Whirlpool has its own innovation process model which links research activities with idea generation techniques to drive the creation of new ideas. All Whirlpool employees are encouraged to participate in its innovation programme and many receive training in innovation techniques
New ideas generated during an initial Discovery phase are formally evaluated, and the most promising are taken forward to the subsequent Synthesis stage by the creation of a business plan and the commencement of a development programme. The company attributes much of its commercial success since 1999 to the use of the innovation model, which, it says, has encouraged its employees to spend less time looking at competitors and more time trying to understand customer needs. This innovation model is what Chuck Jones, Vice President of Whirlpool's Global Consumer Design unit, says is inextricable from the design process, which, through various tools and processes, links into and delivers design expertise from cradle to grave in the product development process.
Whirlpool makes extensive use of a range of research methodologies. Ethnographic and anthropological research is used during the early phases of product development. Researchers observe activities such as food preparation or laundering among target consumer groups in diverse social and cultural settings.
Whirlpool uses a broad range of different research environments, including observation of users in their home environments, contextual research labs (which are home-like environments artificially recreated with extensive video monitoring and observation facilities) and full lab testing environments (used for research into specific product characteristics such as acceptable door operating force).
Ethnographic research results in the development of products aimed at specific regional habits, such as the Tapa Lava-Lava scrubber lid, a clothes scrubbing and drying attachment to manual washing machines used by customers in Mexico.
Whirlpool’s research is also conceptual, such as the 'What to eat' initiative, which investigated different food stream processes across the world, including transportation, storage, treatment, preparation and clean-up. 'We did this study probably two years ago and I would say that we’ve got so many learnings from it that we’re probably going to be living off the research for the next five years,' says Jones.
On some occasions, new product innovations can be generated from what were originally intended as purely conceptual studies. In 2003, for example, Whirlpool conducted a major study called Macrowave on consumer trends in the microwave oven market. Working together with an external design team, Whirlpool Global Consumer Design developed eight different scenarios for possible future architectures for microwave ovens. The final concepts were shown to the public and even exhibited in the Louvre in Paris.
'One of the concepts that came out of the exercise was a completely round microwave,' recalls Jones. 'And no matter where we took it, people said "that’s a great idea". So we actually partnered up with our microwave engineering group in Sweden and we ended up bringing it to market. It was a hugely popular product in Europe.'
Other major conceptual projects have included:
InKitchen - which investigated kitchen and food preparation spaces for the future family unit
InHome - explored the way a home can change and adapt according to a family’s changing patterns of behaviour and moods throughout the day
Project F - which explored the future of fabric care for the next ten years and how this would affect the manufacture of major domestic appliances.
The outcomes of Whirlpool’s research are studied as much for their similarities as for their differences. However, research data such as diagrams of food preparation habits often have common elements that can be used to identify which current or proposed product platforms might be suitable for the market in question, and to help focus the fundamental requirements of those platforms. The brand studios can then accommodate market differences when products are designed for their final markets.
Today, Whirlpool has annual sales of more than US$ 18 billion, more than 73,000 employees, and more than 70 manufacturing and technology research centres around the world. Revenues increased by 26 per cent in 2006.
Whirlpool has its worldwide headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan, US The company has manufacturing and administrative facilities in more than 20 cities in the US and worldwide.