LG's bet to make "smart appliances" more than just a gimmick
Artificial intelligence that detects appliance breakdowns before they happen.
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Smart appliances are nothing new. As with most consumer products, the ubiquity of built-in WiFi and Bluetooth progresses steadily, promising a bold, yet decidedly unspecific, future of "connectedness."
LG's new ProActive Care is attempting to finally make good on some of that promise by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to zero in on one of the biggest pain-points in appliance ownership: services and repair.
Why troubleshooting is the "smart appliance" feature that actually matters
Broken or malfunctioning appliances are a fact of life for consumers. No matter how well built, those big metal boxes that get exceptionally hot, wet, or cold on a daily basis are going to break down eventually.
"Rolling a truck" out to your home—to quote the industry term—is just as much a frustration for appliance makers and retailers. Customer call centers are expensive to operate. Time spent traveling, diagnosing the problem, and perhaps waiting for replacement parts to arrive, is all money they'd rather not have to spend. Meanwhile, consumers may be without the use of a washing machine, oven, refrigerator, washer, or dryer for days.
While all major appliance brands have internet-connected appliances and a matching smartphone app, their focus tends towards add-on features that are easily explained in a bullet point: remote on/off control for your dishwasher, status updates for that load of laundry in the dryer, recipe suggestions for your oven, and so on.
Even the (arguably) most advanced smart appliance on the market—the Samsung Family Hub fridge—is more about extending the definition of "refrigerator" than it is about alleviating common consumer pain points. LG's ProActive Care, on the other hand, may not look like much on paper, but if it works properly, you'll be a happier customer for it.
What is LG ProActive Care?
ProActive Care is the branded term for a collection of efforts across LG to gain insight into how consumers are using its products, and then turning that data into customer service features that, ideally, make them easier or better to use.
Specifically, LG wants to identify user-solvable problems in the machine before they require professional service. If you can fix it, you won't need to wait around for the repair truck: a win-win for owners and appliance makers.
To collect that data, LG needed appliances that could regularly talk back home to its servers. Modern appliances were already packed with sensors to monitor performance, but three years ago, the company released the first generation of appliances to include WiFi. At the time, the consumer benefit of always-connected appliances was more potential than actual, and naturally it added to the price, but to LG, it was a start.
"Moving everything to a digital platform is a huge undertaking," says Joseph Yoo, president of LG Electronics U.S. Customer Service.
After three years and many connected appliances in people's homes (LG declined to share the actual number), the company has learned a lot about how we use them.
How does LG ProActive Care work?
Once you've granted your privacy consent, LG's connected appliances send usage data back to its servers. That data from all the sensors in the appliance are collected en masse by AI that analyzes patterns to try and predict breakdowns.
If your appliance hits a certain threshold that indicates a problem, you are alerted by email or through LG's smartphone app. The message explains the problem and includes articles and videos about how to solve it. If the problem is not user-solvable, you're provided with instructions on how to contact professionals.
Real-world appliance problems solved
At the time of writing, this is a partial list of appliance problems that LG ProActive Care can automatically detect.
- Washing machines oversudsing: Customers frequently use the incorrect amounts of detergent and/or water, which can result in clothes feeling dirty or irritating allergies after a wash cycle. Sensors in a connected washing machine are able to detect whether too much detergent has been used and alert the customer as to best practices. Note that new LG washing machines with auto-dispense will simply do this automatically.
- Washing machines that need cleaning: While it may seem counterintuitive, your washing machine needs cleaning too. Dirty washing machines can smell and underperform. LG states that 40% of the calls it receives about washing machines can potentially be solved by simply cleaning it.
- Blocked dryer ducts: Improperly-cleaned dryer vents are a leading cause of house fires. LG dryers are able to detect whether your duct may be blocked and alert you to clean them.
- Improper preheating in ovens: LG's data indicates that we are an impatient people who open the oven door too frequently during preheat. If detected, a message will be sent that, essentially, tells us to chill out and just wait for the beep.
The list is expected to expand as new data findings become available. Because appliances are connected, updates are automatic and backwards-compatible for most models already in customer's homes.
No smart energy usage, yet
The most obvious missing feature here is a tool that allows consumers to operate their appliances more cheaply and efficiently. Already, a number of energy service providers offer discounted rates for off-peak hours. A dryer that knows it's cheaper to dry those sheets and towels on a Sunday morning rather than Tuesday afternoon could be a huge boon.
LG states that it is exploring the idea of partnering with demand response data from energy providers, but has no announcements at this time.
LG ProActive Care data privacy concerns
Always-connected appliances that constantly ping the servers back home with data about us is not something that every appliance owner is willing to accept. For those who want a more private route, the appliance can be taken offline. In doing so, however, the entire feature—including safety warnings and service updates—will also be disabled.