Courtesy of GE Appliances

GE Appliances placed a big bet on this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, renting 30 percent more space than last year, in part to allow professional chefs to churn out delectables in three working kitchens.

The Louisville-based appliance maker dispatched about 50 employees from across the U.S. to staff its booth and answer questions at the show last week. The company’s marquee product this year was the Kitchen Hub, a 27-inch touch screen tablet that allows consumers to video chat, control smart appliances and even continue binge-watching shows on Netflix, Amazon and other apps.

But the additional space the company occupied also enabled it to promote the variety of its products and brands — including GE, Haier, Profile, Cafe and Monogram. The company has been shifting away from a single GE brand toward multiple brands with separate identities and customers.

Shawn Stover

“Flexibility of choice is going to be key,” said Shawn Stover, vice president of GEA SmartHome Solutions, who helped introduce the company’s new products to the tens of thousands of CES visitors.

In total, the company displayed six kitchens — two  Profile, two Cafe, one Haier and one Monogram — including three in which professional chefs demonstrated induction cooktops and guided gourmet cooking thanks to GEA’s partnership with Hestan Cue, and showed off the versatility of Monogram ovens.

Stover old Insider that the company used the event also to show how smart appliances can make lives easier for consumers. The kitchen hub, for example, functions like a control center that enables consumers to operate electronic devices throughout the home, to issue voice commands to preheat the oven and to pull up recipes and video guides to make sure they’re not overcooking the scallops.

With GEA’s partnerships, appliances can communicate with ever more devices. For example, because of a deal with Sonos, GEA customers can get a notification that the washing machine in the basement has completed its cycle.

Global reach, capabilities

The kitchen hub’s journey, from origins to production, also demonstrates GE Appliances’ global reach and capabilities. The idea for the hub came from a Hackathon at FirstBuild, GEA’s subsidiary and innovation hub in Louisville, where designers envisioned a projector displaying recipes on a backsplash to help consumers improving their cooking skills. The project graduated to Appliance Park, where designers and engineers advanced the idea and added functions and features, including downward-facing cameras and Internet connectivity. The company will begin manufacturing the hub in a couple of weeks at one of its Haier facilities in China. The hub will arrive in showrooms in the U.S. in May.

Stover said that while voice applications, including appliance integration with Amazon’s and Google’s digital assistants, are becoming more mainstream, the potential of other aspects of the Internet of Things, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, have yet to be fully realized.

“There’s a lot of room for that to grow,” he said.

Stover said consumers likely soon will see ovens with sensors and cameras that will adjust heat type and output automatically to achieve the best results. Cameras also may recognize that you’ve put salmon on the cooktop and suggest potential recipes — perhaps narrowed down based on what ingredients the system detects in your refrigerator.

With about 6,000 employees at Appliance Park, GEA is one of Louisville’s largest employers. GEA spokeswoman Julie Wood told Insider via email this week that despite some headwinds, including “significant inflation” for materials costs and rising transportation and distribution costs, 2018 was “one of the best years in our history,” though she declined to provide details.

“The GE Appliances team has been focused on ways to mitigate the inflation while continuing to invest in innovative new appliances and find value for consumers,” Wood said.

The company announced in September that it would invest $200 million in Louisville and add 400 jobs on its laundry and dishwasher lines, focusing on innovation and connectivity. The project was part of a $475 million nationwide expansion in production and distribution capabilities.

Company officials told Insider at the time that efforts to modernize the company since its separation from corporate parent General Electric and its acquisition by China-based Qingdao Haier, have boosted its revenue and market share.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.