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Let the kitchen do the talking

Let the kitchen do the talking

The home appliances and housewares that designers will create over the next 50 years will be exciting extensions of research going on now in many fields.

Future products will embrace new concepts, configurations, materials, and manufacturing methods. Most will be safer, more convenient, smaller, lighter, quieter, and more efficient than today's appliances. Also, they will be much friendlier to users and to the environment.

What will the kitchen of the future look like?

"You won't be able to see where one appliance starts and another stops," Robin Edman, vice president of industrial design at the Frigidaire Co., tells Design News. "The appliances and the cabinets become one."

Instead of the single large refrigerator, Edman adds, there will be several small ones spotted about the kitchen at the most convenient spots. Ditto cooking devices and dishwashers.

Carolyn Verweyst, manager of marketing communications for the Whirlpool Home Appliance Brand, disagrees.

Most likely, she contends, appliances will look much the same in the future as they do today, because most people will continue living in their traditional homes. They will replace appliances with new ones that fit existing cutout dimensions.

Whatever appliances look like on the outside, all agree they will be a new breed on the inside. Mechanical switches will be gone, replaced with electronics and sensors. A host of features will benefit the environment, saving electricity and water.

Most of the high tech will be "invisible" to the user, predicts David K. Hales, a New York design strategist. There will not be masses of pushbuttons, switches, and LCDs. A single command will get you what you want.

Will future appliances run on voice commands? There's debate about that.

"We doubt that anyone really wants their dishwasher to talk," says Whirlpool's Verweyst. Her reason: If you start your dishwasher by saying "wash," and Dad announces at breakfast that he'll "wash the car today," the dishwasher may kick on.

Although people may not be talking to their appliances, the appliances will be conversing with one another. So contends Skehar Kondepudi, technology manager in the Customer Systems Group of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

Kondepudi foresees a "residential information appliance." It would link many different household machines, including dishwashers, water heaters, furnaces, and air conditioners.

"Suppose I step into the shower while the washing machine is running. I turn on the shower, and guess what? I get hot water because I will have given my shower priority."

That would be just one of the many functions foreseen for the residential management appliance. Its main job would be to reduce energy costs to owners and renters of homes.

It would serve as a two-way communication between the utility and the customer, Kondepudi says. "For example, if you start loading your dishwasher, a little display may tell you that it's 4 p.m., and if you wait until 7 p.m. you would save $2."

You could also get an up-to-the-minute report on what each appliance has been costing you to run over any time period. And the system could give you warnings, such as when your old compressor is apt to fail.

The terminals in this futuristic system of household appliances also will undergo major changes in coming decades.

EPRI prototype. Consider the clothes dryer. Researchers at EPRI are developing a microwave version. The latest prototype, they say, will reduce energy consumption and drying time by 15% compared with conventional units.

Here's how the EPRI dryer works: Energy from a magnetron moves up a wave guide and enters the dryer drum, evaporating water in the clothes. At the same time, air passes over the magnetron to cool it, picking up waste heat in the process, and enters the drum from the rear. Humid air from the drying clothes is pulled through a lint filter at the front of the dryer and then passed through the exhaust duct.

What about the hazards of exposing metal zippers, buttons, coins, and the carbon in little golf pencils to microwaves? Not to worry, say EPRI researchers. The problem is solved with sensors that can give warnings and adjust the magnetron.

Sensors and fuzzy logic will become increasingly important in clothes washers, too. The Japanese are working on a system that automatically determines the fabric, the temperature, the amount of detergent, and the type of wash cycle to use depending on how dirty the laundry is.

In addition, many new, smaller features will appear on washing machines. In the near future, says Whirlpool's Verweyst, we'll see bulk dispensers. You'll be able to load the washer with six months or a year's supply of detergent and it will dispense it as needed, something like the dispenser on a dishwasher.

Forthcoming suspension systems in both washers and dryers promise to finally eliminate noise from off-balance loads.

Veritable valet. In 50 years, some say, there will be an all-in-one appliance that will sort, wash, dry, iron, and fold your clothes. Dump your soiled clothes in at night, and in the morning you are ready to roll.

In coming years, design engineers will be putting more and more intelligence into dishwashers, too.

Already, Maytag has its IntelliSense(R) Plus and GE Appliances its CleanSensor dishwashers. They let the user wash any dishload with a single touch of a button. Light-reading sensors measure the turbidity of the water throughout the rinse cycle. The machines automatically adjust water usage and cycle length.

"But why have just one dishwasher?" asks Frigidaire's Edman. Why not just keep dishes in the dishwashers--have one with clean dishes, the other with dirty ones?

"Let's stretch that a bit further. A replacement for the dishwasher could shove food particles aside and grind down the dishes. The next time you serve a meal, push 4, and it molds four new plates for you."

The trend in 21st-century refrigerators has been set by the Super Efficient Refrigerator Program (SERP). Manufacturers and utilities have been busy improving on Whirlpool's winning design in the SERP contest to make an energy-saving refrigerator without chlorofluorocarbons.

Future refrigerators are expected to be lighter and feature vacuum insulation panels and water purifiers. Fresh research also opens up the possibility of portable home refrigerators and freezers, as well as household appliances that quick-freeze food.

Rocky Research, Boulder City, NV, for example, has developed a small heat pump that replaces the mechanical compressor with a thermally driven sorption compressor. Like so many recent innovations in appliances, the technology Rocky uses is a spinoff of work done under contracts from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

Wave of the future. Among designers of cooking appliances, the big aim will be to take the guesswork out of meal preparation. Future microwave ovens may have sensors that read codes on packages of defrosted foods, then cook the meals to perfection with the push of one button.

Projects are underway to develop a pattern of microwaves that cooks a variety of foods on different shelves at the same time. A British firm is even working on a way to inject bursts of microwave power into selected parts of standard appliance designs.

What will appliances for heating and air conditioning be like in coming years? Predictions are that big improvements will be made in geothermal heat pumps, and many more homes will have them. Manufacturers, meanwhile, will shift increasingly toward systems that integrate HVAC products under single "smart house" controls.

Uniax Corp., Santa Barbara, CA, has developed stable and processible materials based on polyaniline.

An elaborate means for making best use of sunlight coming into homes is promised by a hologram system first developed for power generation in space. Holos Corp., Fitzwilliam, NH, already uses a version of the system in greenhouses. In homes, photovoltaic solar holograms would be incorporated into the glass of south-facing windows. The holograms would redirect sunlight, regardless of the season, reflecting it into ceilings and across entire rooms.

For care of lawns and gardens, backyard sheds will be filled with a host of new appliances. Forecasters say the devices will be more versatile, more environmentally friendly, and easier to use than today's versions. Many will signal when they need to be cleaned or serviced. Sunlight will power some. And none will be tough to start.

Tomorrow's lawn mower will do more than cut grass, Jim Swindal, a managing director of technical operations at the Toro Co., tells Design News. It may assess the condition of the lawn and administer the right amount of water and nutrients.

Swindal sees future homes also using a version of his company's new HydroJect system for golf courses and sports fields. It uses high-velocity water injections to aerate soil without disturbing the surface.

This much of the future is certain: As in the past, design engineers will be creating home appliances and housewares that even the best forecasters do not now envision.


COMING ATTRACTIONS

- Microwave clothes dryer
- An information appliance that links different household machines
- All-in-one appliance that sorts, washes, dries, irons, and folds clothes
- Ultrasonic dishwasher that needs no detergents
- Appliances that quick-freeze food
- Microwave ovens that read package codes, then cook the meals accordingly
- HVAC equipment that operates under single "smart house" controls
- In-the-wall heat pumps
- Gas-burning hearth that mimics sight, sound, and scent of wood-burning fireplace
- Home medical devices with communication links that remotely monitor the user's health
- Laser-operated devices that cut grass, prune trees, and break up ice patches
- Lawn mowers that also administer water and nutrients to the lawn


PREDICTIONS FROM THE PAST

"Robots would cook and serve our meals."

"New sonic devices would finally rid houses of pests, including rats, mice, and cockroaches."

"Automatic dust and germ removers in houses would conquer most allergies."

--Washington Daily News, December 1949

"You would wash your dishes without soap or water. Ultrasonic waves would do the job."

--1950 ad from American Independent Power and Light Companies

"Housecleaning would be so automated, we would have a hard time finding ways to use our leisure time."

--Midcentury prediction cited by futurist Jim Swindal


TECHNICAL HURDLES

- New materials that are tough enough for heavy devices, yet are biodegradable
- A completely safe and reliable alternative for CFC refrigerants
- More advances in sensor technology
- Smaller, lighter, and longer-lasting batteries


COMPONENTS TO WATCH

- Client-server central controls
- Sensors and fuzzy-logic systems embedded in appliances
- Ultrasonics for dishwashers
- Small heat pumps that replace compressors
- Wallet-size microchannel heat exchangers and heat-actuated compressors
- "Smart materials" that conduct electricity and change glass from dark to light
- Photovoltaic solar holograms for power generation
- Lasers for operating lawn mowers
- Polymers made from sand instead of petroleum
- Advanced battery modules for handheld devices


THE ENGINEER'S ROLE

Over the next 50 years, home appliance and houseware engineers are likely to spend little time drafting, but lots of time creating.

As a result, a wealth of computerized tools for designing and building prototypes of appliances continue to come on stream.

"Freed of many of the mechanical chores, designers will have more latitude to think about the future and future markets," contends David K. Hales, a New York design consultant.

Moreover, the life of the appliance designers is expected to change in many other ways.

They will:

- Be constrained by more and more international standards for quality, the environment, and safety.

- Often be called to work with new, high-performance materials, including more use of "smart materials" that give signals when they weaken.

- Become familiar with new manufacturing techniques at the molecular level.

- Take advantage of advances in ergonomics research, using virtual reality.

- Pay special attention to how the elderly will handle the appliances they design.

Communicating with colleagues around the world--even in space--over rapid systems like the Internet will become part of the daily search for new ideas and approaches. Engineers also will be in direct contact with users of their home appliances through video communications.

And, adds Carolyn Verweyst of Whirlpool, appliance engineers will be partnering more with other industries as parts of products become increasingly specialized.

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