Smart technology, safety and sustainability were key themes of last month’s 2050: Fridge of the Future event, which saw AMDEA partnering with the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), City of London University, BEIS and London Fire Brigade, reports Sean Hannam.
The aim of the 2050: Fridge of the Future conference, which took place as both an in-person event and online, was to bring together all parties with an interest in understanding the future of large white goods to share perspectives, identify common interests and discuss how they could work together to achieve shared goals. Topics on the agenda included:
- What will white goods in the future look like?
- How will they be shaped by evolving demand, the environment and new technologies?
- What impact will this have on product safety and regulations in the future?
Through a series of panel discussions, guest speakers helped to identify key themes for Government, industry and other stakeholders to consider, in order to improve the safety of white goods and reduce barriers to innovation.
Some of the key outcomes and action points for the day were as follows:
- Changing user/ consumer behaviour is essential to delivering against the sustainability/ environmental challenges. Personal responsibility is key to optimising the buy/use/recycle message.
- More consumers are becoming aware of the benefits of smart appliances, but there is still plenty of education needed to get them to use certain functions, such as eco settings.
- More regulation is needed to address connected appliances both now and in the future, but it must also have the consumer’s safety at heart, while, at the same time, not stifle innovation.
- Connected technology has a huge potential to make appliances more convenient, more durable and more energy efficient, as well as safer.
- Different parties, such as manufacturers and retailers, but also consumer and public interest groups and environmental groups, as well as regulators, need to work closer together to address the issues involved around smart appliances.
- Innovation needs to be inclusive – it has to work for everybody.
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy, the Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, gave an opening keynote speech on video in which he referred to white goods as ‘part of the furniture’ of modern life.
He told delegates: “While the writers of The Jetsons predicted much of the technology we see today, from drones to video calls, they couldn’t have dreamt up fridges of the 21st century. We are now seeing fridges on, or coming to, the market that can let you know if you’re running low on milk while you’re in the supermarket, fridges that you can instruct to make more ice, look up recipes and play music. Mr Kwarteng outlined some of the key themes of the event, including innovation, safety and standards, and the environment.
He said that the Government published its UK Innovation Strategy this summer, in which it outlined its ambitions to boost private investments and create the right conditions for all UK businesses to turn world-leading science into new products and services.
Commenting on the white goods sector, he said: “There is a healthy market for large appliances, with sales reaching £4.6 billion in the UK in 2020. Innovation is crucial for UK businesses if they are to get ahead of the curve and compete internationally.
On safety and standards, Mr Kwarteng said: “While consumers will be interested in the design of future fridges, they will also expect them to be safe. Now we’ve left the EU, we have an opportunity to review our product safety rules to ensure they’re simple, flexible and work for emerging tech, like AI.”
He highlighted how the OPSS had published a UK Product Safety Review: call for evidence earlier this year and said the Government would publish its response in due course.
Mr Kwarteng said that as part of its Innovation Strategy, the Government has also published an action plan, setting out how its standard bodies can work together to respond to technical change.
Talking about the environment, he told delegates: “As we shift to a net zero economy, white goods will need to be much, much greener. I know that the OPSS is currently doing lots of work such as how we can make better use of recycled materials in consumer products.”
Mr Kwarteng concluded his speech by saying: “The fridge of the future won’t be a scary thing. It will open a new dimension – one where our large white goods will be much more efficient, smarter and safer, and, above all, kinder to the planet.”
“We need to regulate for the future, but that is quite tricky because the future is unknown – regulation works when you know what you’re regulating”
“Regulating for something that is seen to be happening doesn’t change the future and the problem is that we then get left with regulations that don’t work and a gap between those who are getting things right and what the law seems to be saying.
“We need to regulate for the future, but that is quite tricky because the future is unknown – regulation works when you know what you’re regulating. We need to think hard about what the future might be and what it might look like, and we need to regulate to enable innovation, but not step back from the importance of protection.”
Innovation and the environment were key themes of the presentation by Professor Rajkumar Roy of City, University of London. He explained how the UK had a key part to play in the challenge for creating a net zero society, but that it also needed to show its thought leadership in technology and new business models involving users.
He said: “If we can’t involve users, technology on its own cannot solve the problem.” Mr Roy also called for products to be made safe, supported by regulations and standards that can help with that process.
The first panel session of the day was themed around innovation. Chaired by Wendy Middleton of the OPSS, deputy director, science, engineering and analysis, it featured Professor Ahmed Kovacevic, City, University of London; Professor Nick Colosimo, BAE Systems, Steve Macdonald, business director – freestanding division, Hoover Candy / Haier, and Ashwini Natra, associate director, London Economics.
Ms Natra said that connected technology has a huge potential to make appliances more convenient, more durable and more energy efficient, as well as safer. Connected appliances can learn how consumers use them, which makes it easier for manufacturers to design product interfaces and features. They can also help to make product recalls more effective, said Ms Natra.
In 2015, Hoover launched the first suite of connected home appliances – the Wizard range. The brand’s Mr Macdonald said that consumer registration was key, adding: “With connected products, you have to register them to get all the benefits.”
He added that Hoover had been ahead of the curve, but that consumers had taken quite a bit of time to understand and appreciate the benefits of connected appliances.
“The younger generation are more likely to understand and engage with the connectivity – one of the key things is that we have to find ways to make sure we don’t leave older customers behind. They need to be able to use the products just as well as the younger generation,” said Mr Macdonald.
Commenting on the consumer uptake of connected home appliances, he explained how the pandemic had quickened the sale of those types of products and that more people were using smart features and becoming aware of the benefits they can provide, such as remote control, which was starting to take off.
He also said customers were getting used to personalisation and using apps to control appliances and, in the case of connected washing machines, downloading wash programs.
“I do think the future is in connectivity, but, as manufacturers, we need to understand the consumer more and how they use the products”
“It’s developing all the time – we’re seeing more of an uptake in people connecting with their appliances – we have had issues with people connecting their products to their home wi-fi, but it’s gradually getting better,” said Mr Macdonald. “I do think the future is in connectivity, but, as manufacturers, we need to understand the consumer more and how they use the products.”
Mr Colosimo of BAE Systems also talked about the remote diagnostics capabilities that will be available on connected appliances and speculated how, in the future, under the Right to Repair law, consumers could print a spare part on the household’s 3D printer, and then follow instructions on how to fit it, by downloading the information on their Augmented Reality glasses.
However, he stressed that if a repair had been carried out by an amateur, rather than a professional, it was important that the safety and performance of the appliance could be self-monitored.
Mr Colosimo speculated whether an AI fridge would soon be able to know if certain items being stored in it didn’t need to be kept as cold as they are – therefore reducing energy consumption – and highlighted the need for home appliances to offer convenience.
He said that as more people were working from home since the pandemic, the fridge had become the new water cooler – it’s where we have conversations about our daily routines.
“The younger generation is definitely more aware of its role in sustainability, climate change and saving energy, but I think consumers have become quite lazy and it’s quite difficult to change that”
Mr Kovacevic asked if manufacturers could influence consumer behaviour by using technology which leads to reduced energy consumption, as well as decreased emissions.
Hoover’s Mr Macdonald replied: “It’s difficult to generalise, but the younger generation is definitely more aware of its role in sustainability, climate change and saving energy, but I think consumers have become quite lazy and it’s quite difficult to change that. Even if we push manufacturers, we have to get consumers to buy into that change.”
He said that more people were starting to become interested in energy efficiency, and that the younger generation will influence older people to do something about it, but that manufacturers need to play their part too, by providing more efficient products that last longer.
“Today’s most commonly purchased fridge-freezers use about 40% less energy than those in use in homes a decade ago”
He explained how the energy efficiency of appliances has increased greatly over the past decade and played a positive role in helping to keep overall household running costs and CO2 emissions down.
“Today’s most commonly purchased fridge-freezers use about 40% less energy than those in use in homes a decade ago,” said Mr Hide, adding that the industry needs to educate consumers on purchasing appliances which best suit their needs, and to persuade them to use machines on the most efficient settings, like eco cycles on washing machines.
“Modern refrigerators and freezers will keep food fresh for longer than older appliances. Food fresh technologies deliver a significant opportunity to reduce food waste, which is, in itself, a major waste contributor with negative environmental impacts,” he said, but pointed out that although manufacturers can design product that will help keep food fresh for longer and significantly reduce food waste, household behaviour needs to change.
“This is only likely to come about from some consistent and impactful consumer education messaging, which leads to a cultural/ societal change,” said Mr Hide.
He added: “The development of smart and connected technologies can support increased product life by constantly monitoring a machine’s performance and identifying when an appliance component is nearing its end of line, but most importantly, before it fails.
“A pre-emptive service and repair service would be a major benefit for essential appliances in daily use and we believe this is something that would be highly valued by householders. We all expect to have routine annual maintenance and checks on our motor vehicles or gas boilers for example, so why not for our most used appliances?”
He also highlighted some of the clear safety benefits of the latest connected home appliances, but said there was still a major challenge getting customers to register their products.
Mr Hide told delegates: “The challenge to ensure appliance owners can be reached in the event of a safety notification or recall continues to be a major one. In spite of regular messaging on the benefits of appliance registration, through platforms such as the AMDEA-run Register My Appliance, it is still only the minority of purchasers who register their appliances.”
On the topic of sustainability and achieving net zero, Mr Hide called for greater collaboration between the supply chain and other stakeholders but explained that many factories across the world are already achieving zero waste to landfill by using closed loop water systems to avoid taking water from the local supply chain, and sourcing non-fossil fuel-generated power.
“The challenge to ensure appliance owners can be reached in the event of a safety notification or recall continues to be a major one. In spite of regular messaging on the benefits of appliance registration, through platforms such as Register My Appliance, it is still only the minority of purchasers who register their appliances”
“These are positive steps forward,” he said, adding: “Many manufacturers are now working to ensure net zero carbon production facilities over the next 10 years and have set firm timelines within these important sustainability milestones.”
“We need to encourage greater use of the eco settings manufacturers have designed, especially on washing machines. And, most importantly, we need to separate all our end-of-life electricals and ensure they reach a designated recycling point”
He concluded his speech with a plea: “We’re all consumers and householders, and we have to take individual responsibility for our own actions. There are many small steps we can all take that collectively make a big difference. From choosing the right appliances for our needs, not a fridge larger than required for example.
Mr Hide also took part in a panel session chaired by Professor Rajkumar Roy which was themed around The Road To Net Zero and also included Professor Fiona Charnley, University of Exeter; Dr Nina Klein, senior energy engineer, BEIS; Ian Moverley, director of public affairs and communications at Whirlpool, and Judith Peacock, DSG – group technical and health and safety director at Dixons Carphone, which has now rebranded as Currys.
Ms Charnley warned that we’re not only facing a climate change challenge, but also one based on materials, and that the circular economy has a vital role to play now and in the future. Policies such as the Right to Repair and the UK 2050 net zero target mean manufacturers are required to make their parts available and to reduce their emissions, she said, but that, arguably, these are only incremental changes.
She said we need to look at the scientific research that’s being done in design and materials, and also look at alternative models of production and consumption, in order to bring about radical change.
“There’s real opportunity to look at the manufacturing of the units themselves, but also the whole process: manufacturing, delivery, usage and recyclability. If we don’t drive that collectively as an industry, who will?”
Speaking in the Road To Net Zero panel session, Whirlpool’s Mr Moverley said manufacturers would continue to reduce emissions and increase the amount of recyclable components in appliances, but they will have to think more about how they get products to end consumers, and how customers use them to make a difference.
“We need to revisit standards to make sure we continually review and enhance the safety requirements to recognise new technology”
He added: “Net zero is a very important agenda that we’re all striving towards, but for many years we’ve been telling consumers not to use appliances at night, or when you’re out of the house. The whole net zero message on the product and technology side of things is that many of those products will be used at those times, whether that’s by consumer choice or down to the products themselves.