Non-Innovation in Appliances

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It has been almost five years since I last addressed appliances. Yes, those drab, dreary every day appliances that solve everyday and boring problems, like washing your clothes or dishes. While they now all have fancy LED screens and digital controls and stainless steel surfaces, at heart, the job is unchanged.

Unfortunately, most investment capital goes into "sexy" and exciting new ideas that can spread quickly at low cost, like games or social networks or online services. Many of these (definitely not all) are important and valuable. But washing machines have been fairly unchanged since their invention in the 18th and 19th centuries, and creation of electric machines in the early 20th century. This is partially because the returns take much longer, partially because the capital investment is much higher for all phases - product development, manufacturing, consumer marketing, sales & distribution - and partially because a few large players like LG, Samsung and Whirlpool dominate the market and the supply chain.

This week, at CES, two of them introduced their most exciting new "innovations":

  • LG announced the Slim DD (for "Direct Drive"), a very short washer that fits right under an existing LG, like the fitted storage drawers they have sold for years. The purpose of the "Slim" machine is to provide a place to do a second light load simultaneous with the first, perhaps a smaller one or a delicate load.
  • Samsung has developed a machine with a built-in sink, so someone can pre-soak or remove stains right into the machine.

Apparently, this qualifies as "innovation". I have to assume they are desperate, because there is not much of a market for any of these, and hardly anyone can call these "innovation". How many people really are deeply troubled by the fact that they need to rinse out a few pieces of clothing every week (or every few weeks) before sticking it in the washer?

Similarly, while I will concede that designing a slim loading machine is impressive engineering - LG's Direct Drive enabled it to build some large American-capable machines of up to 11kg = 24lbs, which is what a standard Whirlpool or Maytag takes, in the standard 60cm x 60cm of European washers - it is just another add-on. It is extraordinarily difficult to find even a single homeowner whose machine works 24x7, and thus is just dying to have a second slim machine to add on to the first.

Will your life suddenly improve because you can do a second smaller load at once, or perhaps not need to walk from the sink to the machine?

These manufacturers all make money off of selling large machines, the larger the better. They have zero incentive to really improve how laundry is done, nor any ability to think completely differently.

What are the really big headaches that could become innovation in laundry appliances?

  1. Speed: create a machine that can do a 5kg load in 10-15 minutes, rather than 10kg in 1+hrs, and takes up less than half the space. Machines have traded electricity and water usage for time in machine; it is time to take back the load time.
  2. Combination: create a machine that can take in a dry dirty load and put out a dry clean load without taking the total time. People buy washers and dryers because the machines are sold separately, but mainly because it allows some level of "parallel processing". When the first load is in the dryer, the second goes in the washer. If it were a single machine that took as long as the two together, it would take almost twice as long for laundry from start to finish. Most companies have some type of combination machine that has sold poorly; who wants to take twice as long to do their laundry?
  3. Single wash: find a way to load 5-10 items in and have them clean and dry in 10 minutes.
  4. Folding: figure out a way to get the laundry folded. This is the last manual headache of laundry.

At heart, laundry machines are mid-20th-century "factories". They operate in batch processing mode, while modern production has gone lean and agile, for good reason. The market is ripe for an entrepreneur to take the market away from them.