The world’s smallest washing machine

You’re at a wedding reception, toasting the happiness of the bride and groom. The guest nearest you bumps your elbow and … Oops, now your cream-colored blouse has wine-colored highlights.

But instead of covering up the stain with a shawl and hoping nobody notices, you slip into the restroom, whip out your hand-held washing machine and put it to work. Presto, you’re back in the party action, good as new.

Fantasy? No longer, thanks to Haier Asia’s Coton, a “handy washer” developed by two Japanese engineers from the now-defunct Sanyo Electric who these days work for Haier Asia, a Tokyo-based subsidiary of Chinese home appliance maker Haier Group. Haier acquired Sanyo Electric’s white goods business in 2012, along with the services of Masaru Noro and Masahiro Naito — the brains behind the Coton.

Noro and Naito combined their expertise to develop the innovative gadget, which has proved a hit with consumers in Asia.

The Coton, known as the Codo in China, South Korea and India, is a cylinder measuring 4.6cm in diameter and 17.6cm tall. It weighs just 200 grams. The device is simple to use: Apply a bit of detergent to a stain and press down on the cylinder. The cylinder head vibrates about 700 times a minute, squeezing out the stain. It takes just a spoonful of water — about 5cc — and around 30 seconds to remove a spot.

Agitating for change

The story of the Coton dates back to November 2013, when engineers from Haier’s head office and group companies around the world gathered in the northeastern Chinese city of Qingdao to show their colleagues what they were working on. An engineer developing washing machines at the head office told a participant from Japan that there was strong demand in China for a small stain remover, since it was not customary for Chinese households to do laundry daily.

After returning home, the Japanese engineer consulted with Masaru Noro, manager of Haier Asia’s washing machine development team. While at Sanyo, Noro became an expert on commercial washers. The request from the Chinese engineer set Noro’s mind to work. He began his research by visiting three manufacturers of stain removers used by commercial cleaners. That proved to be a dead end; the machines were too large, and could not easily be applied to devices for home use.

But Noro did not give up. He bought a number of household stain removers for clues on how to proceed. After two months of trial and error, he focused on the beating action of laundromat washing machines, which remove spots in part by physically knocking them loose from clothing. Armed with this knowledge, the team at Haier Asia began trying to come up with a washer head and a drive unit that could mimic this beating action, but be incorporated into a small device.

Japanese engineers developed three new test models in May 2014, but they had no plans to commercialize the technology, which they saw as purely experimental.

The turning point came later that month, when Haier Asia President and CEO Yoshiaki Ito had a look at the test models. “The world’s smallest washing machine should have strong appeal,” Ito declared. “Let’s commercialize it soon for consumers and sell it in Japan, too.” Noro was charged with coming up with a product that would be ready to market within six months. Typically, it takes two years to develop new household appliances.

That was where Naito, manager of the company’s household washing machine group came in. He joined the team, making several suggestions. The body was made from aluminum, rather than resin, and given a corrosion-resistant finish and a glossy color. Naito took the Sony Walkman, a pioneering portable music player, as his inspiration in designing the device.

When the parent company began taking preorders online in China, they received 30,000 on the first day. The device is also popular in India, where water is expensive. It will go on sale in Indonesia and Vietnam in 2016.

“With the Coton, which enables people to clean clothes anywhere, it is possible to change laundry culture,” Naito said. His colleague Noro was equally enthusiastic, saying, “I would like to try to create more new things through exchanges with other parts of Asia.” With a bit of creative flair and ingenuity, the Coton may be just the start of a virtuous cycle.

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