The Washing Machine
In the first and second world countries the washing machine has undergone several iterations. In much of the rest of the world the clothes washing process is little changed. This dichotomy reflects, in part, the innovation ecosystem in each area. The product prerequisites for product innovation and adoption must be met. For the washing machine, a minimum set of prerequisites:
availability of electricity
ready access to water and hot water
laundry detergent, bleach and softener readily available
municipal infrastructure (sewage and waste water processing at a minimum)
availability of the clothes washer
financial resources for the purchase
space in the house
delivery and haul away
Product innovation occurs under a specific set of circumstances and in a particular cultural ecosystem. Absent a prerequisite and innovation will not occur. The innovator operates within this ecosystem but finds a way to break through the current ecosystem to create and define a different ecosystem. True innovation has a staying power that carries into the newer ecosystem and perhaps into yet to be created cultural ecosystems.
Concerning the washing machine, innovation is obvious. Shifting from hand washing and pounding clothes on rocks to a scrub board and hand wringer washer is clearly innovation. The next innovation is the introduction of the electrically powered machine. Each of these shifts carries over into newly created ecosystem and provides a push toward the next level of innovation.
Visit your favorite appliance store. If you have not purchased a washing machine recently, it will be an interesting visit. Pop the lid on a washing machine. Where is the agitator? What about all those cycles? Steam? How big a machine do I need? Expensive!
The agitator disappeared because of Energy Star, The Simple Choice for Energy Efficiency. The major cost for running a washing machine is, surprise, heating the water. Saving energy means using less hot water. With less water the agitator did not as efficiently; if you look real carefully the clothes are still agitating . Energy saving requires cold water rinses and detergent specifically designed for cold water rinsing. Over the life time of the washer money is saved.
All the cycles are possible because the newest (an eventually all) washers are microprocessor controlled. Cycles are preset with the option for user changes or creating a custom cycle. Steam offers specific benefits.
Arguably this is innovation. Lots of new features were added. Using a washing machine on a daily basis changed. Society is impacted by reduced energy usage. This is the dilemma of defining innovation. Some innovations have a “big” impact and other innovations have a “smaller” impact. At some point innovation ceases and the product changes shift into function and feature enhancement. Do all these changes in washing machines constitute a big enough change to set the open up further stages of innovation? Maybe the only way to answer this is a pragmatic approach. Compare the impact of changes in washing machines to the impact of the automobile; the transistor and electric power. How does the washing machine measure up? Do the changes to the washing machine have a forward impact like the automobile? Probably not. So the challenge for defining innovation is not feature changes even though collectively enough feature changes could be considered “innovative”. Innovation has a major forward reaching component.