapt to the environment to integrate with the material finish and the style behind it.”

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Lennox International, Inc.
Miele, Inc.
Gaggenau
Whirlpool Corp.
 

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