Embracing the Opportunities of Smart Appliances

From ovens with Wi-Fi cameras to fabric-sensing washers, manufacturers are designing appliances with a growing array of consumer-friendly features. The enhanced designs are leveraged to not only attract buyers through these features, but also to help manufacturers meet stringent energy regulations while improving safety and efficiency.

The Growing Popularity of Sensors

Consumers who spend their days on smartphones and tablets are looking for sleek designs with controls they can touch or swipe with a fingertip. They also want seamless Wi-Fi or Bluetooth integration so that they can see the progress of their cooking or wash without having to be right next to the appliance.

Originally designed for high-end , smart sensor capabilities are spreading to mid-range models and countertop appliances, giving users greater convenience and improved controls. Some examples include:

Washers, dryers, and dishwashers – Sensors can determine washer load size to provide the proper water and detergent required and then auto-dispense the correct amount of detergent and fabric softener. Some models can sense fabric type and the presence of dirt, adjusting the water level, temperature and cycle time to optimize garment care. Alternatively, consumers can select a “memory wash” feature to stick to the settings they usually use.

Dryers measure load size and humidity, shutting off the machine right when clothes are dry. Smartphone apps show users how much time is left on the machines and some allow them to change the settings with voice commands.

Dishwashers sense when plates and utensils are clean by measuring particulate size. During a cycle, they can also notify users if a dish or cup is blocking the rotating sprayer arm.

Refrigerators – Refrigerators have always monitored interior temperature, but newer models have multiple sensors to set ranges for different zones. Sensors have also gotten a lot smarter. For example, if a carton of milk is placed on a smart mat, its sensor will send a message to the owner via a phone app to let them know when the container is running low. Other models use a camera to “see” how much milk is in the fridge, and can add another container to a customer’s shopping list or even order more.

Some models sense the presence of gases, which would indicate that fruits or vegetables are starting to spoil.

Ovens, stovetops and microwaves – In addition to monitoring cooking temperature, some of today’s ovens can sense the weight and density of a roast or casserole and set the cooking time accordingly. Some models can recognize up to 50 types of food placed inside, automatically adjusting settings for salmon, chicken, or roast beef. Others come with consumer-activated presets for cooking pizza, roasting, air frying, baking, broiling, toasting, dehydrating, fermenting or warming. On microwaves, barcode scanners can access package instructions and auto-adjust the cook time.

In some ovens, sensors measure the amount and temperature of steam coming off food to determine when it’s done. Every oven is slightly different, but the new sensor-rich models analyze data over time to determine the best future settings for baking cookies or basting a turkey.

Oven Wi-Fi cameras can display browning roasts or rising cakes on a smartphone app. Apps can also enhance safety, sending an alert if the oven door is left ajar or a pan overheats on a burner, causing a dangerous dry boil.

The opportunities for sensors to improve kitchen and laundry experiences and enhance outcomes for consumers is endless.

New Considerations for Manufacturers

For consumers, smart appliances are part of the natural evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the increasingly interconnected world of technology. But manufacturers know this evolution is anything but natural. Fitting tinier sensors into a confined space and making sure they have sufficient power and signal strength to operate reliably are not easy tasks. Engineers must revamp configurations they may have used for years or even decades, working with new materials and consulting with experts in micro-electronics and connectors to produce designs capable of adding still more sensing capabilities in the future.

Keeping up with emerging trends and working with the right partners will help manufacturers gain expertise in smart technology, helping them create attractive features and bring them to market faster.  Because smart appliances are usually more energy-efficient, they will also appeal to consumers concerned about rising utility costs.

Governments in the U.S., Canada and Europe are increasing their scrutiny of energy consumption in appliances, as well as materials and recycling capabilities. Manufacturers with the right expertise can incorporate these considerations into their smart product designs, futureproofing them to anticipate upcoming regulations.

Smart Appliances and Safety

Another important focus for consumers and authorities is safety. Over 40% of complaints filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission over the past decade have involved appliances, according to USA Today. As more sensors and electronics are added to machines and higher-wattage cooking appliances require more power and connections, the potential for wiring faults and other errors increases.

Regulators are currently working with committees of industry experts in an effort to revise rules and testing standards for the smart home era, with the primary goal of improving resistance to heat and fire.

Recent innovations in connector technology create more secure connections for electronic contacts, improving appliance safety and reliability not just for consumers, but for assembly workers, who must manually connect a myriad of delicate sensor wires in a small space. By availing themselves of the latest electronics technologies, manufacturers can improve workplace ergonomics and safety, resulting in faster and more error-proof production.

Building Products for a New Era     

For manufacturers, the smart appliance frontier offers practically limitless opportunities for connecting with consumers and giving them the customized features and controls they’ve always wanted, but never dreamed possible. Brands now have the chance to distinguish themselves in new ways, forging mutually beneficial alliances with providers of smart lighting, HVAC systems, smart water heaters for example and other technologies as the smart home movement gains acceptance.

But in order to do that, manufacturers must continue to advance their expertise in safely deploying sensors, connectors and microprocessors as part of their designs. Molex can help by working with engineers early in the connector and user interface design process to ensure that they incorporate the latest electronics innovations and materials, follow the highest industry standards and meet the requirements of regulators across the globe.

To learn more about designing and building safe, reliable, state-of-the-art smart products, read our latest white paper on key trends in appliance design.

Business Development Manager