As of late, some manufacturing sectors--particularly automotive--have seen original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) explore the possibility of using larger quantities of materials such as high-grade plastics and carbon fiber instead of steel and aluminum.
The appliance sector, however, is still deeply committed to using metals and has all but eliminated the possibility of replacing vital metal components with alternative materials. While light-weighting, sustainability and recycling have become huge issues, appliance manufacturers have remained committed to developing new technologies within the metals sector rather than looking to other, less-proven materials.
Wayne Morris, vice president of technical operations and standards at the Washington-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), said metals--mostly steel, aluminum and copper--will continue to play a crucial role in appliance manufacturing, even as OEMs search for ways to lighten structural components without compromising strength or quality.
Its pretty hard to function without metal being the base material for the product, Morris said. The motors are becoming exceedingly more important because of their energy efficiency, and so we have seen a change in the motor design taking place in many of our products. But that doesnt mean that there isnt just as much steel or copper or aluminum in the motor; the electronics are changing, but not the base materials.
Over the past decade, stainless steel has taken a larger role in most upscale kitchen appliances. Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing at AHAM, said consumer demand for stainless is stronger than ever. Right now, for our core category of appliances--dishwashers, refrigerators and ranges--about 35 percent of those products have a stainless steel finish, she said. Thats a huge number that has grown a lot.
Notini said that while traditional stainless continues to be very popular, manufacturers have begun to search for new stainless finishes and designs. Some (manufacturers) are doing things like matte finishes or different textures on the finishes. Stainless has been really popular over the past 10 years, and appliance manufacturers are looking to see what they can do next, she said.
Manufacturers are constantly searching for innovative ways to bring a unique, customizable feel to mass-produced products, Notini said. Customers want their appliances to be functional, but they also see them as aspirational.
Other types of steel used in appliance exteriors also have experienced a surge in popularity. The high-end market is still driven by consumers wanting prestigious steel on the exterior of their appliances--the kitchen being the centerpoint to the house in many cases, Morris said. Now some of the companies are looking at glossy finishes over galvanized steel on their ranges and refrigerators. So in addition to offering stainless, they can now offer a plethora of different colors so consumers can design to their specifications.
While stainless has been extremely popular in the kitchen, mostly for aesthetic reasons, Morris said it has not yet gained traction in other areas of the American home. We just dont tend to see a lot of stainless in the exteriors of washers and dryers, he said.
Other metals, such as copper, continue to remain ubiquitous in the appliance sector. Its really hard to get away from copper, Morris said. Yes, people have tried making motors and windings out of aluminum, but its just not as efficient as copper. He noted that if the cost ratio of copper to aluminum were to become radically out of sync, aluminum could see a slight resurgence in components normally made from copper. I dont see that happening anytime soon, Morris said. We expect to rely on copper for internal wiring and compressors for the foreseeable future.
Not all metal components, however, are experiencing a boom within the appliance industry. Manufacturers are facing growing challenges in the use of internal brass fixturesÑvalves, solenoids and clampsÑin large home appliances, such as washers and refrigerators.
The metal interfaces that you would see in some of the wet products have been a bit of a problem over the last couple of years because the lead content and regulations--for instance, in California--have caused companies to examine the alternatives to brass, Morris said. The alternativesÑmainly high-grade plastics--are not nearly as efficient as brass fittings. You could go to a plastic pump fitting. It isnt the best choice, but its one you could overdesign to remove the brass, he said.
Morris said that key developments within the brass sector might soon make environmental concerns over the use of brass virtually obsolete. I know the brass people are really working on making alternative material and finding ways to make a different kind of brass, he said. Its really important that we continue to see those kinds of advancement.
In contrast to brass, aluminum continues to be a highly favored material in appliance manufacturing. Morris said that because of its properties--light, strong and shapeableÑaluminum will continue to see strong applications in the appliance industry. Aluminum is going to continue to play a major role in our industry, he said. It provides a lot of great benefits. When it comes to vital motor parts, you cant really make a set of cooling fins out of plastic, so aluminum is going to be here to stay. There are a lot of wonderful properties to aluminum that our industry continues to use.
Another important issue, according to Morris, is the mills ability to cooperate, in collaboration with appliance manufacturers, on new legislative initiatives focused on environmental impact, including more-accurate reporting of the percentages of toxic elements within popular metals.
As we get into bills like the California Green Chemistry bill, it is important to certify the extent that heavy metals are free of, or have some known percentage of, some of the more cautionary metals, such as lead, mercury and chromium-6, Morris said. We know that metals are an alloy and that theres no such thing as pure aluminum or steel. To the extent that the metals industry can be tracking the known amounts of these materials, it would be very helpful.
Sustainability, an issue that all manufacturing sectors face, has been a major area of concentration for the appliance industry. One of the elements of sustainability is to look at the percentage of recycled content, Morris said. That isnt as easy as youd think, because every batch is going to be a little different.
It would be helpful, Morris said, if metal manufacturers could make more accurate estimates of recycled content. They (appliance makers) are going to be challenged to provide products with higher and higher recycled content, and right now one of the difficulties is that they just dont know what the recycled content is of some the materials, he said. We would love to know exactly how much is recycled, and I think that in the future it will be a point of discussion between the purchasing agents at the OEMs and metals companies.
In addition to better estimating percentages of recycled content, AHAM also stresses the importance of understanding the sustainability standards from the appliance manufacturers perspective--something that, according to Morris, can be achieved through better dialogue between AHAM and the mills.
We have a number of material companies that are part of our supplier division, and we would love to speak to more steel, aluminum and copper suppliers who contribute to our industry, he said. By understanding the issues facing OEMs and the appliance industry as a whole, metal producers can better prepare for future changes in demand and policy. We are all going to be facing green chemistry, ROHS (restriction on the use of certain hazardous substances) and REACH (the European Unions registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals)--its not peculiar to one industry--and to the extent that (metal producers) understand how that is going to be impacting the OEMs, they can be best prepared to have conversations designed to engender solid working partnerships.