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Coming home: Electrolux returns to the smart appliance market

Several smart appliances  were designed and developed at Electrolux’s North Charlotte research and development facility. Nina Harrison led a laundry cleaning demonstration last year during a tour of appliance-maker Electrolux’s new fabric care research and development facility in Charlotte.
Several smart appliances were designed and developed at Electrolux’s North Charlotte research and development facility. Nina Harrison led a laundry cleaning demonstration last year during a tour of appliance-maker Electrolux’s new fabric care research and development facility in Charlotte. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Electrolux AB is revisiting dot-com era attempts to build an intelligent home around its appliances as the likes of Apple and Google ramp up their offerings in the field.

This year, the Swedish company will start selling an oven that downloads instructions on how your roast should be cooked from a recipe app. It films the job too, so home chefs can keep one eye on the process on a screen while entertaining guests.

Several smart appliances expected to debut this year were developed in Charlotte, where Electrolux has its North American headquarters.

Jan Brockmann, chief operations officer at Electrolux, said 2015 may be the year when appliances finally get smart after decades of false starts. He’s predicting they’ll make up 10 percent of the market in five years’ time, from less than 1 percent today.

“This is a year of massive launches,” he said about the market in an interview at the company’s Stockholm headquarters. “That will really create volume and value.”

The connection of appliances through data networks could realize a vision of automated homes that’s been around since the 1950s without really taking the step from prototypes and science fiction visions to readily available consumer products.

Households never really understood the benefits of a smart home or a connected appliance, said Michael Wolf, a Seattle-based industry analyst at NextMarket Insights and author of newsletter Smart Home Weekly. While some products will just add networking and connectivity for “technology’s sake,” prices are falling and software is improving to the point where tangible value can be delivered, he said.

Automation center

“I think the kitchen is going to see significant growth over the next few years,” Wolf said by phone.

Google has placed Nest Labs, a maker of thermostats it bought last year for $3.2 billion, at the center of a home-automation offering. Partners include Whirlpool Corp., Mercedes Benz and smart lock maker Kwikset Corp. Apple, meanwhile, is working on HomeKit, a concept for controlling a range of home electronics through its devices.

Electrolux has had its share of failure in the field. In the late 1990s, Europe’s biggest appliance maker tied up with network equipment maker Ericsson AB to develop products such as a screen-fitted refrigerator. Brockmann said that while some insights gained from the products live on, the venture itself was scrapped after a couple of years.

Screen fridge

“Mobile hadn’t developed, the industry hadn’t developed, the costs weren’t at the right level,” he said, speaking in a new mock-up smart home Electrolux has built. Brockmann, who became chief technology officer in 2011 and chief operations officer this month, now smiles at the notion that anyone needs another screen mounted to a fridge.

In the 15 years that have passed, technology has developed immensely, and there’s a stronger push than ever to develop standards that make it easy to hook up all devices to one system, Brockmann said. That way, your TV can tell you when you leave the fridge door open.

For Electrolux, connected appliances are part of a larger strategy to forge closer bonds to customers. The new oven is linked to an app with a community where consumers can tie up with others to share their kitchen experiences.

“If you buy a connected product, we will have a different relationship as opposed to a one-time buy,” Brockmann said. “We will know your needs much better. We can offer you more directed stuff; you can give more feedback.”

Home automation isn’t rid of its teething problems. There have been scathing reviews of setups that do little more than frustrate users. Electrolux was part of a pilot project two years ago in a new area of Stockholm where devices were put to the test to simplify life and save energy for a family.

Waiting hungry

After incidents like motion sensors that shut down the kitchen oven while the family waited hungry in the living room for dinner, or lights that went off if you didn’t move enough while watching TV, estimated energy-cost savings were just $1.40 a month.

“The more things you connect, the more risk of confusing consumers,” Brockmann said. “The solution has to be a common ecosystem, communication standards that are safe and aligned.”

Charlotte a key site for Electrolux innovation

Several connected appliances slated to roll out in North America this year were designed and developed at Electrolux’s North Charlotte research and development facility.

A room air conditioner, which can be controlled remotely by mobile app, will debut in May. The app will allow users to program the device to start cooling off at certain times, saving energy costs. Connected freezers, which will alert customers away from home when a storm shuts off power via an app, will launch in August. Customers could call their power company for help before food spoils.

Electrolux moved its North American headquarters from Augusta, Ga., to Charlotte in 2010, lured partially by a $27 million incentives package. The company employs about 925 people locally and has said it expects to increase the number to 1,600 by the end of 2017.

In September, the appliance marker announced a deal to acquire the appliance business of General Electric. After the deal closes, which should happen in 2015, Electrolux will get 47 percent of its revenue from North America and 23 percent from Europe. That’s a sharp contrast to five years ago, when 50 percent of the Electrolux’s revenue was from Europe. Katherine Peralta

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