It’s certainly fun to unwrap holiday presents, especially those long-awaited tech-focused gadgets that make our lives simpler or more entertaining. But have you ever taken a moment to ponder exactly how those exciting new purchases get from the design stage to your doorstep? The intricate logistical ballet that must take place for a product to be ready for the marketplace when consumers are most ready to part with their hard-earned cash is the holy grail of retailers and product developers.
Last month, I explored exactly how things move from the design stage to the point of purchase by visiting the LG Signature factories in South Korea, where many of the brand’s most popular products are made. Among the products I got a chance to see inside were the LG Signature OLED TV (which can flex, can attach magnetically to walls, and is the width of just three credit cards), the LG Styler (which steam-refreshes clothes and is used in private homes, golf and health clubs, and hotel rooms worldwide), and an impressive LG Signature washing machine…
The journey of each product from ideation to your home can take years. Here’s what it looks like, as illustrated by the specific journey of the washing machine:
It all begins: Research and development
Focus group testing and consumer research, where the journey starts, are essential pieces of the LG pipeline. Explorations of the economic feasibility of a new product and marketplace needs begin as many as five years before a product is introduced for sale.
LG Signature, the luxury arm of LG’s line of products, focuses on creating aesthetically pleasing, high-quality products that eliminate any unnecessary accoutrement. The target is premium, high-end consumers, and so cost is less of a focus. Sleek and attractive showpieces are the goal.
In this research stage, LG Signature initially excludes engineers from its meetings so that it can explore genuine consumer pain points before addressing cost or development constraints. Once an idea is in motion—for a reimagined washing machine, for example—the manufacturing team enters the fold and uses detailed sketches to determine how thousands of individual parts will come together via orchestrated assembly lines.
The team must study everything from the weight and size of potential products (since items are shipped globally via freight planes, trucks, ships, and trains) to regional habits that can affect the way people in different parts of the world use and experience a new product. For example, LG Signature’s washing machine is produced with different styles of buttons and directions for use. Products headed for the U.S. have English words inscribed on the buttons, whereas Europe-bound products may have pictogram instructions since there are so many languages spoken within each specific region.
Early on, LG Signature’s washing machine research found that time-strapped families wanted a machine that allowed them to be more efficient while separating delicates from other items in the wash. The twin-wash system the team came up with features a standard compartment for clothes and a separate drawer for other items that can be washed simultaneously. If you find yourself saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” remember that the manufacturing team may not have thought of it either had the research phase not invited potential customers to discuss their pain points.
As another example, research participants said that they often didn’t know how much detergent to use for lighter loads, which was leading to extensive waste. The company responded by designing technology that tells users how much detergent to use depending upon the load that has been placed inside. Focus group participants were also irritated about not knowing how long it would take for a load to be finished, so designers created app technology that can sync with household items to alert users when a load of laundry is complete.
To the factory line…
The factory assembly lines are marvels of efficiency and years of careful study. In the case of the washing machine, it can take more than 80 white-gloved employees to yield one product. In the Changwon (South Korea) factory I visited, there are a dozen lines in each building dedicated to a different product.
Robots zip around the factory floor following marked lines on the ground to deliver equipment and parts between stations. But it’s not only machines that do the work, as there are 98 individual human tasks required to take the washing machine into its final form.
The people responsible for these tasks rotate positions to remain alert and on target. Quality assurance teams monitor the process and pull random items from the line to test them. Hanging overhead, large display screens provide information on the day’s production numbers, the number of detected defects, and progress toward daily production targets.
Production lines must operate according to a set schedule to meet hourly and daily targets. At predetermined times of day, the lights switch off across the factory indicating that it’s time for a mandatory break. At these times, employees can relax and eat. Taking care of employees is just as important to product quality as assuring that the assembly line is achieving goals at each stage of the process.
Boxing, delivery and ready for sale
Once fully assembled, each product is boxed up carefully. Special attention is paid to what appears at the top of the box (and so what will be seen first by someone opening the box for the first time) and protection against the damage that might result from all the possible ways the boxes might be stacked during transport. Filled and sealed boxes are then placed on trucks to be shipped or flown across the globe. Many of your favorite products have more frequent flyer miles than you do!
Before sending their new products overseas, companies are often required to send sample products to government inspection agencies for local compliance tests. This must be factored into the manufacturing and delivery time, and can range between a few weeks to as long as a year. It can take up to three weeks for some of LG Signature’s products to make the transfer from Asia to the U.S., where another few days are required for customs clearance. (Consider that the next time you’re deciding whether or not to pay for expedited shipping.) Once the item arrives at the store for sale, retailers must follow specific guidelines regarding how each item is displayed.
Finally, the washing machine is available for purchase—the culmination of the preliminary research, collaboration and hard work in a South Korean factory that began several years earlier. As the holidays approach, consider the journey that our washing machines, laptops, mobile phones, tablets, and wine coolers have made to bring a smile to the faces that get to unwrap them.
After purchase: A note on protection benefits!
Don’t forget that if you purchase items with certain credit cards, you’re eligible for substantial purchase protection benefits should any of your items malfunction or become lost or stolen within a set period of time (usually up to three to four months after purchasing a product). (Normal wear and tear or theft from an automobile are often excluded, however.) Additionally, some cards even extend the normal warranty life of certain products by an extra year as an added perk.
Purchase protection can typically cover as much as $10,000 per claim depending upon your credit card. This means that you’ll be fully reimbursed for the cost of a damaged item or provided with a replacement. Some cards with excellent purchase protection benefits include the American Express Gold Card and the United Mileage Plus Club Card.