We’re living in a golden age for small, single-purpose appliances

While the technology industry at large is hyping virtual reality and artificial intelligence, gadget-makers are scoring wins with countertop beer robots


The Bartesian cocktail-mixing appliance. (Bartesian)

Forget augmented reality glasses and artificial intelligence, the next holy grail products that big tech giants should be pursuing are… automatic beer makers and mobile nail printers?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The global market for small home appliances—which includes everything from toasters and kettles to coffee makers and toothbrushes—topped $60 billion (U.S.) last year and is growing by about 5 per cent annually, according to German analysis firm GfK.

While AR and AI are currently getting the lion’s share of the media attention, small home appliances are healthy and sustainable. They’re not a bad business to be in even if they aren’t as sexy, which is why it might be worthwhile for the likes of Samsung and Apple to look away from the hype for their next hits.

Product categories such as cordless vacuums and portable blood-pressure monitors are showing strong growth, GfK says, but there may also be surprises coming from several unconventional areas.

Automatic beer-making machines, for one, have the potential to become a sensation over the next few years.

A few startups, including Hungary-based Brewie and Seattle-based PicoBrew, are coming to market with machines that let users quickly make their own beer. Brewie’s machine costs about US$1,899, while PicoBrew is selling a home kit for US$799.

With tastes in many beer-drinking countries shifting away from mass-produced brands and toward craft brews, such products may find themselves in a perfectly timed window of opportunity.

The situation is similar with cocktail-making machines. Kitchener, Ont.-based Bartesian and California-based Somabar are just two startups that have created devices that can automatically mix up Manhattans, Cosmopolitans and other drinks in no time flat. Both companies are currently taking pre-orders at $299 and $429 respectively.

Mobile nail printers, meanwhile, are another category of products that could also potentially become hits, GfK says.

China’s O’2 Nails, for one, is pushing the idea of personalized fingernail designs delivered by an alarm-clock-shaped device.

The ArtPro Nail Printer, which sells for $780, can be programmed to print just about any design within seconds, with each nail costing about 15 cents to adorn.

Rather than boring old colours or basic designs, anyone wanting something more interesting could simply stick their fingers into one of these inkjet-printer-like devices for a few seconds. Having family members, friends, pets or even vacation photos inked onto your nails are all possibilities.

O’2 Nails is targeting beauty salons for now, but the technology is inexpensive enough – and bound to get cheaper – that it could find its way into homes sooner rather than later.

Taken together, these previously unimaginable futuristic curiosities could ultimately account for a good portion of the growing small appliances market. GfK estimates that about 10 per cent of the current market, for example, didn’t exist five years ago.

Robot vacuum cleaners are a great example. They weren’t available in China in 2014, but they have exploded since and now account for almost a third of the total vacuum market value in the country.

The same goes for connected toothbrushes and bathroom scales, both of which allow users to track progress through related smartphone apps. Neither existed in Germany or the Netherlands just a few years ago, but they now account for 17 per cent and 32 per cent of their respective markets, the analysis firm says.

It’s the circle of life, gadget-style. The nifty, futuristic-seeming inventions of tomorrow quickly become the dull and commoditized goods of today before ending up as the forgotten and obsolete relics of yesterday. Just look at the VCR, the CD or the iPod, all of which were once the epitome of technology but are now just so much landfill.

For the giant electronics manufacturers, the key to avoiding the down part of that circle doesn’t necessarily have to lie in continually thinking up revolutionary technologies and successfully brining them to market. Sometimes the big hits can be found in thinking smaller.

This article originally quoted the wrong price for the Brewie appliance. We regret the error.