Ever since its very first electric iron hit the domestic scene in 1910, Sunbeam has been a national leader in home appliances. A major reason for the company’s continued success has been its ability to adapt to change – to recognise consumer trends before most competitors and to set the pace with design and technology.

Nick Edmonds is Sunbeam’s principal designer and together with Design and New Product Development Director Chris Ware, leads the design team of Nick O'Loughlin, Mark Thomas, Ian Allan, Richard Harrod and Eric Rees.

But it wasn't until the early 1980s that the Sunbeam Corporation employed their first in-house design team with development staff historically chosen from engineering and drafting backgrounds.

In the 80s Sunbeam manufactured onsite at its Campsie factory in Sydney and with the arrival of an in-house team, designers were able to interact on the factory floor, witnessing first hand how their products were produced and assembled and speeding up the development process.

The company’s recent move to new premises at Botany in Sydney has provided an even greater opportunity to position the design team at the centre of its operations.

The dedicated design team is physically located between the technology and marketing departments. Although Sunbeam no longer have manufacturing on-site, the team regularly visit their suppliers' factories where their products are being made.

According to Edmonds, design is a core function of Sunbeam’s business model and fits comfortably into the company culture.

“Our studio is physically located between marketing and technology. This reflects how closely we work with these two areas. Our success is based on involving everyone in the product development process, encouraging feedback and ideas from informal meetings and discussions.”

“Design and technology are seen as the core competencies of the business. Designers are involved ‘from the ground up'.

"We may see the need for a certain product, then go about determining if it should be designed in-house or sourced from a specialist supplier. Our decision will be based on whether we can 'value add' by using an in-house design and use our knowledge about designing more complex products.

"Our ultimate goal is to provide the customer with the best design solution possible plus benefit the supplier in terms of cost saving or ease of manufacture." 

Edmonds believes that around forty percent of the new products that Sunbeam releases every year are designed in-house by the team.

A large fully equipped prototype workshop, run by principal model maker Eric Rees, is used extensively to create models for the early stages of product development in order to assess form and ergonomics right through to working prototypes for market research. Sunbeam’s production partners also carry out prototyping in China.

The site also has a dedicated ‘test kitchen' and laboratory, complete with testing rigs to whet the appetite of any dedicated technologist. The facilities enable the team to conduct a multitude of tests such as life cycle and safety tests.

For example, appliances may be tested for thousands of hours, continuously, switching the power on and off to simulate real life conditions and assess degradation of materials.

All sourced products are pulled apart and rigorously tested and if necessary improved, to qualify for inclusion in the Sunbeam range.

“Our aim as a design team is to release innovative products that look stylish, have excellent performance and represent good value for money to the customer,” said Edmonds.

“We don't like unnecessary detail, our designs are not frivolous. We want people who buy our products to be proud to own a Sunbeam, and to keep that product for as long as possible.”

The design process

Designers at Sunbeam will typically formulate a brief for a product with marketing personnel and while there is not always time for formal 'brainstorming', those sessions may be used occasionally.

“We do initial hand sketches and then move fairly quickly into three dimensional models built out of timber and plastic. Having these physical models is a highly effective and efficient way of communicating with other team members and is a great way to test the ergonomics and feel of handles, controls and form,” said Edmonds.

“Marketing and sales staff sometimes don't know exactly what they want in a product until they can see it. A hard model is the embodiment of many ideas and helps us to achieve an overall homogenous look for the range.

"We have actively employed designers that have good workshop skills and enjoy getting their hands dirty at the front end of a project.

“Computer generated images can't easily give you the opportunity to touch and feel and interact with the products especially as the ideas are developing.

“The team will often set up the models on a table in the open plan studio to assess concepts in full view of both marketing and the technology group. The models may also be used for sales presentations if necessary."

Consumers and competitors

Sunbeam sees its target market as mostly female between the age of 25 and 45 years. 

“Many female customers of 55 and over buy Sunbeam because it's a brand that they have known since they were young,” said Edmonds.

“Our pricing is pegged at the mid to high range.The Sunbeam range is sold in both department stores and the big appliance retailers and we do not view our products as exclusive or expensive.”

Sunbeam’s customer service team collects data on consumer opinions and reactions to products. 

Designers are involved in briefing the team on product functions and capabilities. 

Sunbeam's major competitors are Braun, Kenwood, Russell Hobbs, Krups (coffee makers), Tefal (irons) and in the lower price point, Breville.

Production partners

Sunbeam no longer manufactures or assembles products in Australia. Instead the company uses strategic suppliers based in China. 

“Our suppliers are required to have good communication skills, a compatible 3D modelling software, a competitive pricing structure and they need to be located in a part of China that is easy to access,” Edmonds explained. 

“Suppliers are often chosen if they have experience in a particular appliance category and exclusive partnership arrangements are usually preferred.”

Apart from running the design department, Chris Ware, has the added task of sourcing Sunbeam’s suppliers which is often done via trade shows in the US, Germany and Hong Kong.

“Many of our suppliers are based in China and have offices in Hong Kong, where English speaking engineers act as customer liaison managers,” Edmonds explained: “Often we will travel to Hong Kong first to meet these managers and then travel to factories in China with them as a guide and translator."

For Sunbeam and many other local companies the internet has made an enormous difference, dramatically reducing the amount of travel required and increasing their ability to manage projects.

Edmonds travels once every 6-8 weeks, staying away for a week at a time and Ware travels once every 4-5 weeks. All of the design team travel to supervise and co-ordinate production and tooling, often managing three to four projects while they are away.

Lead times

According to Edmonds, development times have halved since Sunbeam started manufacturing overseas. A Sunbeam BBQ product, recently took only four months, from initial design briefing to production samples. Irons and some motorised products can take longer with an average lead time of around nine months.

"The reduced lead times have really allowed us to sharpen our reflexes when it comes to designing and delivering what the market wants very quickly," he said.

“Suppliers in China generally work very hard in order to keep their customers happy. Quality control has to be monitored. At Sunbeam we do a 100% audit of the very first shipment from a supplier and then we do periodic checks.”

Sunbeam is fully Australian owned and managed following a management buyout in the mid 1980s and a parting with its US parent company. As part of this corporate move, Sunbeam can only sell the Sunbeam label in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands.

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