Stripped Down Design for Steam Irons
This week we’re looking at steam irons, wrinkles, and design. Probably every industrial design student has had a go at designing this ubiquitous consumer product – it’s been around a while.
2000 years ago, the Chinese were taking hot coals from the fire, throwing them into a metal pan and applying pressure and heat to flatten out their garments. From the 17th century solid slabs of iron called ‘sad irons’ (how ironic!) were being heated in the fire and then presumably left sooty trails across the fabrics. The Chinese method is still used today in parts of India due to frequent power outages but nowadays burning coconut shells are the heat source.
The industrial revolution brought electricity and the first semblance of what we still use today. The invention of this is credited to Henry Seeley of New York in 1882. He beat the French by a whisker who in the same year came up with an iron heated by a carbon arc which was too dangerous to be used.
Steam came in in 1926 but some innovation was needed to make it a commercial success a decade later when the Steam-o-Matic Corporation of New York was born.
Frankly not a lot has changed in the last 100 years but the design community still manages to generate revenue from redesigning century old concept to satisfy the needs of consumers with ever smaller incremental change and to find that sliver of a competitive edge that can mean a market leading position.
Certainly, there are many other areas of the kitchen that haven’t changed much in design terms. Ovens have come along a very similar pathway to irons and now we even have steam ovens. The big change in ovens was of course the microwave which was famously an accidental invention during the development of radar in world war two.
So, if you are on the hunt for genuine innovation in a highly mature product area like this here’s a useful technique that’ll help. I call it the strip down method and basically what you do is deconstruct the function and science of the product to understand the core technology at an almost molecular level. In this way, you can challenge many of the underlying assumptions that have remained untouched for decades. In the case of the steam irons it’s a matter of understanding those annoying wrinkles in your shirt which at the molecular level are caused by weak cross links between the long molecular chains of the fabric. It is interesting to note that wrinkle free fabrics achieve their special properties by bathing the fabrics in urea-formaldehyde which is also used for embalming dead bodies.
The key act of ironing is to apply heat to the unwanted crosslinks to allow them the break and reform in a straight wrinkle free line. The steam and moisture have nothing to do with except that steam is an excellent way to get the steam into the middle of the fabric fast. So, if we could develop new ways of heating the fabric through without the steam we might be onto some interesting new innovation – microwaves perhaps?
Being able to iron effectively without turning your room into a sauna would be a welcome improvement!
As always, we would like to hear from you, so feel free to leave your comment below or contact us if you have any questions.