Turning the tap on digital bathrooms

12 June 2017

In our rapidly evolving world, an increasing number of products are either connected to the internet or wireless, so we take a look at the one room in the house we thought would be sacrosanct, the bathroom.

We are familiar with telephones, TV and music being available in luxurious hotel bathrooms and this has slowly migrated into the domestic environment. But another revolution is also adapting, moving control of various taps and temperatures away from mechanical objects we physically turn, to elegant touch panels and proximity sensors that activate when we are near.

Part of what’s known as “The Internet of Things” (IoT), this technology is connecting the world like never before. Low-cost sensors coupled with wireless technologies are bringing everything online. Devices communicate with each other on the home network or via Bluetooth, sharing information, transferring files and digital media, and providing remote access and control for domestic appliances. This means that increasingly more ‘connected home’ devices such as heating, lighting, security systems – and now, bathroom appliances – can be controlled remotely by a smartphone, tablet or computer, usually via an app.

Already firmly a reality in sectors such as automotive and kitchens, our recent experience and our patent research (including data from 1995 – 2015) shows IoT technology is starting to permeate into bathrooms. Although the numbers aren’t huge at the moment, the rapid increase year on year of patent filing activity shows this is a trend that is only going to increase as homes around the world become smarter and more connected. By researching what patents in this sector are being filed, we can create a picture of what products and innovations will be driving customer demand in the next few years.

The main players in the field, with five or more patent families in their portfolio being classified as electronic control for bathrooms, are summarised in the table below:

loT table 1

Masco, a large US building supplies company, owns the bathroom equipment brands Hansgrohe, Behr and Bristan, amongst others. Grohe is a German company specialising in high-end and designer bathroom fixtures and fittings. Similarly, Kohler Mira is a UK-based plumbing company best known for its brand of Mira showers and Hansa, part of the Oras Group, is a supplier of high-end fixtures and fittings for bathrooms and kitchens in Europe.

loT table 2

The levels of patenting in this niche sanitary-ware control sector are modest, but have been increasing steadily. It is interesting to note the direct effects of recessions on the patent activity of these suppliers, as the building trade is often the first affected industry. There are noticeable reductions in filing activity around the early 2000s recession and the global downturn of 2008.

The main thrust of innovation is in no-touch sanitary-ware for public washrooms. These enable taps to dispense a predetermined amount of water and toilet flushes to operate automatically without any user input other than waving a hand near the sensor. Such innovations increase hygiene, reduce maintenance and reduce opportunities for vandalism or damage.

Some of the main problems being tackled in this area include improved sensors which can differentiate the signature (either light or heat) from a person from the background noise in the washroom area, give more reliable operation and reduce the power requirements for controls so they can operate over a long lifetime on battery power.

More recent innovations go beyond simply turning taps on or off automatically, they include effects such as LED mood backlighting for shower cubicles (US20150221206A1 Masco), remote wireless temperature control panels and algorithms, and controlling mixer valves to deliver precise temperature water to sinks or baths (US2014359935 Masco). This concept can operate the tap via an actuator and control the flow and temperature in a bathe-by-wire arrangement, controlled by the intelligent logic unit.

Bathrooms figure 1

Grohe (EP1964985A2) envisages a touchscreen control or keyboard interface being associated with its electronic valve arrangements. The user will be able to select functions of the outlet such as bath or shower mode, and then select the associated temperature.

Bathrooms figure 2

Hansa has been interested in the gesture control of shower cubicles (EP1362960), using arrays of proximity sensors. Usually, proximity is used simply to turn water on and off, but by taking this further and having a matrix of such sensors, it enables gesture control of flow and temperature. More recently, Hansa has looked into the use of touch control using capacitive or piezo-based sensors embedded in the control panel (EP1662056).

Bathrooms figure 3

On the topic of elegant touch controls, Aquis Sanitaer (WO2009003716A1) describes an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) flexible display which overlays the buttons. The flexible nature of the display allows it to transmit button pushes to the sensors below.

Bathrooms figure 4

As the costs of energy continue to rise, and homeowners monitor their energy usage, there is a role for ‘connected home’ bathroom technology in helping people cut bills and save energy. For example, with technology we can ensure water is heated to the required temperature at the right time so energy isn’t wasted heating water when it isn’t needed and, similarly, proximity sensors could be fitted to ensure taps aren’t left running unnecessarily. We expect to see future innovation in bathrooms using IoT technology to help save energy, particularly with companies that invest in patenting clean technology able to access additional benefits from the UK Intellectual Property Office, which prioritises applications in this field, through their “green channel”.

As patent applications can take four or more years to be granted, the technology that we are seeing published currently may be incorporated into the next generation of products. Some technologies where patents are applied for may not make it into products at all. However, a brief look at some relatively recently published documents reveals some interesting themes.

1. Customisations
Kohler-Mira (US20150308089A1) describes a multi-gestural control system which can be accessed wirelessly by a control tablet or smartphone, in order to set specific user parameters of temperature limits and flow rates.

2. Modular wireless systems
Again, Kohler-Mira (US20150218784A1) describes a touch-sensitive graphical user interface for installation in a shower cubicle. The device can connect and control a number of wireless modular elements of the system from mixer valves, flow through to ambient lighting, or music or other electronic equipment.

Gojo Industries (US20140366264A1) describes an interconnected set of tap, soap dispenser and hand dryer. All devices are in wireless communication and therefore if installed in close proximity and one is deemed activated, it can send a signal to the other two to say they should not operate yet and thereby reduce false triggering.

3. Voice control
Panasonic has a published document (US20150066515A1) describing a kitchen tap able to respond to voice commands, in order to dispense precise amounts of water to aid in cooking and food preparation activities. As companies and inventors find new ways to use existing technology, we’re sure voice control will make it into our digital bathrooms of the future.

Andrew Flaxman

Andrew Flaxman

Partner

Our Expert
Andrew Flaxman
Andrew Flaxman
Location: Bristol (UK)

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