Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first dishwashing machine was invented by a woman, although it wasn’t because she was fed up with doing the dishes.
Josephine Cochrane, a wealthy socialite from Illinois, came up with the invention in 1886 after she grew exasperated at her servants’ habit of breaking her fancy china. The idea took time to catch on, initially with hotels and large restaurants. It wasn’t until the 1950s that dishwashers started to get attention from the general public as household appliances.
They didn’t get much interest in China, however. People thought the home appliance was wasteful both in terms of electricity and floor space. Households were also sceptical that a machine would do a better job than a pair of hands in scrubbing dishes clean.
In 2012, just 100,000 dishwasher units were sold in the country. By 2015 it was still very much a niche market, selling just 200,000 units. By last year, that figure had gone up to 1.9 million units. Sales in the sector were said to be Rmb10 billion ($1.57 billion), though industry observers highlight how the majority of these units were destined for export. Compared with the 80% household penetration rate in some developed countries overseas, dishwashers were only available in about 2% of Chinese homes, says Yidian Caijing.
However, sales prospects may be improving. As more young people work longer hours, many say they are too tired to wash the dishes. Others say changing attitudes to household roles are intensifying disputes between couples over who should do the work. Household appliance maker Robam is hoping that this change in sentiment will encourage more people to buy dishwashers. Ren Fujia, the company president, has long wanted to revolutionise the sector. After serving as an OEM for foreign brands for many years, Robam wondered why the machine didn’t have more devotees in China. To that end, Ren set out to design “dishwashers that are more suitable for Chinese kitchens”. As part of his research he found that kitchen cabinets in China are generally shorter than those in the West. So the first change he made was to reduce the heights of his dishwashers.
It doesn’t sound like a major transformation but just changing the dimensions took Ren four years to complete as Robam had to develop new parts for the smaller machines. Ren also added special racks for pots and pans, with designs that allow dirty dishes to be placed under larger pots to maximise real estate.
Another brand Viomi has even released an ‘AI-powered’ dishwasher. The machine, which costs from Rmb2,789 (depending on the size), claims to control the door release at the end of the drying cycle in a way that lets in fresh air. That helps moisture to escape, and in turn, dries the dishes without the need of a vent, fan or heating elements, rendering it more energy-efficient. Other ‘artificial intelligence’ technology detects how dirty the dishes are and thus determines washing cycles.
Household appliance giant Midea has also released a new line of dishwashers that uses UV-LED steriliser technology to eliminate germs and bacteria. Its most high-end model, which sells in shops for Rmb6,599, is a sleek machine with powerful, three-dimensional jets and 85-degree high-temperature drying.
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