From a refrigerator with a built-in computer to a robotic vacuum cleaner, appliances and floor care have had their share of technological innovations this year. In most cases, however, recent developments have been enhancements of existing products rather than the kind of category-creating high-tech breakthroughs that characterize the consumer electronics business.
But the major appliances industry has seen several high-tech advances in 1999, frequently in the form of prototypes shown months if not years before the products were headed to market. Throughout the white-goods business, manufacturers' R & D teams have been working to come up with new features and configurations to set their lines apart from the competition, as well as to provide enhanced convenience and user flexibility to the consumer.
In appliances, this year's two major trade expositions -- the January Builders Show and the April Kitchen/Bath Industry Show -- spotlighted innovative technology in a number of market segments. The January Housewares Show and spring Gourmet Products Show also showcased new high-tech floor care units, such as Eureka's prototype microprocessor-controlled Robot Vac.
Cooking appliances have been in the forefront of technological advancements in the past year, particularly in the area of speeding up the cooking process.
Industry giants Maytag and General Electric are going head-to-head with different concepts for a quick-cooking oven: GE's Advantium, which cooks with a combination of halogen light waves and microwaves, is due out in October. Maytag's version is the result of an alliance with TurboChef Technologies, the commercial cooking appliance supplier. It uses a forced-hot-air cooking principle and is expected to ship under the Jenn-Air brand around the end of this year or early 2000.
BSH Home Appliances has two high-tech cooking units in the wings: Its Thermador division plans a new speed-cooking JetDirect oven soon, while BSH's Gaggenau operation is targeting early next year for U.S. distribution of its Combi Oven, which combines steam and dry heat to enhance cooking results.
Other appliance innovations may harness computer technology to provide additional benefits. Frigidaire Home Products has developed a prototype refrigerator with Internet capabilities via a door-mounted monitor and bar-code scanner, with an eye toward enabling consumers to shop for food online. Through an alliance with Sun Microsystems, BSH Home Appliances is also turning to online technology, considering appliances with the capability for online diagnosis of any operating problems. And Maytag showed off several interactive digital products recently in a "concept" exhibit at K/BIS.
Appliance cosmetics are also benefiting from new approaches to existing product design. Fisher & Paykel's DishDrawer modular dishwasher concept was a sensation at K/BIS last year. This year, Sharp Electronics showed a prototype of a similar approach to microwave cooking at that show.
And a full palette of new kitchen colors -- from Day-Glo raspberry to bright yellow to apple green -- is constantly being tested by appliance manufacturers, making the old industry term "white goods" more of a misnomer than ever.