For the last 100 years, dryers, ovens, refrigerators, washing machines and other household appliances have performed the same basic functions, such as keeping food hot or cold and getting clothes wet and dry. But, a new breed of “smart” appliances is emerging, thanks to advanced sensor technology and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Smart appliances can connect and share information with other machines or systems. Unlike traditional single-purpose appliances, they can react to the environmental information that’s captured by smart phones, tablets and other electronic devices. And, they connect wirelessly via communication protocols, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Z-Wave, to exchange real-time data for control or monitoring applications.
Smart appliances are the hottest thing to hit the white goods industry since the first countertop microwave appeared 50 years ago. According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), the following types of connected products will become a common sight in American homes over the next decade:
- Clothes dryers that can send you an alert when the vent needs to be cleaned.
- Dishwashers that can be operated remotely if you forget to turn them on before leaving home.
- Ovens that let you know when your dinner is ready.
- Refrigerators that can order new groceries when supplies run low.
“Connectivity is not simply another new feature,” claims a recent AHAM white paper. “It will allow consumers to save time, conserve energy, integrate the use of renewable energy, and pave the way for faster and more accurate repairs.”
In addition to large appliances, a wide variety of blenders, coffee makers, kettles, thermostats, toasters, toothbrushes and other small appliances are being developed with connectivity features.
While industry giants such as Electrolux, General Electric and Whirlpool have jumped on the bandwagon, the push for innovation is opening the door for small start-up companies, such as Heatworks (water heaters), June Life (countertop ovens), Naked Labs (fitness scales) and Qi Aerista (tea makers).
Smart appliances are also forcing engineers to rethink how they design products. And, they’re making assembly more complex.
At first glance, “smart” appliances look similar to traditional appliances. But, they’re actually much different.
“A smart appliance adapts to its environment and to its users,” says Martial Hebert, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “But, in its most advanced stages, the machine will be able to learn over time. Low-cost, high-performance sensors that can acquire and share vast amounts of data make this possible.”
“A smart appliance can act on behalf of the consumer without human intervention or limited human intervention,” adds Kuruvilla Mathew, chief innovation officer at Ness Software Engineering Services. “A traditional appliance does not have the capability to learn based on its consumer’s needs.
“A traditional appliance runs on certain presets yet does not have a learning capability,” Mathew points out. “However, a number of traditional appliances have sophisticated electronics that has a consumer thinking it is ‘smart.’”
“A smart appliance is connected to the internet and can be remotely controlled by people or automatically managed by a machine,” notes Lucas Wang, CEO of HWTrek Corp., a global platform for hardware innovation that provides online planning and collaboration tools. “Additionally, it offers data or information back to the user via the Internet that a particular device has captured offline or from other devices.
“The most important differentiator in this case is that we are unable to get data from traditional appliances remotely, and therefore, can’t update or react to actions as needed based on data,” explains Wang. “Traditional appliances don’t react to the environmental information that is captured by other devices, which could then sync up with the whole environment—whether it is managed by people or automated.”
According to William Webb, an IEEE Fellow and CEO of Weightless SIG, everyone in the appliance industry has their own definition of what “smart” means, which helps fuel confusion in the marketplace. Weightless SIG is currently developing a standard that it hopes will become the equivalent of “Bluetooth for machines.” It will be delivered on a small low-cost chip that manufacturers can embed within their devices.
“My view is that an appliance is ‘smart’ when its functionality can be improved after it has been delivered,” says Webb. “So, new software can be downloaded, it can learn behaviors and adapt.
“There is a lot of confusion because it is very tempting to market everything as ‘smart,’” explains Webb. “When that happens, the term rapidly becomes meaningless, like ‘digital.’ There’s no easy solution other than being more specific about what a particular product can do that’s better than before."
Appliance manufacturers are scrambling to roll out products that contain smart features.
Earlier this year, Electrolux unveiled an oven equipped with a camera inside of it. The CookView provides a live feed directly from the oven to a mobile electronic device. With the accompanying app, consumers can start the cooking process and respond instantly, changing temperature and humidity levels. Notifications alert consumers when they need to get actively involved in the cooking process.
GE Appliances’ Cafe series refrigerator is equipped with a hot water dispenser. The Keurig K-Cup coffee brewing system has a smart phone app that enables consumers to automatically schedule when they want their coffee ready in the morning.
Samsung recently unveiled the Flex Duo slide-in range equipped with Dual Door technology. It gives home cooks the freedom to control their meal prep times and temperatures without having to stay in the kitchen. By leveraging IoT technology, the range lets consumers remotely monitor the cooktop and oven functions on a smart phone. They can preheat and adjust cooking temperatures, set a timer, receive real-time alerts on oven temperatures and turn the oven off. The electric version of the range can be turned on remotely.
Not to be outdone by its rivals, Whirlpool is touting the Smart Kitchen Suite, which comprises a dishwasher, range and refrigerator that are connected to Amazon. Owners can purchase relevant products with the push of a button, literally using their dishwasher to order more detergent. For instance, a mobile app available on both iOS and Android devices enables the smart machine to prompt its owner to buy more detergent after a certain amount of wash cycles.
Even Sears is marketing a line of smart products. The Kenmore 8000 BTU smart air conditioner can connect to a home Wi-Fi network and be programmed and controlled via an app, which will also alert the owner when the filter needs cleaning.
The latest Craftsman riding lawnmower can send maintenance reminders to the owner’s smart phone or tablet through the Craftsman Connect app. Whenever the mower needs an oil change, an air-filter replacement, or if issues arise related to the blades or wheel alignment, it sends an alert to the app.
Hope vs. Hype
Smart appliances are more than just a fad. But, the widespread hype is being curtailed by consumer uncertainty and a lack of understanding. Cost is also an important issue. In fact, one of the big hurdles manufacturers face is getting consumers to buy in.
Many smart appliances currently cost at least twice as much as traditional appliances. “That’s what drives the cynics’ point-of-view and hinders adoption,” says Nick Kramer, senior director of data and analytics at SSA & Co., a management consulting firm. “But, this is typical in the evolution of technology. The price must, and will, come down.
“In most cases, [only] zealots or the wealthy are buying these appliances,” claims Kramer. “The price-value relationship just isn’t there for most consumers. Indeed, I don’t think they may see any value in a connected toaster unless it’s basically the same price as a toaster today.
“Network effect plays a part, too,” Kramer points out. “Namely, this is another case where the value increases as smart appliances become more common and ubiquitous.”
Kramer believes there will be more consumer interest when refrigerators can automatically tell ovens to preheat to 350 F “whenever we take the chicken out of the refrigerator, because it knows we need to roast the chicken after we’ve prepared it.”
“Smart appliances are generally more expensive than their traditional counterparts, but there is a return on investment for homeowners,” says Freddie Molina, product manager at Bosch Thermotechnology, which makes tankless water heaters, boilers and geothermal units for residential and commercial use. “For example, the primary energy usage in most homes is heating and cooling, so smart thermostats directly address this.
“The second highest usage is water heating, so connected water heating apps increase energy efficiency and decrease energy waste,” adds Molina. “If homeowners have this information on their phone—how high their energy consumption is and where there is waste—this can help reduce energy costs.”
Functionality is a big stumbling block to the widespread acceptance of smart appliances. The ability to understand and operate a smart appliance remotely is of limited value to consumers.
“[The new breed] of appliances [still] require physical interaction to complete their tasks,” notes Jonathan Collins, research director at Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (ABI). “A washing machine must be loaded and unloaded, for example. While that human engagement is required, there is little appeal in managing the appliance remotely.
“However, this will change with the emergence of robotic capabilities,” predicts Collins. “[When robots] can be combined with major appliances, there is potential for smart appliances to come into their own.” Collins believes that a smart washing machine that could be loaded and emptied without human interaction would be an appealing application for millions of consumers.
Taking a page from the auto industry, appliance manufacturers typically unveil advanced technology on high-end dishwashers, ovens, refrigerators and washing machines.
“Generally, connectivity is added to premium products first to create differentiation and shift product mix to higher tiers,” says Tom Kerber, director of research at Parks Associates, a market research firm that specializes in IoT technology. “The incremental cost depends on the manufacturer’s implementation decisions.
“Some manufacturers are embedding a tablet computer as the user interface, which adds hundreds of dollars to the sales price,” notes Kerber. “Others are just adding a microprocessor and wireless communication, which adds much less cost, and may impact the sales prices by as little as $5 to $10. As costs fall, connectivity is cascaded down to mid-tier products, and eventually to the value tier.”
According to Parks Associates, 17 percent of U.S. consumers plan to buy a smart kitchen appliance in 2016, indicating that there’s a healthy interest and that prices are becoming more accessible to average homes.
However, some observers wonder how many consumers will be willing to embrace smart appliances equipped with superfluous features, such as in-oven cameras.
“The smart appliance has long been the feature of most visions of a future smart home,” says ABI’s Collins. “In reality, despite years of trade show displays and prototypes, sales of smart, connected large home appliances remains a tiny fraction of overall sales.”
Despite that, Collins predicts the North American smart appliance market will grow 43 percent annually from $226 million in 2015 to $1.3 billion by 2020.
According to Neil Strother, principal research analyst at Navigant Consulting Inc., three key issues need to be addressed by the appliance industry:
- Interoperability. “Will the appliance I buy today communicate with other things in my home?” asks Strother. “Maybe, but you can’t be sure. I expect over time this issue will recede, but there is a risk of stranded devices.”
- Lack of a clear value proposition. “Most consumers aren’t yet convinced about the reason to connect major appliances,” claims Strother.
- Higher prices. “For now, connected appliances cost more,” says Strother. “Over time, prices are likely to decline, but that won’t happen until there is greater volume. And that won’t happen suddenly, since upgrade cycles for major appliances are rather long compared to other devices, like laptops or mobile phones.”
“There is market uncertainty about smart appliances and what the value proposition is of having these devices connected,” Strother points out. “The idea of connecting appliances to other devices or systems has been around for a number of years, and appliance manufacturers have taken steps to drive the notion forward. What is new is how smart thermostats, connected LED lighting and smart meters have helped drive the notion and awareness on the demand side, or consumer thinking.
“Now, with falling prices for wireless components, the decision to build in connectivity is easier from a manufacturers’ standpoint,” adds Strother. “The cost barrier is lower. So, they now have to explain the benefits of connected appliances, which is a challenge.
“But, there seems to be a coalescing around four things: Peace of mind, knowing you could monitor your smarter appliances remotely; better maintenance or repairs, as technicians could diagnose a smart appliance problem remotely; more intelligence, such as a clothes washer that could help determine the right type of cycle based on the garment; and potential energy savings and lower costs from connected appliances that are able to operate when prices are lower or use energy from renewable sources.”
Security, privacy and interoperability are additional issues that appliance engineers must tackle. “The biggest long-term challenges will be security and privacy,” says Kramer. “Just as having a personal computer connected to our bank account has created new ways for thieves to steal money, having a refrigerator connected to the Internet will give clever criminals new ways to steal personal information.”
“For smart appliances to really make it mainstream, manufacturers and IoT providers will need to address the security and privacy concerns consumers have around who can access their devices and data,” adds Justin Ruiz, product marketing manager at Ayla Networks Inc., an IoT platform company in Silicon Valley that helps manufacturers develop smart appliances.
“Interoperability also stands in the way of the mass adoption of connected appliances,” Ruiz points out. “As interoperability stands to potentially flatten the market of connected products, device manufacturers, retailers, service providers and consumer tech companies, like Apple, are still vying for position and trying to identify where they fit in the ecosystem.
“This battle for position will greatly impact business models,” claims Ruiz. “Until we see some resolution here, we will continue to see a slower rate of adoption.”
On the outside, many smart appliances look like their traditional counterparts. But, that’s where the similarities end.
“Smart appliances are connected to the Internet, not only making these devices more controllable and manageable by their users, but evolving them into systems,” says Ruiz. “From boosting efficiency to reducing costs and gaining a competitive edge, the IoT is widely seen as the future of home appliances.
“A smart washing machine can notify customer support of a failure before it happens or integrate with a demand response program to notify users of when it is the most cost efficient time to wash a load of clothes,” adds Ruiz, who works with companies such as Hunter Fan Co. and A.O. Smith Corp. “Smart appliances are no longer point solutions, but systems that provide users with new value-added and ongoing services, increased user experiences and unmatched operational efficiency.”
Most consumers don’t realize that almost all of their newer household appliances are “smart.” And that energy and water usage requirements over the last decade have forced engineers to develop more-efficient products.
“The only way to achieve these levels of efficiency is to utilize microprocessor-based controls, and to incorporate sensors into appliances to closely monitor and meter resource consumption,” claims Michael Beyerle, P.E., connected home product manager at GE Appliances. “Many of our appliances have two or three electronic boards controlling motors, icemakers, displays and interfaces. Efficiency is great, but the real consumer opportunity is that once electronics are in the products, [we] can utilize them for more than just energy [efficiency].
“Appliances have evolved along with all other consumer products, incorporating electronics and becoming quite sophisticated in their control algorithms and in the sensors incorporated into the [devices],” Beyerle points out. “Most of our products have tens of thousands of lines of code working to minimize energy usage, diagnose errors and improve performance.”
Traditionally, appliances are assembled with physical components that comprise the product’s mechanical and electrical parts. A conventional washing machine, for instance, includes parts such as an agitator, a drain hose and a motor.
“With a smart appliance, you see the addition of two core elements: smart and connected components,” says Francois Lamy, vice president of product lifecycle management solutions at PTC Inc., a product design software company that specializes in developing IoT applications. “Smart components comprise the sensors, microprocessors, data storage, controls, software, and, typically, an embedded operating system and enhanced user interface.
“Connectivity components comprise the ports, antennae and protocols enabling wired or wireless connections with the product,” explains Lamy. “These components can take a washing machine and enable it to remote start via a smartphone, add bleach at the optimal time, give practical advice on stains, track energy consumption, send reminders when the cycle is complete and much more.
“In short, intelligence and connectivity enable an entirely new set of product functions and capabilities that allow consumers to interact with products in ways that weren’t possible before,” says Lamy. “Manufacturers are also able to interact with those same products. The data generated from a smart, connected product has important implications for design, market segmentation and after-sale service.
“Having software on the appliance alone does not necessarily make it smart,” notes Lamy. “It is the connected aspect that truly brings intelligent features to a product.”
While smart appliances offer numerous benefits to consumers, manufacturers also win big with the technology.
“For the first time, they are able to truly visualize and understand how their products are being used,” says Ruiz. “This data is allowing them to build better products and, more importantly, optimize how they do business.
“This technology gives appliance manufacturers unprecedented insight into how the products are actually being used in an objective way,” adds Lamy. “Historically, manufacturers had to glean information from customer feedback or support inquiries, which does not provide a complete, unbiased picture.
“With smart, connected products, manufacturers have access to data that can drive better decision-making across departments,” Lamy points out. “Companies can better segment customers, customize products, set prices to better capture value, and develop much closer customer relationships. Smart products provide a competitive advantage, with the potential to create new opportunities for differentiation and value-added services.”
“Smart appliances offer [unique] data collection opportunities for manufacturers, which will enable them to improve their products, marketing and customer service in a variety of ways,” claims SSA’s Kramer. “They can figure out which parts need to be repaired most often, identify peak usage times, frequency of usage and increasingly specific metrics, depending on the product.”
That unprecedented access to data is changing the way that appliance engineers design products.
“We’re starting to look at the data coming from our appliances,” says GE’s Beyerle. “Almost all of our products now have a small port through which they can communicate with our service technicians, [which enables them to] download any fault codes from the microprocessor, take a look at past history and [examine] all the data provided by the sensors. This new array of data will allow us to fix the products faster and ensure that we get it right the first time.
“[In addition], we’re starting to look at other types of data-generating elements,” adds Beyerle. “The Holy Grail of data collection and use is food inventory management in the refrigerator. Who hasn’t asked ‘Do I need to buy milk on the way home?’
“[Soon], bar code scanners could be used to log the food being ‘added to inventory,’ where a camera could tell you what was hidden in the back of the shelf, or where a force transducer used as a scale attached to a shelf could tell you how much milk was left in the carton,” notes Beyerle.
“Theoretically, it’s all possible, and I can now send that info to you on your smart phone,” claims Beyerle. “The challenge is making it simple enough and beneficial enough that a consumer will use it.”
The shift toward data-centric manufacturing will also change how appliance engineers work in the future. “Smart, connected products generate lots of data, putting the onus back on [engineers] to process, analyze and leverage all of that information,” says PTC’s Lamy.
“Tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce will look much different as a result, requiring new skills, functions and even organizational structures,” warns Lamy. “At the most basic level, product development shifts from largely mechanical engineering to interdisciplinary systems engineering that goes beyond the production of the physical object.”
According to Lamy, next-generation appliances make assembly more complex. “Smart, connected products require a fundamental rethinking of design,” he points out. “What is being designed is dramatically expanding in complexity, scope of use, and fit with other devices and systems.
“It’s no longer about designing ‘products’, but developing components that will be part of a ‘system of systems,’” explains Lamy. “That fridge or water heater is now a mini system unto itself, while also being part of a larger, interconnected ecosystem.”
“When approaching the IoT market, appliance engineers are likely to underestimate what it really takes to make that leap,” warns Ayla Networks’ Ruiz. “Creating a high-quality connected appliance requires expertise and experience in IoT, starting from the embedded communication chips, through cloud computing and network security, to control of the end product."
Before tackling a smart appliance project, Ruiz says engineers must address important questions, such as:
- Is there a clear understanding of what building an IoT platform entails?
- Can we build appropriate connectivity, security, responsiveness and reliability?
- Do we have the in-house expertise in all the areas of technology that are involved, including our interactions and handoffs? If not, how much time and cost will it take to gain that expertise?
- Will we be able to keep pace with the technologies and customers’ expectations as they continue to evolve over time?
- In the end, does it make more business sense to build or buy an IoT platform?
“The common challenges we see are around PCB design and layout, as well as antenna placement; all of which can get more complicated when designing for things like moisture and variable temperature,” says Ruiz. “What if the appliance is made of steel? Where do you place the antenna to achieve the optimal signal without compromising the integrity of the housing?
“Engineers who are designing solutions for smart appliances that typically experience moisture and variable temperatures are faced with the same challenges of designing a solution for unconnected appliances, but they must also now address networking and connectivity issues,” claims Ruiz. “Moisture reduces WiFi range, can corrode components, accelerates electromigration issues, and the conformal coatings often used in these types of electronics can further limit the performance of radios.”
“When IoT begins to enter consumers’ daily lives through smart appliances, it is very different from a PC, laptop or smart phone,” warns HWTRek’s Wang. “Stability, ruggedness and user experience are not the same. Consumers cannot accept system failures or wait for a system to reboot in appliances. It is not just software, but also hardware that needs redesign for these applications.
“Considerable hardware redesigns are needed, in addition to more compliance testing and certifications for smart appliances,” says Wang. Furthermore, the materials used in the enclosures of smart devices also must be taken into consideration. For example, the use of wood and significantly more metal in appliances will affect the performance of wireless modules.”
Appliance manufacturers typically are not the makers of smart IoT devices, which can cause headaches for engineers. Even in large organizations like traditional Japanese home appliance brands such as Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba, the consumer electronics and household appliance divisions are separated.
“Most home appliances have very different power handling requirements than what is typically used in industrial PC applications,” adds Wang. “Home appliances have high wattage or voltage requirements, while industrial devices tend to be low power.”
According to Wang, design verification and testing can increase the cost of smart appliances by 30 percent to 50 percent.
“We have worked on a couple of automation projects in recent years involving several plastic parts that were assembled on a dial machine,” says Rick Blake, president of Edgewater Automation. “In each case, the focus was on verification of the process.
“With smart appliance, verification and in-process testing [becomes more important]," claims Blake. "The flexibility of the assembly and automation required is also growing. As features of the products change, and new models are added at high frequency, the assembly and test process must adapt and change.”
Sensors and Sensibility
Sensors are critical to smart appliances, but they pose numerous challenges to engineers.
“First, they need to deal with cost effectiveness,” says GE Appliance’s Beyerle. “There is no room for excess cost in an appliance. The market is way too competitive.
“Secondly, consumers are usually not trained users,” notes Beyerle. “For example, many of us learned to do laundry, right or wrong, when we went off to college. Many of us learned wrong and the sensors and systems being built need to compensate for that. If clothes are ruined, most consumers will blame the appliance.
“And then there is the functional environment,” adds Beyerle. “Moisture is a problem and can short out contacts or corrode terminals. Now, take that moisture and periodically cool it below 32 F and you get to deal with changing state of the water, as well as the expansion that comes from the freezing ice.
“Our self-cleaning ranges experience temperatures close to 1,000 F,” Beyerle points out. “Those temperatures will melt an awful lot of materials.
“Detergents used in laundry products and dishwashers often aren’t the kindest of chemicals, and the effect that a little bit of sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) will have upon the electrical conductivity of water is incredible,” says Beyerle. “It can throw sensors way out of calibration. The challenge is significant.”
Smart appliances demand more than just basic sensors that measure humidity, temperature and vibration.
“We’re just now starting to experiment with additional sensors to see what they can provide for consumers,” says Beyerle. “And, we’re starting to experiment with what we can do with the data from the sensors we have.”
For example, Beyerle says some models of GE’s refrigerators are equipped with a new hands-free auto-fill water dispenser. Using a laser-based sensor system, the dispenser will effortlessly measure the size of any container placed beneath it, then automatically fill it 90 percent of the way full with pure filtered water. Consumers don’t need to hold a button or keep an eye on the dispenser.
“That feature may not be cutting-edge in jet fighters, but it is cutting-edge in consumer products,” claims Beyerle.
“And, our new washers are the most resource efficient that we have ever produced,” adds Beyerle. “To minimize water usage in our top-load machines, the system, on cycle start, will squirt a little bit of water into the basket and then ramp up the motor. The system is literally measuring the absorption rate of the water into the clothes by sensing the effect on the rotational momentum of the clothes load.
“From that absorption rate, the machine can then deduce load size and the type of cloth in the washer,” says Beyerle. “It can then determine the correct amount of water needed to optimize the cycle. It’s a fantastic step above guessing the amount of water needed by switching a rotary dial.”