Compared with their consumer electronics counterparts, technological innovation comes to major appliances in evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, increments.
Unlike the engineering breakthroughs that have marked the CE industry, improvements in laundry, cooking, cleaning and refrigeration represent enhancements, refinements or new applications of existing technology.
To be sure, GE's use of halogen lamps has cut cooking time in half for its Advantium oven, Maytag's Neptune and Whirlpool's Calypso washers clean clothes better with less water than conventional models, and a new generation of super-efficient refrigerators is hitting retail floors.
What's more, nearly every major majap maker stands ready with an Internet-enabled appliance that can download recipes from the Web or act as the gateway for the networked home, although many are essentially conventional machines with an added LCD panel.
But despite significant design improvements, the white goods business still lacks the technological leaps, analogous to the digital revolution, that will fundamentally change the way clothes are cleaned and food is cooked.
Not that manufacturers aren't trying. LG Electronics (LGE), makers of Zenith and LG-branded CE products, is attempting to bridge the technology gap by bringing some of its electronics engineering savvy to bear on majaps. The result, introduced this year to the U.S. market, is a series of innovations in washer, refrigeration and air conditioner design that could mark a fundamental shift in white goods manufacturing.
On the laundry front, the Seoul, Korea-based vendor is offering what it says is the world's first direct drive washing machine, in which power is delivered to the drum by a motor attached directly to its center. The belt-free operation has been incorporated into LGE's IntelloWasher DD model, which is more reliable, less noisy and more energy efficient than conventional machines, whose belt and pulley systems produce more noise and vibration, the company says.
Specifically, the unit reduces vibration by as much as 60 percent and generates noise levels that are about 18 percent lower than conventional models, according to LGE. What's more, since the machine adjusts the motor power to suit the type and amount of laundry, fabric damage is reduced by 32 percent and tangling drops by 69 percent. The company notes that the efficient drum design of this front loader also helps lower electricity usage by 38 percent and reduces water consumption by 17 percent.
Available next month, the IntelloWasher will carry a suggested $1,299 retail, plus an unusually generous seven-year warranty on the motor and 10-year warranty on the tub.
LGE is also thinking outside the box in refrigeration. As with its direct drive washer, the company has taken a new approach to the heart of the appliance by replacing standard reciprocating compressors and crankshafts with linear compressors, which have been used in small refrigerators for some 30 years.
Refined for bigger units with specially designed springs and valves, the resonant-free piston compressor is oscillated by linear motor and helical coil spring. The simple mechanism is 20 percent to 30 percent more efficient than most current generation crank-driven compressors due to its lower mechanical loss and greater motor efficiency, the company says, thereby reducing noise and saving energy. The compressor also operates without lubricant oil and is compatible with any type of refrigerant.
The compressor debuts this month in a new line of refrigerators which also feature a door-cooling system that vents cold air through the door compartment to cut cool-down time in half and to equalize temperatures throughout the cavity. Suggested retails begin at $749 for the 18 cubic foot model.
LGE has also tackled an inherent problem with room air conditioners: water condensation, a key factor affecting energy output. In traditional units, water builds up on the heat exchanger, causing corrosion that reduces the unit's ability to function and shaves years off its working life. Manufacturers have tried to inhibit condensation by applying paints to heat exchangers, but their surfaces still tend to deteriorate over time.
LGE's solution was to chemically change the aluminum surface of its heat exchangers with a patented plasma treatment technology. Developed in 1996 by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, the application creates a long-lasting, water-repellent layer that prevents oxidation and corrosion. Absent water dripping from the exchanger, noise levels are reduced by 15 percent and energy efficiency is improved by 10 percent compared to conventional units. "This breakthrough technology maintains higher cooling power, reduces noise and provides higher energy efficiency," said LGE marketing manager Jae Park. "One of the best things about plasma surface modification is that it increases the life span of the air conditioner since the heat exchanger does not corrode from water build-up."