David Paton, senior associate and patent attorney at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers, discusses the drive for white goods innovation in shrinking homes
The move to create more housing in urban areas, close to where people work, is encouraging domestic appliance innovators to develop products that are not only compact and suitable for smaller living spaces but more efficient to run too.
Where space is at a premium, white goods in particular are often viewed by modern homeowners as too bulky. To address this, innovators across the consumer appliance space have been exploring ways to alter the traditional design and capabilities of these machines, many of which have remained unchanged for some time.
Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis and there is an ongoing push to build more homes across the country. However, with development land in prime locations hard to come by, the trend is increasingly to build smaller properties or flats. For those that take ownership of these new homes, there are knock-on implications when choosing furniture and appliances.
Domestic white goods are typically 600mm x 600mm and can take up too much floor space in smaller flats, or micro homes. In the past, the lack of laundry facilities in the home would have been less of a problem, as it was more common for people to use launderettes. Now, purchasers of new homes expect to have room for white goods and appliances. This is causing a wave of innovation in the sector as home appliance manufacturers seek to create new labour-saving technologies that are suitable for use in modern living spaces.
Whilst consumers are demanding smaller units, there is still an expectation that elements such as capacity, speed and reliability will stay the same; size shouldn’t impact on these. It’s still important that people can, for example, wash a 7kg load in a relatively short amount of time.
However, the nature of many home appliances – in particular washing machines and tumble dryers – means that reducing their size is not straightforward. Drums are normally manufactured to standard dimensions, which determine the overall size of the appliance. In a bid to make them smaller, innovators have explored the use of alternative technologies for cleaning and drying laundry, for example using ultraviolet light, which doesn’t require clothes to be tumbled and uses far less, if any, water.
Xeros, based in Rotherham, has made great steps over recent years to develop new techniques for cleaning clothes, including manufacturing a near-waterless washing machine. The innovative appliance uses polymer beads and a small amount of water to agitate particles of dirt on garments and fabrics. The company estimates that this process uses 70 percent less water than a normal washing machine, and around half the power. Xeros believes that this new technology could be used more widely in the future and has filed a number of patents relating to the use of polymer beads for cleaning a variety of materials including plastics, glass and leather.
In other sectors, cleaning with ultraviolet light is being trialled. UV-C lights have germicidal properties and are proven to be much more successful at killing harmful microbes and bacteria – which may cause smells – on clothes than standard antibacterial washing powders. Ultraviolet washing machines may not need to rely on a drum configuration, unlocking further possibilities from a design perspective. For example, machines making use of this technology could be designed to lie flat on work surfaces or stand vertically in the corner of a room.
Overall, there is a push within the white goods industry to re-think how appliances are designed and how better configurations could improve their operational efficiency. Manufacturers such as Samsung, LG and Haier have all begun to produce washing machines with a twin drum arrangement, which allow consumers more flexibility. The drums in these machines offer different capacities, so the user can select the appropriate one for each load, helping to conserve both water and energy.
For the time being at least, the high street will continue to be dominated by traditional appliances, with conventional configurations. However, as consumers seek out new solutions that are more efficient to run and better suited to the layout of their homes, this could begin to change.
Any smaller manufacturer or designer looking to break into the already-crowded white goods market would be well-advised to consider IP protection for their innovations at an early stage in the process. This involves taking a strategic look at what’s being undertaken in terms of R&D and making sure that the best levels of protection are in place.
This applies not only to manufacturers, but also to companies further up the supply chain, for example those that produce individual parts.
Whilst patent protection can provide important commercial protection for new inventions, aesthetics and functionality are also important when designing home appliances for modern homes. If innovators are developing new technologies in novel configurations, they should also seek advice about registering their designs, as this could prevent competitors from copying their solutions.
The trends towards smaller homes and greater environmental awareness are challenging innovators to develop home appliances that will meet the needs of consumers now and in the future. There will always be a place for conventional appliances in homes which can accommodate them, but for now, there’s a distinct gap in the market for smaller, more efficient machines and innovators are stepping up to fill it.