Richard Gunther and Joe Britt at Smart Kitchen Summit

Product manufacturers face many new challenges when they introduce smart, connected appliances and devices into the market. New business models, extended support windows, rapid technology changes, supply chain adjustments, post-support deprecation planning, and information security are all factors that companies developing connected products now need to consider and address.

The former CEO of Ford is famously quoted as saying that Ford now sees itself as a technology company. The shift that appliance manufacturers must make in their businesses to produce and support connected products is no less significant. In the old world, you could build and distribute your big metal box and move on to the next thing. Consumer feedback contributed to the next model, if there was one. But connected appliances are a whole different business. Now you’re creating and maintaining back-end software services, and you’re possibly maintaining and updating device firmware and customer-facing apps. And, in addition to investing in regular updates to the software and back-end services to keep them running on the devices and platforms you support, you’ll also find that your customers expect that app to improve and add functionality over time.

Then there’s the data. What are you going to do with all the telemetry data these connected devices are collecting? How can you use this data to guide future product decisions, optimize your support and failure prediction models, and enhance your customers’ experience?

One of the panel discussions at this year’s Smart Kitchen Summit, “Don’t Brick My Fridge,” focused on exploring these very issues. With a diverse panel of speakers, we looked at these challenges from multiple perspectives. Joe Britt, CEO of Afero, and Jonathan Cobb, COO at Ayla Networks, addressed key factors about the requisite data and infrastructure platforms; Cristian Ionescu, Head of Smart Home at Renesas, discussed some of the supply chain and distribution channel challenges; and Chris McGugan, GM of Innovation at Sears & Kenmore, gave some perspective from an appliance manufacturer’s point of view.

Don’t Brick My Fridge from The Spoon on Vimeo.

Based on how technology evolves and ages, your refrigerator is likely to outlive the Android screen built into its door…or even the communication chip integrated onto its circuit board. So manufacturers need to consider new support models. Just like some parts may be warranted longer than others, perhaps connected features or components get supported for a specified, limited period.

These realities could potentially support new business models. Refrigerator as a service? Would consumers consider leasing connected appliances, like they do now for phones, cars, and some other products, ensuring that they can readily upgrade to the latest model every few years? Some companies are exploring this as an option.

And what happens if your company doesn’t survive, like the recent announcement from Teforia? Or say you decide to deprecate a product from your company’s portfolio. Once your app or back-end services are no longer supported, can your customers still use the appliance they likely paid a premium for? If your oven, for example, needs an app to set temperatures or cooking modes, what happens when—when, not if—that app is no longer available? You should ensure that the core features of your product still function. Have you provided customers with a local, analog control option? Deprecation issues can (and likely should) even impact a product’s industrial design.

There’s far more to consider than can be discussed in half an hour, but the panel did touch on some of the key challenges and concern for most companies. If you’re in that space—if your company is introducing connected kitchen products—be sure you’re ready for the new, longer support commitment you’re making, the new factors you need to consider (like data and security), and the long-term viability of your product as a stand-alone device. Without proper planning, budgeting, and even restructuring, you risk leaving your customers with useless metal boxes instead of the smart, connected appliances you designed.

About the Author: Richard Gunther is the Director of Client Experience at Universal Mind, a digital agency in Denver, CO. He’s also the Editor of the Digital Media Zone and hosts Home: On, a podcast about DIY home automation products and technology.

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