Roland W. Schmitt
President Emeritus, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Retired Senior Vice President, General Electric Company
Before joining General Electric, I'd never really thought of household appliances as "high tech." The functions they perform—heating, cooling, cleaning, blowing, mixing—are as old as civilization itself. In my youth our kitchen had an icebox that was periodically supplied with 25-pound blocks of ice. We also had a wood stove in the kitchen, a fireplace in the living room, and space heaters scattered about elsewhere. My grandmother, who lived next door, had an electric-powered washing machine that sloshed clothes in a rotating drum. (She would always scrub the clothes on a washing board before putting them in the washer, not totally trusting this newfangled machine!). And she mixed the ingredients of the cakes she baked with a sturdy wooden spoon in a bowl.
Today, our kitchen has an electric range replete with electronic controls, a microwave oven similarly endowed, a toaster oven, several mixers, a dishwasher that's sometimes smarter than I am, a refrigerator-freezer, and a sturdy disposal. Our utility room has a brainy clothes washer, a smart dryer, a freezer, and a vacuum cleaner. Another refrigerator-freezer resides in the basement along with the equipment for central heating, dehumidifying, and air conditioning. But all of these fancy pieces of equipment still only heat, cool, clean, blow, and mix!
We take high tech for granted in household appliances and hardly notice it while seeing it prominently in our "electronic" appliances: televisions; audio equipment; mobile telephones; VCR, CD, and DVD recorders and players; digital cameras; pocket organizers; GPS devices; and, of course, in our Internet-connected computers. These items do things that our ancestors couldn't even dream of. So our household appliances live as sturdy, functional "wall flowers" among the active, glamorous, dancing electronic crowd.
The high tech of household appliances is a lot more than "under-the-hood" electronics. New and improved materials enable designs of convenience and efficiency. High performance plastics, especially, allow us to build style as well as functionality into our appliances. Household appliance engineers have just as rich an array of "high technologies" to feed their inventive minds as any other engineers. Innovation continues: cooking food to perfection up to eight times faster than with conventional ovens, using light. Washers and dryers that "talk" to each other, letting the dryer know what's coming, improving clothes care and saving time. The opportunity for innovation is as great as ever in this world of classical functions.
There is yet another dimension of high tech in household appliances: the way we make them. I've often thought it curious that Wall Street distinguishes between high-tech industries and manufacturing industries. Walk through any plant that makes household appliances and you're likely to see robots, lasers, intelligent conveyors, electronically controlled machine tools, computer-driven assembly stations, and smart test equipment. And, behind the scenes will be software that keeps track of everything, from incoming orders, in-process and final inventory, custom orders, shipments, and supply chain status. And when these products leave the factory into the hands of marketing and sales, they increasingly will be tracked and supervised by more and more sophisticated systems controlled by software with an array of acronyms that would make the U.S. Department of Defense envious: CRM, PLM, PDM, CIS, BPM, etc. (Customer Relationship Management, Product Lifecycle Management, Product Data Management, Customer Information System, Business Process Management. New categories and acronyms pop up faster than computer systems crash!)
The incorporation of high-tech advances into the realm of classic functions makes household appliances one of the great achievements of modern engineering. For the engineer there is something especially alluring about doing something that is functionally very, very old with ideas that are the newest of high tech.