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Business trends

China gets cozy with smart appliances

Internet-connected fridges, toilets and mirrors showcased in Shanghai

Chinese home appliance maker Midea Group exhibits a robotic medical device and other products at the Appliance & Electronics World Expo, held in Shanghai. (Photo by Wataru Kodaka)

SHANGHAI -- How would you like a refrigerator that lets you check its contents from a supermarket with a smartphone? What about a robot that cleans your high windows?

At a recent international exhibition of the latest household appliances here in China's leading commercial city, all manner of wondrous, internet-capable "smart" devices were on display for those seeking the latest standards of home convenience and comfort.

Chinese home appliance maker Haier Group showcased a refrigerator that categorizes items such as juice, vegetables, meat and others, using a feature similar to facial recognition technology. Users can check the list of those foods with a liquid crystal display panel on the refrigerator door, or by a smartphone to make appropriate shopping decisions. 

Panasonic Appliances (China) Managing Director Wu Liang

Haier is also developing a system to have food items automatically restocked before they run out, or before they reach their expiry dates. The company is exploring the possibility of integrating this system with food delivery services already common in urban areas that ensure fresh food is delivered within about 30 minutes of orders being placed by smartphone.

Another Chinese company, Midea Group, displayed robots that clean homes and wash windows. The company's booth was filled with visitors.

Panasonic of Japan showcased a "smart mirror" that allows users to check their health while checking their appearance. The company also had an electronic toilet seat that checks body weight and fat percentage and analyzes urine.

All of these companies are looking to grow their presence in China's rapidly expanding market for specialized, connected devices and services. From shared bicycles to smartphone payments, China's consumer market is evolving in multifarious, unexpected directions. In home appliances, entrepreneurs and engineers compete for the next great idea in internet-connected products.

At the Appliance & Electronics World Expo which took place March 8-11 at the Shanghai New International Exhibition Center, around 800 companies from around the world showcased their wares, drawing a total of about 250,000 visitors. The Chinese word for "smart" was prominently displayed on all manner of internet-connected devices and appliances.

According to market research company China Market Monitor, the household appliance market in China expanded 9.8% in 2017 from the previous year, to 1.73 trillion yuan ($270 billion). It was the fastest pace of growth in four years, thanks to rising incomes and brisk replacement rates for high-performance products. From 2014 to 2016, the market grew just 3% to 5% annually.

"In particular, young people born in the 1990s have reached the age of marrying and buying homes," said Panasonic Appliances (China) Managing Director Wu Liang. "They have strong demand for home appliances to upgrade their living spaces." 

Wu said his company is primarily targeting households with annual incomes of 250,000 yuan or more, an estimated population of 400 million to 500 million people

Many of the products Panasonic had on display, including some cutting-edge kitchen devices, were aimed at improving the functionality of living spaces such as kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms. Some features on its electronic toilet seat were developed by the company's Chinese unit. Users urinate on a thermometer-like device that produces data on protein content or blood traces. The data can then be managed on a personal computer or a smartphone. Eventually, a system may be developed so the data can be sent to health care facilities.

Midea, which acquired German robotics maker Kuka in 2017, also showcased a product for the medical field. An ultrasonic device attached to an industrial robot developed by the new subsidiary facilitates remote medical care, including patient examinations with the doctor remotely controlling the robot arms.

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