Pricewatch: ‘I’d hate to be the person who bought the cooker that Pricewatch built’
A visit to the Miele factory in Germany to build a cooker provided a glimpse into the world of the future consumer
“I join a team. They are all affable but I am clearly useless. An oven which should be built in minutes takes me a lot longer than that”
It was with a heavy heart that Pricewatch boarded a plane bound for Germany earlier this summer. The people at fancy-Dan consumer electronics maker Miele had invited us to their HQ in the most unpromising-sounding town of Gütersloh to build a cooker which would subsequently be shipped to some far-flung corner of the world.
In a moment of weakness we agreed.
The lengths to which we will go to avoid building anything – even the most simple flatpack shelving unit from our Swedish friends – are quite extraordinary, so when the day dawned it did not hold much promise. But, as is so often the case, we were wrong and rather than simply building a cooker we were brought on a journey into the world of the future consumer with a most philosophical guide.
His name was Andreas Enslin and he is Miele’s design director. In a small glass office at the heart of the company HQ, he starts off by saying that one of the big problems faced by 21st-century designers is complexity and how to streamline technology so it doesn’t completely bamboozle consumers.
He makes reference to touch-screen technology. More than a decade ago, Miele started using smart screens on its oven interfaces. To make the screens work, he first had to convince the company’s senior people it was the way forward and then the company had to hold consumers’ hands and lead them through what was then a brave new world.
“Our interfaces were considered groundbreaking so we had to look at how consumers would view a product that was effectively alien to them,” he says. “But then, within a year, the smartphone came along and now everybody is comfortable with the technology. Touch screens are everywhere and customers are now having to become more used to speech control. That is going to have a huge impact,” he says.
Not, perhaps as big an impact as artificial intelligence. There was a time when domestic electronics were largely stupid. But times are changing and it won’t be long before our washing machines, cookers, vacuum cleaners and fridges are smarter than we are. In some cases, they already are.
Enslin and his team were behind the Dialog oven launched at an elaborate affair in Berlin last year. At the launch, Dr Markus Miele, the chief executive of the company which bears his family name, said the new cooker could have a conversation with food. It is, he explained, programmed to understand the energy food has and it “measures and controls and regulates the cooking process”, depending on what it is cooking, to deliver perfect food all the time.
The Dialog is a big step along the road of making cooking high-end food effortless for even the most skill-challenged chef among us. At about €8,000, the Dialog is out of the reach of most of us but the Miele design team will inevitably roll out the technology developed in-house in more mainstream devices in the years ahead. “When things are difficult to do, you have to pay for that but as technology get easier, prices fall,” Enslin says.
“What we are looking at are guided cooking system,” he says. He believes the cookers of the near future will be watching what we do and when we go wrong will prompt us to change course, reminding us we need to add sugar to our crème brûlée or stir our soup more.
Enslin does not believe such cookers will make us infantilised or more stupid. “I don’t think it at all,” he says. “Look at navigation systems in your car or on your phone. Just 20 years ago we would have been able to reach the Italian coast in a car or find a hotel in a new town. But remember what that involved. There were maps and you had to ask for directions and you ended up going in the wrong direction sometimes. Was it better 20 years ago than it is now? No. It is the same with our technology. Once you know how to get to the coast or to your hotel you turn off the navigation system and once you know how to cook a certain dish you will be able to turn off the guide.”
When Pricewatch asks about built-in obsolescence, he plays down its significance. “It is not that products break down because engineers calculate precisely the hours that they can be used. But in one of our washing machines there might be more than 1,400 different parts and in the past there were maybe a few hundred parts so there are chances some parts will fail. For us, that means testing, testing, testing, You must always do the testing.
“I live in a world in the future and the things that we bring to market today are new to you but old for me,” he says. “The design team has to think 10 years into the future and some of the things we are working on now won’t come to market until 2028 or 2030.”
And what does 2030 look like, we ask. “The big thing is how technology will change society and how it will change our behaviour. It will give us more options and will change our values.” It sounds scary, we suggest. “We are the architects of our future and there is no need for fear. There was a time when people used to be scared of trains and they used to wonder if travelling on them was good for their health.”
After the trip to the future, I come back to the present and set off to do what I am here to do. Build a cooker.
I am walked through the Miele factory, which is as silent and as spotless and as supremely efficient as you might expect from a kingpin of German industry. By far the least efficient thing in the place on the day we visited was Pricewatch.
As we walk through the factory, just ahead of a large coachload of elderly German tourists here for a tour, we pass large soundproofed rooms dedicated to testing. The have devices designed to test hinges by opening and closing oven doors over and over again and others that have the sole purpose of pulling out oven shelves in exactly the way a consumer might. The shelves are weighed down by bricks to replicate a chicken – nothing is left to chance.
‘Fire and explosion room’
We pass the “fire and explosion room”, a bullet-proof room full of cookers slathered in beef fat, where Miele tries to cause fires. The ovens are set to self-clean at high temperatures in this safe space to make sure they can handle the heat. They can. “When we have a prototype that fails for whatever reason, we look at that very, very closely. We need to have process under our complete control,” my guide says.
We pass what looks to me like a very fancy touch-screen oven. Having heard Enslin talk of such things I want to have a look. The Miele people put it through its paces. Using the screen, you tell the machine what you are cooking – a chicken, for example – and you key in the weight and you press the button and the machine does everything else required to produce a perfectly roasted chicken.
“Ridiculous,” I think. “Where’s the excitement in that, the sense of danger that you might kill yourself by eating undercooked chicken or destroy it with overcooking?
We get to where the machines are built. There are no assembly lines in the traditional sense but little hubs where teams of five or six build ovens. They all perform all the tasks, which reduces incidences of repetitive strain injuries.
I join a team. They are all affable but I am clearly useless. An oven which should be built in minutes takes me a lot longer than that. Eventually, a fellow worker has to take over. He assembles the rest of the hideously complex machine faster than it takes me to say, “Sorry, where does this screw go?” It is probably just for the best. I’d hate to be the person who bought the cooker that Pricewatch built.