Intelligence is Key in New- Era Appliances, and Their Fabrication

By: Ray Chalmers

Monday, June 1, 2015

ChillHub refrigerator

The ChillHub refrigerator features USB and WiFi connectivity, ushering in a new era in appliances.

I have seen the future of home appliances, and its name is ChillHub. Showcased at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, the ChillHub refrigerator features eight USB ports, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, and an open-source iOS-compatible app for access to sensor data and control of fridge components from mobile devices. I kid you not, one of the first apps developed for ChillHub is a thing called the Milky Weigh—a platform with a weight sensor that can connect to your smartphone and relay how much milk is left in the jug. One can only hope for a camera app that identifies the culprit who left that last micro-inch at the bottom.

Not an import from Europe or the product of some Silicon Valley or Department of Energy skunkworks, ChillHub comes from FirstBuild, a new partnership between General Electric and Local Motors (the group that built the 3D-printed car showcased at IMTS). Like a Maker Faire with paychecks, FirstBuild brings together an open community of industrial designers, engineers, programmers and others to collaborate on new product designs. The FirstBuild microfactory in Louisville, KY, rapidly brings these designs to life. And if you want your own Milky Weigh, FirstBuild has posted Milky Weigh components on Thingiverse, so consumers with a MakerBot or other 3D printer can print and assemble their own device.

“It’s a platform of possibility,” says Brian Wagner, one of ChillHub’s lead contributors. “In a sense, FirstBuild is creating the infrastructure for building a smart home. ChillHub itself is the infrastructure for connecting devices inside your refrigerator, to be visualized on your smartphone and the Internet.”

Further bending the idea of appliance design and fabrication, FirstBuild hosted a 33-hr. “Mega Hackathon: Hack the Home” challenge this past April with teams of designers, engineers and makers competing for more than $60,000 in cash and prizes. With access to advanced manufacturing tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, waterjets, ShopBots and HandiBots, the teams hacked GE appliances to conceive and create ideas ranging from hands-free refrigerator doors to a kitchen-cabinet greenhouse. Representatives from FirstBuild and the Mega Hackathon’s more than 30 sponsors, including Atmel, AT&T, Delta, Renesas, Texas Instruments and, judged the designs.

House Roast, the winning concept forwarded by Rob Lewis, Joshua Longenecker, Ali Faraji-Tajrishi, Nick Dillon and Rick Suel, adapted a conventional GE wall oven to adjust the oven temperature automatically, mimicking the professional roasting of coffee beans in a home oven.

Rising Tide

FirstBuild's microfactory in Louisville, KY

ChillHubs are made at FirstBuild’s microfactory in Louisville, KY.

Intelligence of another kind, namely intelligent automation, is on the minds of major technology suppliers to appliance makers. Where he was cautiously optimistic on appliances last year, Nick Ostrowski, general manager, media and communications for Amada North America, Buena Park, CA, is fully optimistic this year.

“We had a very good first quarter, a case of the rising tide that raises all boats,” he says. “We deal with leading OEMs in appliances and see particular interest in fiber lasers with automation, and bending cells with automatic tool changers.”

With housing starts rebounding, appliance sales should continue surging.

“Whether bending or cutting, automation will continue to be part of the process,” says Ostrowski. “High-volume/low-mix or high-mix/low-volume, you’re looking at automation to handle any part in the spectrum. Despite all of the action in energy efficiency and connectivity, a panel is a panel is a panel, and blanking cells, bending automation and laser cutting can be set up to handle multiple jobs and maximize green-light time.”

It also may be considered intelligent to offer punching/forming and fiber-laser cutting on the same machine. Amada’s LC 2515 C1 AJ features a 49-station multipurpose turret with four tapping-tool and three die-lift stations. The die stations automatically lift to facilitate upward forms while reducing material scratches and preventing downward forms from hitting the forming dies during sheet movements. In addition, a brush table automatically lifts to support material and provide scratch-free processing—eliminating the need for secondary finishing. 

 Amada America
Given the exotic new appliances, and their exotic shapes, fabrication equipment has had to meet the challenges. Case in point is machinery that can combine punching, forming and fiber-laser cutting. Photo courtesy of Amada America.
TRUMPF Inc., Farmington, CT, also supports customers in the appliance industry drawn to fiber-laser machines, especially when processing the thinner materials typically found in this sector.

“Frequently, parts in this industry require louvers or other special forms, or feature a series of holes best achieved with a punching machine,” says Brian Welz, Trumpf product group manager. “Here, the TruMatic 7000 punch-laser combination machine enables fabricators to switch between the technologies for maximum flexibility, scratch-free punching and high processing speeds.”

To the Cloud

In the last five years, the adaptation of fiber-laser cutting technology has significantly changed fabricating’s competitive environment. With feed rates to 400 percent faster and operating costs reduced by more than 50 percent compared to traditional CO2-laser cutting machines, the technology brings potential for higher profits and a competitive edge.

Front-end business-software systems that process orders into bills of materials and job routings as well as programming systems must keep up with increased throughput from the fiber laser, according to Frank Arteaga, head of product marketing at Bystronic Inc., Elgin, IL, who notes a push-demand created from the fiber laser’s increased throughput.

The right technology in place to keep pace with new, large machine investments enables companies to reduce their cost per part, increasing profit potential and stay ahead of the competitive curve.

Cloud-based technology platforms typically comprised of large groups of remote servers, centralized data storage, operating software, databases and complex computing algorithms, can be accessed through an online client-access subscription. Software as a service (SaaS) provides the entire infrastructure so companies need not invest in and maintain additional hardware, software and IT systems.

Mazak Optonics fiber laser processing
Fiber-laser processing offers time and quality advantages for appliance workpieces. Image courtesy of Mazak Optonics.
“There is no hardware to maintain, no software to install and no software updates to perform,” Arteaga says. The SaaS host handles all of these tasks. With the cloud-based Bystronic ByOptimizer software, for example, users only pay a flat monthly or yearly fee for using the service, with the fee based on subscription hours for actual cutting time used. Subscribers can upload orders to the cloud through a client-user access portal where they also can monitor usage and history, and download their final optimized programs.

Fabricating and laser intelligence also extends to setup. In March, Mazak Optonics Corp., Elgin, IL, released a new Optiplex fiber-laser cutting series with what it calls Zeta 9 technology. Zeta 9 is a series of six intelligent setup functions and three intelligent monitoring functions designed to significantly reduce operator dependency and improve throughput and cut quality. Although many of these functions have been available on CO2 machines, their availability on fiber-laser cutting machines represents a major breakthrough, according to company officials.

Zeta 9’s setup functions include auto nozzle changing to optimize assist-gas usage and maximize job-feed rate; auto-focus positioning to maximize part quality; focus detection to automatically calibrate reference positions; auto profiler calibration to keep a stable distance between material and the nozzle while cutting; auto nozzle cleaning to reduce operator intervention; and beam-diameter control to cut a range of materials by changing the shape of the laser beam. Zeta 9 also offers intelligent monitoring functions including pierce detection to minimize pierce times; plasma detection to monitor and stabilize stainless-steel cutting; and burn detection to monitor cutting and notify the operator of poor cutting conditions.

Special Shapes via Auto Indexing

 For more on the technologies described here, visit:

• Amada North America,


Bystronic Inc.,

• Mazak Optonics Corp.,

Mate Precision Tooling,

Clothes dryers, stoves and even intelligent refrigerators require special shapes and holes. Most turret presses include an auto-index station that rotates a punch and die to any designated angle dictated by the machine program. Mate Precision Tooling, Anoka, MN, offers a range of special shapes for use in these stations to improve manufacturing efficiency and meet user requirements.

Using a punch and die with an arc for a much larger circle, the auto-index station can create a smooth-edged, round hole limited only by sheet size. A quad radius tool produces large holes with smoother edges and with far fewer hits than using a round nibbling punch. In effect, the tool puts an 8-, 12-, 16- and 20-in. punch into a single 2-in. station.

With an inside/outside radius tool creating small, precise tabs, users need not stop the machine to remove the slug for an oversized opening, or remove the blank if saving the slug. The precise tab is created by leaving a 0.015-in. gap between hits. Once the sheet is removed from the machine, users can still break away the tabs and slugs.

Similar to this tool, a banana tool allows fabricators to use the inner part of the tool to nest smaller parts. An obround banana tool may be more effective in thicker material because, unlike the inside/outside radius tool, this tool has no sharp point that could break.

Growth to Continue

For 2015, the American Home Appliance Manufacturers Association (AHAM) sees a 5.8-percent increase in shipments as compared to 2014, totaling 71.4 million units. For 2016, the total should rise to 74.9 million units, another 4.9-percent boost. Deloitte Consulting’s Deloitte Center for the Edge, in a report called The Future of Manufacturing, considers intelligence as an overriding factor in many industries, including appliance. Added sensors and connectivity turn “dumb” products into “smart” ones, while products increasingly become platforms—and even move into the realm of services. Businesses that understand these emerging “influence points” will have a significant strategic advantage, the report reads.

Incidentally, ChillHub retails for $2999 and can be ordered through I’m sure the next app will connect directly to my FitBit and simply dispense cucumbers when I’m going for the ice cream or beer. FPN


See also: Amada North America, Inc, Bystronic Inc., TRUMPF Inc., Mazak Optonics Corporation, Mate Precision Tooling

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