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issue: May 2007 APPLIANCE European Edition

Guest Editorial
Environmental Concerns Drive Inverter Control

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by Matthew Towers, senior vice president, IMS Research

Matthew Towers

Environmental concerns have never been higher up the global political and social agenda. Barely a day seems to pass without a newspaper or magazine headline warning of the dangers of global warming and the need to take action. As a result of this increased awareness, political leaders are under extreme pressure to review existing green policies and develop new policy initiatives.

In the appliance industry, this will drive a major change. In the past, the impression has been (possibly wrongly!) that regulators are “pushing” appliance makers to improve energy efficiency while the industry is portrayed as a “reluctant” participant in many parts of the world.

Now, not only do regulators face greater government pressure to improve efficiency, but consumers themselves are starting to take more notice of energy and efficiency issues. This includes everything from home power generation, to energy-efficient light bulbs, to reducing the use of stand-by mode in electronic goods. In this new market environment, where consumers dictate their requirements, appliance makers that can position their products as “energy efficient” or “environmentally friendly” can gain a significant competitive advantage.

There are many ways appliance companies can improve the energy efficiency of their appliances, and any calculation of the optimum path forward is complex. In wet appliances, a number of trade-offs have to be considered, such as the amount of water used, the time needed to heat the water and the overall length of the cycle. In cold appliances, insulation, compressors and other components can all be improved, but developments in one area can cause problems in another.

One way that appliance makers can significantly improve energy efficiency is through the use of inverter-based, variable-speed control of motors and compressors. This is not a new technology and has been covered in the pages of this magazine on a number of occasions. However, to quickly recap, inverter control of a three-phase motor allows complete control of the motor speed and direction according to complex algorithms controlled by either a microcontroller or a digital signal processor (DSP). Two types of inverter approach can be adopted: the first uses sensors to provide feedback to the control system; the second is a “sensorless” approach, whereby the voltages and currents to the motor are monitored, enabling the speed and position of the rotor to be calculated in real-time.

Both approaches offer several advantages. In washing machines, more advanced wash and spin cycles can be used to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the appliance, and noise is reduced. In cold appliances and room air-conditioners, the speed of the compressor can be regulated so that it is not simply switched on and off, but adjusted incrementally to reduce power consumption and noise levels.

Inverter-based control has been around for many years, but is still not widely adopted in appliances. Current penetration across washers, dryers, dishwashers, cold appliances, and room air-conditioners is only around 10 percent globally, with around half of this level in Western Europe, and even lower levels in Eastern Europe. However, it is our view at IMS Research that the next 5 to 10 years will see strong growth in the use of inverter-based, variable-speed control in the appliance industry, both in Europe and globally.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows the current status of inverter control in the global appliance industry and its projected development path. These numbers are extracted from our recently published research on the global major home appliance market, which focused particularly on the future of high-end appliances and the electronic content of appliances. The graph shows that overall appliance volumes for the above categories are forecast to rise relatively slowly, from 249 million units in 2005 to 308 million units in 2011, a compound annual growth rate of 3.6 percent. However, penetration of inverter-based control is forecast to almost double over the same time period from 11 percent to 21 percent, increasing the number of appliances with an inverter from 27 million units today to around 65 million units by 2011.

Existing penetration of inverter control varies hugely by appliance type and region. Japan has been at the forefront of developments in this area and boasts penetration rates of more than 80 percent for some appliance types. In contrast, markets such as China and Latin America have yet to see any significant adoption of inverter-based control for most appliance types. In Western Europe, the current penetration rate is just over 5 percent, but this is forecast to rise quickly to around 17 percent by 2011.

Washing machines and room air-conditioners are forecast to drive most growth in inverter-based control over the next 5 years. The trend in the U.S. to front-load washers is helping to support increased inverter penetration. The 110- to 120-V AC supply in the U.S. makes chopper control of the motor using triacs problematic, which has made inverter control the preferred solution to variable-speed control in horizontal-axis washers. In Europe, the uptake of inverter-based control has been slower, but even here, significant progress is anticipated over the next 5 years.

Room air-conditioners are another focus for appliance makers due to their relatively high annual power consumption, and inverter control is forecast to increasingly penetrate room air-conditioning products in most world regions, especially in Europe.

The big question is: If inverters have been around for so long, why should growth suddenly accelerate now? We believe there are many contributory factors. First, there will be greater pressure from consumers and regulators on appliance makers. For regulators, forcing more efficient appliances is a painless way (at least, for them) to save the environment. For consumers, there is a “feel good” factor associated with buying an energy-efficient product. Second, inverter solutions have been cost-reduced. The price gap between an inverter board plus three-phase motor/compressor compared to a traditional solution has closed significantly.

The “easier” efficiency gains have already been realized, helping to improve the average appliance efficiency by between 25 percent and 40 percent in the last decade. Future efficiency gains will be harder to achieve and will require different techniques. Consumer trends also support the growth scenario. Two examples include the U.S. trend to front-load washers, and the trend in China away from twin-tub products to more sophisticated front/top load machines as the number of middle-class citizens increases.

Lastly, the room air-conditioner market has grown dramatically in the last decade, especially in Europe. As a result, these products are now a major consumer of electricity in many countries, and it would be no surprise to see increasingly tight regulation of room air-conditioner efficiency.

One final thought for appliance makers to consider: Whilst in some Asian countries, such as Japan, appliance makers regularly label their products as containing an inverter, this has not yet happened in most Western markets, and certainly not in Europe. In this new age of consumer awareness of energy efficiency, there must be an opportunity for appliance makers to establish a premium label, logo or brand to extol the virtues of inverter based appliance control—and gain a competitive advantage.

About the Author

Matthew Towers is a senior vice president at IMS Research, a 60-analyst company he founded in 1989. He retains responsibility for the worldwide operations of IMS Research, but has particular emphasis on Europe and China. Towers has a Master of Engineering degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Nottingham University in the UK.

If you wish to contact the author, please e-mail  lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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