Back in the crazy days of the Internet bubble economy and before blogs had appeared I ‘invented’ the concept of the internet washing machine to illustrate how even every day products may become changed by the Internet. I say I invented, but actually I don’t really know as we couldn’t spread ideas as well in those days and since then both Whirlpool and Zanussi have made partial moves in this direction. I feel that the time has come to bring back the concept and by introducing it in a blog may be able to get some interesting further development of the thinking behind the concept going. It also fits into the theme of some of my other blogs where I have been thinking around the use of technology to build differentiation around the ‘how’ things are provided as opposed to the ‘what’ of the product.

In the case of a washing machine the manufacturing of what is basically a well understood light engineering product is now based largely on cost, and therefore even the best known brands find themselves challenged by low cost brands using off shore production. How to add value, and margin though business ‘services’ is the usual question, but far too often this turns out to be little more than service support for the product when it breaks down, not the best time to ask the customer for more money to improve the margin! In fact in this example a washing machine is a pretty good example to use to cover a number of other products.
A washing machine is the ‘productisation’ of the service of getting clothes clean, and as with most products of its type, the aim was to overcome limitations of labour, distance etc by reducing the service into a product that could be readily replicated and distributed. Using mass production and distribution of a standardised product as a means to overcome local service and customised interaction limitations. The danger with productisation is that the whole focus becomes corrupted; in the case of buying a washing machine all the information is ‘speeds and feeds’ as the IT industry calls specification selling, and nothing relates to a comparison on how well this model can clean clothes. Actually the real question is how well it cleans my clothes as life styles and choices have fragmented we are increasingly living differently from the model of the so called ‘nuclear family’ of the 1950s or 60s.
The Internet Washing Machine connects within the home by Bluetooth to the household Broadband connection and then over the Internet to the Manufacturer. There is a display and keypad that allows me to ask for specific ‘service’ washes such as getting red wine out of an expensive woollen top, in response to which the manufacturer automatically remotely sets the Internet Washing Machine in the optimum way for the specialised task and can charge for the resulting personalised ‘service’ wash. The manufacturer is now charging for their knowledge on how to clean clothes, and can even use the display / keypad as a portal to provide other cleaning services such as sending a local partner, or franchiser, to clean the carpets. This re-establishes a value proposition from the services and reduces the reliance on the margin on making the washing machine itself in direct competition to an increasing number of low cost offshore factories.
Five or six years ago this looked slightly too much to consider, but then so did a lot of things that have since matured, both technically and in terms of consumer acceptance. There is nothing in the basic technology that would now prevent this from being possible, and broadband penetration is now high enough in many countries to make it feasible. The missing piece is now the specific challenge of making a washing machine that really can wash better by indefinite adjustment of the various factors and tying this to a knowledge base, and that’s going to be some real differentiation for a washing machine manufacturer!
My overall belief is that we are approaching a tipping point in a number of markets where some brave and innovative thinking allied to the technologies we now have, and consumers’ acceptance of them, makes real differentiation possible for some very common and ordinary products. Oh and by the way just to get the debate going isn’t this awfully like the approach of ‘software as a service’?