Hand-crafted appliances in these days of software-controlled robotics might, at first glance, appear to be somewhat anachronistic – but it’s the method of choice for this manufacturer of high-end aesthetically appealing appliances for the home, says Bob Lewis, assistant vice president, product development and support for Diamond Bar, Calif.-headquartered Dacor. “Our reputation for engineered performance was built on the quality of our innovative products, which are hand-built,” Lewis says. “When you visit our factory, you won’t see a lot of robotics and each of our employees takes a lot of pride in the products they produce.”
What visitors will see are experienced employees who are “virtual craftsmen in the way they produce Dacor products,” Lewis says. “Our dealers are surprised that they don’t see a quality inspector, clipboard in hand, at the end of each assembly line. This is because everyone on that assembly line is a quality inspector and if they see something is wrong, they have the ability and obligation to do something about it right then and there.” All employees are shareholders and are part of Dacor’s Employee Stock Ownership Program.
Dacor designs and manufactures wall ovens, cooktops, ranges, microwaves, warming ovens for indoor and outdoor use, outdoor grills, ventilation, dishwashers, and accessories. Including its corporate headquarters in Diamond Bar, Dacor operates about 500,000 square feet of space in seven facilities; its manufacturing operations are located in City of Industry, Calif. It markets its products through a network of dealers.
Cooking with Gas
“We are a fast-moving and innovative company,” Lewis says, adding Dacor partners with its suppliers, who offer their expertise when Dacor invites them into the new-product development process. “Many companies develop new products starting with a selling price and then work backwards to determine what their manufacturing cost needs to be to get that selling price. Then, based on that manufacturing cost they can determine what features they can afford to put into their appliances.”
Dacor’s approach is 180 degrees from that concept, Lewis says. “We look at what features our customers want and if a feature doesn’t have a real use – if it’s just bells and whistles – we are not interested,” he says, adding every feature needs to make the product perform better. “So we examine the set of features we want to incorporate into a product and we consider whether it’s to be a unique product that no one’s ever done before – or a product that will leapfrog the competition,” continues Lewis, noting Dacor has several patents on its features. Dacor aims to be the first in the industry as much as possible, but Lewis says this is becoming more and more of a challenge now because of the tight competition in the industry. “Once we’ve developed a set of specifications we start looking at where our cost is going to be – but that is really a bit further down the line in the process.”
The process of determining which features to include in a new product is a multi-faceted approach, which includes input during focus groups from professional chefs and customers, Lewis says. Dacor has been offering a dealer training program for about seven years now at its training headquarters in Diamond Bar. “They spend a few days here using the products and an important part of that process is their feedback,” Lewis says. “We ask them what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong – not only in developing our products, but in our business operations in general. The good news is our dealers are not afraid to tell us that our baby is ugly if they see a problem with one of our products.”
Dacor moves quickly, although it’s been more challenging as the company grows, admits Lewis. “But the fact remains that we still move a lot faster than the larger companies,” he says. “Speed-to-market helps when you have a new idea. If it takes you over two years to move from the idea phase to getting your product into a box to ship out, you lose. So we stay fleet of foot.”
Aesthetics have always been a signature component to Dacor’s success and have been the vanguard for the industry, Lewis says. “We really changed the face of the industry in 1992, when we introduced a curved wall oven – because if you look at the competition’s products over the last five years, you will find that virtually every company has designed their ovens with similar curved wall ovens,” he says. The control panel and door handles are curved outward, adding another dimension to the look and feel of the product, Lewis says. “Although it was aesthetics that drove that design, it also provided the correct ergonomic reach.”
“It was a radical concept when we introduced it to the marketplace – but when we design new products, we want to give consumers designs that will not date themselves too quickly because people hold onto their appliances for a decade or two – so we want to give them products that will look fresh for years.”
Although the packaging is pretty and pleasing, it’s really what’s inside that counts – and that is the Dacor technology. One of Dacor’s quality assurance tests – involving its Pure Convection™ – includes baking six racks of cookies at one time in one oven cell. “This is a rather impressive and challenging test,” Lewis says. “The reason we demonstrate it is because if you can bake six racks all at once with even heating throughout the oven cell, one or two racks of cookies is a piece of cake.”
Pure Convection is a four-part system using an element in the back of the oven (not in the oven cell), that resides inside a baffle. Air is pulled in from the oven through a filter and then the air is fan-blown across a heating element. The air is channeled back into the oven cell through the baffle. “This is where a lot of the art takes place,” says Lewis. “The challenge is getting the right balance of air flow with a good horizontal air flow that’s required to do multi-level cooking with even oven temperatures throughout the cell.”
This was a challenge conquered by a lot of science. “In our development phase, we put thermocouples inside the oven and we measured 54 test points,” explains Lewis. “We wanted to test what the temperature was anywhere in the oven cell with relation to anywhere else in the cell.” Dacor ovens banish the typical “temperature swings” common in other ovens, in which temperatures can drop and rise as much as 50 degrees as the oven tries to maintain a specific temperature.
One of Dacor’s newest product launches is its 30-inch dishwasher. “This is the industry’s first 30-inch dishwasher, which holds 40 percent more capacity than the standard 24-inch dishwashers,” says Lewis. The dishwasher market is relatively new for Dacor. “The reason we entered this market was really because of customer demand – our customers want us to provide entire kitchens.” The company’s goal is to do just that and some of its intensive research and development includes refrigeration products. “This is the key missing link in our repertoire and we know we need to provide these products to our customers, who have been asking for these products,” Lewis says.
Dacor will continue to introduce innovative products to the industry. “We continue to break new ground when we go for UL agency approval,” Lewis says. “For instance, our ranges have a gas broiler inside a self-cleaning electric oven. No product like that had ever been introduced and so UL had to rewrite their standards.”The close relationships Dacor develops with its employees and its dealers is the reason for its growth over the past 30 years. “We have had compound growth in excess of 30 percent annually and that’s because of our commitment to innovate and the fact that we can’t do all of this alone,” Lewis says. “We can’t do all of this without our dealers, suppliers and our associates.”
In fact, Dacor is proud of its tradition as a good corporate citizen, employing high values, nurturing respect for others, and doing good work. “We have over 500 employees here from 26 different countries and many religions are represented in our company – so we encourage people to honor God, whoever that may be for each individual,” Lewis says. “It forms the base of the subset of actions and helps keep us on course.”