The market for smart homes and appliances is ready for its COVID-19 level set, following a tumultuous time punctuated by severe economic and supply chain disruptions. Unlike other market sectors, however, consumer spending on smart home and contactless technologies gained ground, along with smart speakers as well as smart washers and towel racks with sterilization functions.
During the pandemic, the concept of “home sweet home” was redefined while spaces were realigned to incorporate new work-at-home and distance learning areas. The “lockdown effect” resulted in a chart-topping year for home improvement projects. According to researchers at Harvard University, Americans spent nearly $420 billion on home improvements and repairs in 2020, as households modified living spaces for work, school, and leisure in response to the pandemic.
Research from Parks Associates found that one-third of smart device owners increased usage of their devices during the pandemic, including owners of smart door locks, all-in-one camera-based security devices, smart smoke/CO detectors, smart video doorbells, smart plug/adapter modules, smart light bulbs, and smart thermostats. While it’s too early to forecast whether consumer adoption of home automation and control systems will continue to climb at such a fast pace in a post-pandemic world, what’s easier to predict is the ongoing demand to address continuing connectivity, data privacy, and security concerns.
Increasing Convenience through Seamless Connectivity
Connectivity is the holy grail of smart homes and appliances, as the ability for IoT devices to “see and speak” with each other drives convenience, comfort, and efficiency. However, the ability to discover and ensure secure, back-end communications between all IoT devices is easier said than done.
Most consumers aren’t willing to download a dozen apps to control their smart devices and appliances. And, while data exchange between devices can enable new levels of convenience, it’s critical to determine how much information should be shared, especially where data privacy and security are concerned.
The journey to device interoperability is full of communication standards and IoT protocols that must be navigated carefully to ensure compatibility without creating undue data privacy or security risk. Equally important is the realization that connectivity alone doesn’t deliver sufficient consumer convenience. The priority really should be on how that connection is being used to transform customer experience and create lasting value.
At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, Peloton attracted a record 23,000 people to a single workout class as a testament to its enduring value in the fitness industry. In the first three months of 2020, the company’s revenues rose 66 percent from a year earlier. Lots of articles and accolades espouse what’s called the “Peloton experience,” which is described as smart, fully immersive digital experiences that are engaging, motivating, and highly effective.
While others try to emulate Peloton’s success, the company continues to add robust content along with live and on-demand instructor-led classes that inspire camaraderie and commitment. An overarching customer-centric focus has enabled the company to amass a large and loyal online and offline community.
The best way for product designers and developers to differentiate their smart home and appliance brands is to put customers at the center of everything they do. For Fisher & Paykel, a New Zealand-based leader in the premium home appliance market, this customer-first focus has led to the increasing use of embedded sensors, capacitive technologies, and intuitive human-machine interfaces to ensure and elevate consumer convenience and comfort.
Seamless connectivity ensures all functionality can be integrated into appliances across the home for optimal product performance and ease of use. Let’s face it, product developers run into more than a few challenges adding sensitive electronics to appliances with heating and cooling elements. It’s not enough to simply get electronics to work in harsh environments, they also need to work flawlessly for 15-plus years inside a refrigerator or oven.
Data Security is Paramount
One aspect of smart devices that poses daunting challenges is data security, especially when it’s well understood that product manufacturers collect and correlate data that is generated from smart devices for multiple purposes. Typical use cases include gathering device data to spot and solve product problems before a device fails. The opportunity to gather and analyze product-usage data often is very helpful in informing future product development.
While these applications are well-intentioned, consumers aren’t typically aware that their connected devices are sharing usage data with product manufacturers. The assumption that consumers should give up some privacy in exchange for gaining the capabilities of smart devices may be shortsighted, so it’s up to manufacturers to ensure data privacy and security are prioritized from the start.
This necessity is underscored by the continued barrage of headlines detailing hackers’ latest and most nefarious security breaches. When it comes to reinforcing security on smart devices, there’s a lot that still needs to be done to thwart cyber-maliciousness and data misuse.
Developing a Holistic View
Technology has become table stakes for designers and manufacturers of smart home devices and appliances. Therefore, it is extremely important to adopt a holistic view of how to determine which features and functions produce the desired product performance, customer convenience, and business value. There’s unrelenting pressure on designers and manufacturers to make this happen because Gartner predicts that a typical home in 2022 could contain more than 500 smart devices.
To achieve the best possible results, smart home device and appliance innovators must focus on the following areas:
- Design engineering and verification: Rapid prototyping and product test development helps achieve fast optimization before mass production
- Connectivity: Determine which mode of connectivity makes the most sense (e.g., WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, RF, and Near-Field Communications)
- Sensor capabilities: Assemble a wide range of functionality requires selecting sensors to monitor conditions, including humidity, light, proximity, temperature, and pressure
- Data privacy and security: Select IoT-ready secured hardware and reference designs to embed appropriate levels of security while mitigating manufacturing risks
- Sustainability: Seek solutions to boost re-use/recyclability while manufacturing closer to end-markets to meet customer needs while reducing waste and environmental impact
- Differentiation: Develop software-driven features that elevate convenience, customization, and personalization
- Ease of use: Prioritize the Human Machine Interface (HMI) by considering everything the consumer feels, touches, and interacts with on the device. Specific expertise is needed to assess and employ interactive components, such as voice and gesture recognition as well as touchscreens and capacitive sensing. Haptic technology also plays a major role, enabling an appliance to receive a touch command and provide feedback.
A strategy that gives device makers a time-to-market advantage is the use of product reference designs, which can be employed to reduce development iterations and cost. Working with sets of pre-designed, validated modules provide product manufacturers an essential blueprint featuring common functionality in terms of hardware design, connectivity, sensor capabilities, sustainability, security, and ease of use. In some cases, the opportunity to abstract the hardware layer using Software Development Kits (SDKs) can jumpstart the product development process using an SDK and access to cloud and mobile service libraries.
Reference designs also can help in terms of assuring product interoperability and protection from obsolescence. The ability to leverage validated components minimizes compatibility and integration problems while the ability to swap out modules due to component lifecycle changes is much easier, faster, and more cost-efficient than making modifications at chipset levels.
Future-Proof Product Designs
There was a time when major appliances lasted for 10 to 15 years, but today, more and more consumers are comfortable upgrading washers, dryers, and refrigerators in half that time because of how quickly technology is progressing. While increased levels of connectivity spawning enticing new functionalities may further fuel this trend, do not overlook customers’ growing desire to purchase appliances and devices that are much more energy efficient, thus resulting in lower-cost, more eco-friendly operation.
The smart home of today—and tomorrow—is being built on equal parts of functionality, convenience, and comfort. In the not-too-distant future, the best recommendation for dinner may come from a smart refrigerator.
By tracking its contents and knowing the expiration dates of the food on hand along with a database of recipes, the refrigerator then communicates with the oven to ensure the food is cooked at the proper temperature and duration. Expect microwave ovens to step up too, automatically scanning package barcodes to ensure proper preparation. And if something is amiss, these devices can self-diagnose while sending an alert if service is necessary.
Among the many lessons from the past year, an enduring one is the power of technology to transform how we live, work, and play. According to Strategy Analytics, consumer spending on smart home hardware, services and installation will reach $157 billion by 2023.
There’s no doubt that demand for smart home devices and appliances is gaining momentum as product designers and developers combine powerful features and functionality to build highly differentiated solutions. The improvements will keep coming from around every corner because innovation for homes is not a trend — like open-concept designs or dozens of throw pillows — it’s a non-stop necessity that has taken hold and is propelling a thriving industry segment forward.
Brent Tompkins is the executive P&L owner for the Smart Home and Appliances sector at Jabil, a global manufacturing solutions provider. In this role, Brent helps his team and customers develop product and manufacturing strategies that will deliver unique solutions to the consumer. Brent has been with Jabil for more than 20 years, having held various positions in operations, engineering, and business development. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan