In addition to engineering the Paralda portable air purifier to be lead-free, Alen Corp. took an unusual aesthetic approach to the design. The unit has a semitransparent, frosted outer core and a visible inner core available in two colors. Unlike most air purifiers, there is no front grill. Air comes in from the back and exits out the sides. Two fans are used, resulting in quieter operation. The company includes a cable-management system that allows the user to wrap the unused portion of the cord around the base and out of sight. Included is a 24-hour programmable timer.
Finding ways to get consumers to purchase your vacuums, coffeemakers, blenders, or toasters is a challenge anytime. It’s especially hard when, as now, economic indicators have taken a dive. Of course, manufacturers can cut prices to spur consumer demand, but with current high commodity costs, this track presents extra peril for manufacturers. Paying more for what goes into an appliance and getting less for it on the sales floor does not sound like a formula for long-term success.
With this in mind, many manufacturers aim to make a statement with their products to justify the price. The first step often is to start asking questions. What colors and materials are popular? How do you present controls that are functional and user-friendly? Is there a technology used in one kind of appliance that can be successfully transferred to another? Does it make sense to bring in a design firm, or have consultations with parts and materials suppliers? How could a new design bring down manufacturing costs? How can consumer opinions be vetted during the design process?
Engineering for Balance
“The most important points we consider when making a new product design are the needs and wants of the customer, for example, ease-of-use and new features,” says Jo Gruetzke, director, industrial design USA, BSH Home Appliances Corp. (Huntington Beach, CA, U.S.; www.boschappliances.com). “We also think about the whole family of products so that there is a common design language, and the products fit well together. And of course in the background we consider things that are not visible to the customer, such as manufacturing methods and technical solutions for new features. We also have to consider the factory capability.
“The key goal of every new product design is achieving the best balance of form and function. This means that we must combine technical requirements with an attractive aesthetic design and also give the customer the most features and user benefits balanced with the cost of the product. Every new product design should be exciting for our customers and surpass all their expectations.”
What’s Old Is New
In the never-ending search for new product ideas, sometimes a company can draw upon a brand’s history. That’s certainly an option for the company that has a lineup of several iconic brands, as does Jarden Consumer Solutions (Boca Raton, FL, U.S.; www.jarden.com). Jarden brands include Mr. Coffee, Oster, Rival, Holmes, Sunbeam, and many others.
One example of using its brand history: Jarden offers a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker styled like a model from 35 years ago. Meanwhile, the Sunbeam Mixmaster stand mixer is described as having “the look of yesterday with the features of today.”
Another less obvious example of a nod to history is found in the company’s Sunbeam clothes iron line. Last September, Jarden introduced a hot-storage case for irons. “We got the idea for the storage case from a copy of a 1910 print ad displayed in a Jarden executive’s office,” remembers Lisa Knierim, senior director, global appliances. “The ad showed a Sunbeam Princess iron, complete with a stainless-steel storage case. One day, we suddenly realized that the box met a real consumer need. A hot iron could be put in the box immediately after ironing with no need to cool down, ensuring the iron is safely stored away from children and pets.”
Starting from this original concept, the company explored how it could develop a modern version that was safe, convenient, and flexible. It designed a heat-resistant, translucent hard-plastic case with silicone parts where the iron’s sole plate rests. Incorporated in the design is a cord storage area, while an interlocking handle and lock keep the iron secure when the case is closed. The case can be installed on a wall or door with included mounting brackets, or placed on a flat surface.
“We were lucky to have Jarden Plastics Solutions, part of the company, ready and able to quickly produce the parts,” Knierim adds. “This U.S. operation helped us to get the product on the market within a year.”
The company tested the case with other brands’ full-size irons to ensure they would fit as well. “We found that most large iron dimensions are within an inch or so of each other, so this added capability didn’t much affect the size,” says Knierim. Further down the road, the storage case could be packaged with a Sunbeam iron. Along the same lines, this summer the company is planning to release a compact iron that includes a wrap-around travel and storage silicone pouch. This will allow consumers to store the iron immediately after use or hang it from a clothes bar.
The new Tassimo hot-beverage system offers more than 40 beverage varieties through patented T DISC technology. Available are four Starbucks coffee blends, with hot-beverage choices including coffee, real-milk cappuccino and latte, espresso, crema, tea, and hot chocolate. This single-serve machine has been introduced jointly by Bosch home appliances, part of BSH Home Appliances Corp. (Huntington Beach, CA, U.S.), and Kraft Foods. The Tassimo reads the bar code on a T DISC and automatically selects the proper brew temperature and amount of water. Preheat time is almost eliminated with a flow-through water heater, similar to one BSH uses in its dishwashers.
Addressing the Truth
“The environmental or green movement certainly seems to have been the hot topic of 2007,” says A.J. Riedel, senior partner of Riedel Marketing Group. The rising cost of fuel, energy concerns in states such as California, and former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” all have pushed the issues of global warming and the environment to the forefront for many consumers.
At the March 2008 International Home and Housewares Show, sponsored by the International Housewares Association, green-related presentations permeated the Design Theater. Among the topics were “A Stranger for Dinner: Insights into Designing a Green Product for Chinese Consumers,” “Plastics Evolution: Transform Products with Sustainable Materials,” and “The ABCs of Sustainable Packaging.”
Not surprisingly, houseware products with environmental claims abound. Energy efficiency is sometimes trumpeted, particularly when a product sports an Energy Star label. In the case of air purifiers, Stockholm-based Blueair (www.blueair.com) reports that its ECO10 Energy Star–qualified portable unit runs on just 10 W, making it nearly 10 times more energy-efficient than the minimum performance for Energy Star. Most savings are made possible by using an electronically controlled fan motor. The purifier’s HEPASilent filtration system, with low pressure drop and high efficiency, makes it possible to use low-pressure fans and still get good performance. Other environmental advantages the company points to include an easily recyclable powder-coated metal housing, nontoxic polypropylene filters, a long lifetime, and no ozone generation.
Besides being Energy Star qualified, the Paralda portable air purifier debuting in July will be lead free. The unit comes from Alen Corp. (Austin, TX, U.S.; www.alencorp.com).
“We have followed the RoHS standard, which mandates removal of lead from products,” says Peter Mann, Alen’s president. “We are the only manufacturer in the United States that chose to omit lead from our air purifier, specifically in the circuit boards and solder. While this adds to our costs, we don’t want to include lead in a health-related product. Likewise, since this is a HEPA-based product, there is minimal ozone generation. For both ozone and lead, the lower the level, the better.”
Two Vac Tacks
How does a company differentiate its cordless vacuums, products that are often seen as low-cost commodities? The question is an important one to multibrand OEM TTI Floor Care North America Inc. (Glenwillow, OH, U.S.; www.ttifloorcare.com).
One answer has been to mix contemporary style with rechargeable vacuum functionality in its Dirt Devil Designer Series by Karim Rashid. The line was launched in late 2006 with the Kone hand vacuum. Since then, the line has added the Kurv hand vacuum and the Kruz hard floor cleaner. Newest are the Brum, a rechargeable broom that vacuums as it sweeps hard floors, and the Kwik, a desk utility vacuum that includes a detail brush and crevice tool.
A more-technology-driven tack is being taken on the just-released Dirt Devil 15.6-V AccuCharge vacuums. The units are engineered to incorporate a microprocessor and software that regulate battery charging. The result is significant energy savings and extended battery life. The new capability was achieved without requiring much of a premium from consumers: The stick vacuum will have a suggested retail price of $59.99, and the hand vacuum $44.99.
“Cordless vacuums include a wall adaptor that charges the battery,” explains Mike Mullins, TTI engineer. “Due to cost constraints, no energy management is usually included. The main problem here is that, when the vacuum battery is charged, the adaptor continues to send power. The extra power is expended as heat. Not only is this wasteful, but the heat is detrimental to the chemicals in the battery. This shortens the battery life.
“We have taken a different route by including a microcomputer and custom software. They regulate the current draw, so that the battery doesn’t overheat. When the battery is fully charged, the power is reduced to a trickle mode to maintain the vacuum’s charge and readiness. This technology enables energy savings of more than 70% for the life of the vacuum. Because of this energy savings, we were able to work with Energy Star to incorporate cordless vacuums into their ratings. Our Accu Charge models are the first to get the Energy Star approval rating, which is widely accepted by consumers.”
The other key advantage of power management is that the suction power and effective running time will be longer, since the battery will not degrade as fast. “In our consumer research we’ve found that the biggest cordless vacuum issue is that, after a while, the battery doesn’t hold a charge,” points out Doug Sandler, cordless product marketing. “We think customers will appreciate the benefits of better and longer-lasting performance with AccuCharge.”
The Eureka Capture upright vacuum, from Electrolux Home Care Products (Bloomington, IL, U.S.; www.eureka.com) includes the industry’s only telescopic self-cleaning duster that can reach up to 3 ft to attract dust like a magnet. A Power Paw, located top front, works vertically and horizontally for easy vacuuming of stairs, upholstery, and pet hair. Dual-powered Edge Kleeners grab dirt and dust nestled along walls and carpet edges. The sleek design includes fluid lines, a comfortable looped handle, and sporty Rollerblade-style wheels. The vacuum won a 2007 Good Design award presented by The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design.
A Little More Green
For companies looking to get more green, the buzzword is often sustainability. Bissell Homecare Inc. (Grand Rapids, MI, U.S.; www.bissell.com) has a ForEver Green team that coordinates sustainability efforts in six major categories: packaging, engineering, chemicals, facilities, supply chain/logistics, and communications. The company’s goal is to reduce the impact it has on the global environment by identifying and implementing sustainability strategies consistent with overall key business objectives.
“We know Bissell can’t become green overnight, but the important thing is that we’re making a serious effort to become a little greener and setting realistic, yet ambitious, goals to make that a reality,” says Mark Bissell, president and CEO.
As part of its commitment to becoming a little greener, the company has unveiled the new Little Green Compact Multi-Purpose Cleaner. It is engineered with sustainable design features that reduce waste and help protect the environment. It has PVC-free tanks and hose, and has parts made from 100% postconsumer recycled plastic.
The Little Green’s carton has a minimum of 75% recycled corrugated packaging, no Styrofoam or PVC inserts, is smaller than the previous version, and is completely recyclable. In addition, the company says the deep cleaner uses earth-friendly formulas that contain no heavy metals or optical brighteners, and are free of phosphates and dyes. The company’s goal is to make the appliance from 75% recycled materials by the end of 2008.
“Bissell understands our customers’ desire for meaningful green products,” says Jim Krzeminski, executive vice president of product development, sales, and marketing. “We recognize the importance of scrutinizing all our products with respect to their impact on the environment. Although we’ve been striving to do the right thing for many years, in the last 12 months we’ve increased our internal awareness to ensure that all products be held to a higher environmental standard.”
Ozone and UV-C versus Germs
To address consumer concerns about health, new-technology cleaning and sanitizing products are being developed by companies like Tersano Inc. (St. Catherines, ON, Canada; www.tersano.com). Tersano introduced two new models of its Lotus Sanitizing System, using super-oxygenated water with ozone (O3). In water, the ozone reacts with microbes and other substances by breaking them down into less-harmful forms. The super-oxygenated water disinfects, deodorizes, and sanitizes virtually anything it comes in contact with before it dissipates, leaving behind only clean water and oxygen. The company suggests that its super-oxygenated water can sanitize food, disinfect cutting boards and countertops, cut grease, and remove stains.
“Most people don’t realize the power of super-oxygenated water, or that a method exists to create it for home use,” says Steve Hengsperger, president. “Charged water works 3000 times faster and is 50% stronger than bleach, yet it is 100% chemical free. Plus it’s so safe. If you or your child happened to drink it, there are no emergency procedures to follow, unlike traditional cleaners or many other green products on the market today.”
Ultraviolet (UV) light is another technology being enlisted in the fight against germs. UV light can be divided into three types. UV-A is known as black light, while UV-B is used for tanning. UV-C has germicidal properties, and has been used to sanitize drinking water and hospital equipment for some 60 years. While UV-C offers potential benefits when used in consumer products, it carries the risk of skin cancer if improperly used.
A consumer product introduction using UV light is the Halo Ultraviolet Vacuum Cleaner from Halo Technologies Inc. (Charlotte, NC, U.S.; www.halo-technologies.com). This upright plug-in vacuum cleaner incorporates a UV-C bulb chamber. The company reports that, by running the vacuum over carpets while activating the UV-C bulb with the trigger on the handle, a user is deactivating the DNA of the dust mites, viruses, bacteria, fleas, lice, and mold lurking between the fibers.
A slightly different approach is taken by a new antibacterial vacuum introduced this year by UK-based Earlex (www.earlex.co.uk). The Raycop is a handheld, plug-in vacuum that works on most household fabric surfaces. These include mattresses, bedding, pillows, sofas, chairs, futons, crib pads, and curtains, which in many households are rarely vacuumed. Twenty million asthma sufferers and 40 to 50 million allergy sufferers in the United States are among the target market.
The appliance may be operated as just a vacuum, just an antibacterial lamp, or both. “The Raycop is effective in several ways,” explains Julian Baseley, CEO at Earlex Inc. (Stanley, NC, U.S.). “The UV-C lamp kills bacteria and sterilizes dust mites. A vibrating pad releases dust mites that are hooked to surfaces with a barb-like feature of their legs. We designed a patented grid so sheets are not sucked up into the vacuum. There are two filters, the first of 30 µm, and the second of 2 µm, which exceeds HEPA standards. The vacuum removes many dust mites and their waste while preventing allergens from being released back into the air.”
To avoid inappropriate use, the Raycop includes a child-preventive lock/unlock system. There is also an automatic UV-C shutoff feature. This is activated by sensors that detect if the machine is off the surface being cleaned. If it is, the product immediately shuts down.
Weathering what could be a rough patch for housewares companies won’t be easy. Still, manufacturers that continue to set their products apart with innovative styling and technology, marrying form and function, stand a better chance of making more progress against the strong headwinds of today’s unsettled economic conditions.