Measuring the world
On the test stand, the refrigerator has to put up with a lot. The robot grabs the door, opens it a little way at first and then flings it wide open with all its might. "Luckily, that won't happen in normal everyday use," admits Eugen Sättele. "In the crash test, however, the hinges have to demonstrate that they won't give way even under extreme stress, so the refrigerator won't become a hazard for the user," explains the head of Liebherr-Hausgeräte's product development testing area in Ochsenhausen, referring to one of the tasks in the development laboratory and testing area, where the robots hiss as they mistreat the refrigerator components. "We measure everything that could in any way matter to customers in everyday life," says Sättele. To this end, the testers examine all the refrigerator's functions – the mechanical aspects just as much as the controls and cooling properties. "The more we know, the better we can fine-tune the appliance."
The testing stations are as varied as the range of tasks and functions: In the sound chamber, for example, we measure the noises made by the compressor, while in the climate chamber we simulate an extremely wide range of ambient temperatures under which an appliance might be used, from Siberia to the tropics – everything is tested. At the same time, temperature sensors take measurements inside. The main thing is to achieve reliably cool temperatures everywhere.
The door to intelligent cooling is wide open
"Nowadays, a Liebherr refrigerator can do far more than just make things cold," says Sättele. Its intelligence is located mainly in a small, rather unprepossessing tool integrated in the control panel at the top of the appliance, the SmartDeviceBox. "We store vast quantities of information in it, while at the same time linking this to the Internet. The door to intelligent cooling is therefore wide open. And not only for new appliances. We can easily retrofit many models that are designed to be compatible."
In production, the procedure for filling the new appliances with knowledge works just as many schoolchildren wish it did: Plug in, wait 15 seconds – intelligent! "The SmartDeviceBox makes fridges connectable for control via mobile devices, thus enabling totally customised lifestyle and household management," enthuses Sättele. "It practically reinvents the refrigerator. And because it can be installed in a modular fashion, it can literally grow together with the appliance."
Mia can be voice-controlled and is constantly learning. Data and information are linked in the Cloud and made available to the user.
"Hey Mia, is there still milk in the fridge?" – "The inventory says there's one carton!" When Miriam Hunger talks to her fridge, she's not actually thirsty. She is a social-media expert and a member of the "digitalisation" team, which, like all the best start-ups, is conducting a brainstorming session, in this case on the future of "Intelligent Cooling", at a workshop run by Liebherr and its partner Microsoft at Kirchdorf an der Iller in southern Germany.
The friendly Mia, with whom Miriam Hunger has been chatting about the contents of her fridge, is the only one here in the brightly-lit open-plan office not to be armed with a laptop or tablet as they research, discuss and share findings. Mia is actually called MIA, and her name stands for "Media Intelligence Assistant" – a voice-recognition system that accesses global information on the Internet and in the Cloud. Mia is assisted by an object- and voice-recognition system. To help with this, there are cameras integrated in the refrigerator, and on its front there is a stylish microphone and loudspeaker unit via which Mia communicates in a pleasantly relaxed voice.
In the age of digitalisation and the networking of household appliances, the refrigerator that "thinks for itself" will soon change consumer behaviour. "We're already making preparations for it," says Miriam Hunger. As an active sportswoman herself, she takes a great personal interest in healthy eating to promote fitness. In the "Intelligent Cooling Think Tank", she is working on building up a database which collects as much information as possible about foodstuffs and their properties and possible combinations of different foods in recipes, and links these in a whole host of different ways.
"This means that we can talk to Mia and ask for all sorts of information," says Miriam Hunger. "It is a self-teaching system and knows how many calories are in an apple, what nutrients milk contains and how many eggs there are in an omelette recipe for two people. Mia also makes it possible to keep track of the contents of your fridge even while you are out and about and to make shopping lists – according to the tastes and preferences of the individual user." In this way, the fridge is able to play a completely new role in everyday life, says Hunger. "It changes from being a passive to an active companion on the road to a sustainable and healthy lifestyle."
Collaboration for a smart future
"A new age is just beginning," says Andreas Giesa, head of the "Digitalisation" project. "Digitalisation is rapidly changing the way we live and work. Combining domestic appliances such as refrigerators with artificial intelligence makes it possible for these appliances to get a much better idea of each individual's everyday reality. Their role becomes that of an interactive companion in daily life which can help to make life easier and simpler," says Giesa. Liebherr has assigned a team of 15 experts to help him achieve this. One of them is Steffen Jäger. The 29-year-old is an expert in digital media, apps and PIM systems. He is the team member responsible for the architecture and functionalities of the app for the intelligent refrigerator. "The Internet of Things means connecting smart devices to the Internet so that the technology can adapt itself to each person on an individual and flexible basis," says Jäger. "In this way, we can focus on the individual needs of consumers and actively support them in what they do.
Individual ways toward a smart lifestyle
The refrigerator uses networking and artificial intelligence to collate its "experiences" with the user and his/her particular needs. The SmartDeviceBox, together with object and speech recognition, enables humans and technology to develop in tandem. "Intelligent cooling" therefore paves new, individual ways toward a smart lifestyle. "In order to understand what in the end will actually provide the customer with a quantifiable benefit, we have deliberately not just brought together engineers and technicians. Rather, what we aimed to do was to bring together widely differing points of view and expectations of the appliance," says Giesa. "As in any start-up, the only thing that counts is passion for our shared goal."
What is on the agenda for the technofreaks in the workshop today are relatively unexciting but nonetheless important questions: What happens to data protection when consumers use apps and services in the data cloud? At what points are appropriate instructions and user guidance essential? "Data protection has a very high priority, particularly in Germany. We take this issue very seriously and work closely with Liebherr-IT on it," Giesa assures me. Each individual step in the licensing and authorisation procedure is therefore gone through with a fine-tooth comb and documented. "The consumer should feel at ease with the networking and be able to enjoy the added value it provides without worrying."
According to Giesa, "intelligent cooling" will fundamentally alter people's views about refrigerators and freezers. This applies not only to their use in private households. "Professional customers, such as laboratories, clinics and universities, often have particularly high requirements in terms of the safety and reliability of cooling appliances." For example, in terms of maintaining constant temperatures and monitoring these temperatures where sensitive drugs or vaccines are stored. Giesa does not envisage the "start-up" running out of work. "We're only just getting going," he says with a broad smile. It is obvious that he really enjoys working on innovations.