White Goods - basic innovation

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White Goods are normally defined as those basic bland appliances we use around our house, usually the large ones: fridge, washer, dryer, dishwasher, oven/stove. This is a fairly staid market, and has been for many years. Whatever little innovation there is normally comes in terms of features added on. Thus, there may be a new "high-value" GE or Amana line, which may include digital temperature controls instead of a knob, or stainless steel instead of white exterior. All in all, though, this is a low-innovation market, signaled by the intense consolidation in the market over the last decade or two. Nowadays, when you buy a GE or Amana or any brand, it is likely made by only one of two companies, with a label slapped on it. This type of consolidation and outsourcing only occurs when there is little innovation and differentiation.

The one exception to this has been in cleaning products, where Dyson and iRobot have really created innovative products. Dyson's vacuum cleaners are vastly more efficient than a typical Hoover, and do not lose power as time goes on. Further, Dyson created it using basic mechanics, physics that has been around for a very long time, not some new innovation in optics, chip design or software. iRobot, on the other hand, uses modern technologies to remove the bulk of cleaning effort from the hands of individuals in the first place. Dyson makes cleaning more effective; iRobot makes cleaning less labor-intensive.

There is one area that (despite Whirlpool's protestations to the contrary) has had nearly zero innovation in a very long time, but should be subject to a very simple form: clothes washers and dryers. Sure, there are models that are more energy-efficient, more water-efficient, use electronic cycles, but in the end, clothes washing (agitated or tumble) and drying (tumble or "baking" in the European style), is essentially done the same way it has been for decades. The veritable trusted name-brand in washers and dryers, Maytag, was acquired by Whirlpool for $2.7BN back in 2005.

I believe that clothes dryers are a simple area to innovate, and are a classic case study in learning from your market. The average clothes wash cycle time for a top-loader or high-speed front-loader washer, American-sized 10kg machine, is 25 minutes. The average dry time for a similar full dryer is 60 minutes. If you watch anyone doing washes, you will see that they load the wash, when it is finished they load the dryer and another load in the wash. The wash finishes after 25 minutes, and the clothing sits there for another 35 minutes, waiting for the dryer to finish. Yesterday, for the first time, I saw someone who put two dryers in his house to avoid exactly this problem. Those of us in the operations business look at the model and instantly recognize that the dryer is the bottleneck in the process. While my colleague of yesterday had a workable, if expensive, solution, and I am sure Whirlpool appreciates his throwing an extra $1,000 their way, this is hardly the right way to go about doing it. Interestingly, the latest front-load high-efficiency washers on a normal cycle take closer to 45 minutes. While this may be necessary to save water, I am not wholly convinced it is not at least partially a ploy to distract those doing loads of the lack of innovation (and slow time) of dryers.

I believe that there is room for innovation if someone could invent and patent a dryer that efficiently and effectively dried a full load of clothes in the same 25 minute cycle, or at least close, they would quickly take a commanding position in the market or, alternatively, be able to quickly sell to a large existing player.