Whirlpool Corp. has significantly boosted its design engineering staff, and is reaping tremendous bottom-line rewards. The appliance OEM racked up $1.2 billion in new sales related to product innovation last year, when 60 percent of its North American products were new or redesigned. The surge in sales and profitability was made possible by a 25 percent increase in the design engineering staff in the past five years.
The progress was very evident at the 2007 Innovations Conference held last month in Memphis, TN, where Whirlpool had three entries and walked off with the big design prizes.
One of the most stunning is a dryer door window for its new large-capacity Whirlpool brand Cabrio high-end line. ABS is overmolded on a window made of polycarbonate and copolyester, which was specially formulated to improve crack resistance. The overmolding achieves a chemical bond between the two layers, creating a very clean and seamless look. The ABS second shot also allows for attachment points to the dryer door. It also avoids use of a frame, playing an important role in the clean look. Use of plastic cuts costs and weight, and also allowed Whirlpool to use a curved front surface.
The Cabrio dryer is teamed with a top-loading washer with a glass window that was introduced last year as part of the most significant new product rollout in the company’s history.
“The intent was to have both of those components match each other as much as possible,” says Seth Bixby, the lead industrial designer for the group at Whirlpool that designs laundry products. “So you have this very clean, single surface that runs across the top of the washer and the front of the dryer. We wanted something that was frameless, that was very flat, very flush. The inspiration was contemporary architecture where you have large panes of glass; something very clean and modern.”
The frameless look is one of the biggest design innovations on the part. The frame typically used provides the attachment points for the window.
“The engineers kept wanting to put a frame around the windows, both for the washer and the dryer,” Bixby said in an interview with Design News. “We had to continue to emphasize that as much as we understood why engineering wanted to use a frame that in order to achieve the look that we wanted to have, it was critical not to have a frame or any visible attachment points around those pieces. That’s something that makes it pretty unique and different.”
The look was made possible by a unique two-barrel molding machine that allows the first shot to be molded, and then moved by a six-axis articulating robot into a second cavity for overmolding. The robot also automatically removes the gates for both materials. “Staggering the first and second shots allows the two shot part to be molded in a smaller tonnage press, reducing costs,” says Gary Vande Berg, director of engineering-injection molding at the Contract Group of Bemis Manufacturing Co. in Sheboygan Falls, WI. The 1+1 mold was made by Omega Tool of Menomonee Falls, WI.
One of the judges representing the Industrial Designers Society of America, W. Harry Hessen, said: “Everybody’s trying to make their box differently. Adding a window to a dryer is a way to catch the eye.” Hessen is senior director of product planning, design and marketing for Sharp Manufacturing Co. of America. Another IDSA judge, George Campbell, said the sleek approach used by Whirlpool gives the door “an iPod look. It’s very clean. It takes a middle-of-the-road product and sets it apart from its competitors.” The IDSA and a plastics trade newspaper sponsored one of the awards at the APP conference, which is held under the auspices of the Society of the Plastics Industry.
Another Whirlpool winner at the conference was a door trim ring for the Whirlpool brand Duet, a redesigned laundry line that went on sale in March starting at $1,099 for the washer and $949 for the dryer. In previous models the ring had been all plastic. Rings made by other OEMs often use plated or metallized plastics. The new ring uses an aluminum insert molded with 33 per cent glass filled nylon.
Whirlpool had three design goals, says Bixby: “We had chosen a brushed-type metal look knowing that consumers respond very positively to the look of metal. It was also very critical to us that when consumers touched the ring, they knew they were really touching metal. The last thing we wanted was a high degree of flexibility from a differentiation standpoint as we look to refresh the look in future years.”
Minco Tool and Mold of Dayton, OH, made the mold for the part and said it is the largest decorated in mold product in the market in terms of size and production volume. A protective tape is used to protect the finish during forming, adhesive application, adhesive cure, molding, overseas shipment, assembly and through final installation in the end user’s home. The mold uses a hot manifold to cut scrap loss. The molder is All Service Plastic Molding Inc., of Dayton, OH.
One reason Whirlpool is putting more emphasis on the design of laundry products is the migration of washers and dryers to first, and even second floors for easier access. Once moved out of the basement, the washer and dryer combo became a design element in the house.
Whirlpool has focused on innovation as a key part of its corporate strategy since 1999.