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At Whirlpool, we take great pride in launching products that are differentiated in terms of performance, reliability, and quality, and that is possible only by investing in the latest, forefront methodologies in product design, as much as in improving constantly the way we do things on the manufacturing floor. In recent years, we have heavily invested in adapting quality methodologies, coming mainly from the automotive industry, like Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and Production Part Approval Process (PPAP), which have helped us tremendously on designing quality upfront.
At the same time, our laundry and kitchen products have seen a higher and higher level of complexity, with the introduction of connected products and Artificial Intelligence (AI) on one side, but also, requests for higher and higher performance in terms of meeting energy and sustainability standards, customer expectations with shorter cycle times with no impact on final results, and even more attention in the area of quietness. The electronics boards, which a long time ago were just simple switch on/ switch off types of devices, represent today the real ‘brain’ of our appliances, and as such have taken a brighter spotlight in enabling the results we want in the marketplace. Bigger and bigger microcontrollers and memory chips enable the fine-tuning of complex algorithms that boost performance in ways that was unimaginable before.
While this is most definitely exciting, it also represents a beautiful challenge from the manufacturing standpoint, as often the performance of the process, its capability, needs to follow higher expectations from the design side, as allowance for deviations become smaller and smaller. Let’s use a front loading washing machine as an example. As consumers request the capability to handle larger loads and faster spinning (to reduce even more the remaining moisture at the end of the cycle), more torque and power needs to be delivered to the motor; but this also means being able to control it in a much more precise way.
"The Industry 4.0 revolution is happening now, and this will drive quality to new levels, resulting in higher levels of satisfaction for more and more demanding customers"
For example, it is important to sense the so-called unbalanced conditions in the drum, to avoid spinning it at high speeds when it is outside of its center of rotation, which would generate great mechanical stress and ultimately damage the appliance in the long run. Hence, the necessity on one side for the intelligence onboard of the electronics is to dynamically maintain control of how the loads distribute within the drum, but on the other side, for the manufacturing process is to produce drums with more and more precise geometric dimensions, and install them within the washing machine at the precise center, with tighter and tighter tolerances.
If this seems too challenging, here is the good news: the electronics can also be used to collect data, to help manufacturing employees understand if deviations are happening, in a fast and automated way. It is much easier to use the very same algorithm of unbalance to display a value on the End-of-Line testing station, and potentially automatically reject a bad product and send it to the repair bay. The alternative is organizing a manual inspection, by arming operators with a caliper, and asking them to measure centricity of the drum versus the cabinet, or even more difficult, if ovalization of the drum has occurred. The electronic solution is much faster, cost-effective, and doesn’t leave room for human error.
Electronics is everywhere in our daily lives, and its presence is just going to continue to grow in the future. This will challenge and also enable manufacturers to collect data, in order to keep up with the needs of new designs for higher predictability and consistency in the manufacturing process. The Industry 4.0 revolution is happening now, and this will drive quality to new levels, resulting in higher levels of satisfaction for more and more demanding customers.