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Refrigerator Designers Focus on Features

April 15, 1999

Traditional fridge designs have become a thing of the past. (Mitsubishi Electric Corp.)

Domestic appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines, are often called "mature products." Unlike computers and audio equipment, which are constantly evolving technologically, domestic appliances are generally thought to have developed about far as they can go. In Japan, however, shifting priorities and the country's technological prowess are combining to produce exciting new domestic appliances. Among these, refrigerators in particular have been changing drastically since the early 1990s.

Four Key Features Drive Development
Japanese consumers want refrigerators that hold more, take up less space, are energy efficient, and are easy to use. These four features are said to be driving refrigerator development in Japan. Among these, consumers are especially demanding in terms of energy efficiency. Over the past several years competition in efficiency has intensified among Japan's refrigerator manufacturers, and the resulting development of new technologies has helped to create much more energy-efficient products.

Improvements in ease of use have also been striking. Some of the biggest improvements have been changes to the layout of refrigerator compartments. Traditionally, refrigerators have generally had the freezer compartment on top, the refrigerator compartment in the middle, and the vegetable compartment on the bottom. In 1990, however, after noting an increase in freezer use, Toshiba Corp. came out with a new model that had the refrigerator compartment on top, the freezer compartment in the middle, and the vegetable compartment on the bottom. Placing the freezer at waist height made it easier to get to frozen foods. This was a big hit with consumers, and instantly became the standard style.

Then in 1996, Hitachi Ltd. came out with a model that had the refrigerator compartment on top, the vegetable compartment in the middle, and the freezer compartment on the bottom. This new layout made it possible to get to items in the vegetable compartment--the second-most used after the refrigerator--without bending over. This also caught on with consumers, and is becoming one of Japan's most popular refrigerator styles.

Emphasis Shifts to Adjustable Temperatures
Once changes to compartment layout seemed to have run their course, attention began to shift to the adjustable temperature feature. The variable-temperature compartment is now fast becoming a standard feature on refrigerators. This compartment, first introduced by Toshiba in 1997, can be set to one of five temperatures between -18 and 9 degrees Celsius (0 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit). This allows consumers to match their refrigerators' functions to their own menus and eating habits, for instance as a wine-cooling compartment during parties or as an extra freezer during summer, when the main freezer is full of ice cream and other frozen foods.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp., meanwhile, in spring 1999 began selling a refrigerator with a new "soft freeze" function that will keep food at about -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit). Freezers are normally kept at about -18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit), but at -7 degrees Celsius food can be cut with a knife without being defrosted. Mitsubishi makes use of special proprietary technology that does not simply raise the temperature of the freezer but rather ensures that food is kept at just the right temperature so that it can be cut cleanly with a knife.

More Innovations in the Works
The standard model that has emerged as a result of these trends is a far cry from the simple models that have been around for decades, with the refrigerator compartment on top, the vegetable compartment in the middle, and the freezer compartment on the bottom. Inside are a small ice compartment and temperature switching compartment. This drastic change in a domestic appliance such as the refrigerator is a testament to the ferocity of market competition. Japan has six manufacturers of refrigerators, each of which comes out with a new model every year; and with every new model, the industry's leaders change places. They may be "mature products," but it seems that there is no end in sight to the innovation that results in ever-newer refrigerators.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.