You probably use an oven, refrigerator, or dishwasher every day, but have you ever thought about how appliance handle design has changed over the years?
If you take a moment, you’ll likely be able to easily recall the difference between your grandma’s 1970 wood-grain oven range pull handles and today’s curved, ergonomic stainless steel refrigerator handles. Like most consumer products, appliance handle design evolves to align, and in some cases define, the aesthetic styling of its day.
Let’s take a look back at some of the iconic appliance handles produced over the last 50 years.
The ’60s — Peace, Love & Roll Forming
We begin our story in the 1960s. America had recovered from World War II and, as a result, there were more new families than ever before — families that were buying appliances in droves.
1960s appliance handle design was characterized by simple, chrome-plated designs that were easy to manufacture. Though utilitarian in design, these cost-effective pull handle designs featured slightly bent ends for some aesthetic interest. Interestingly, these exact handles are still used today on many lower-end oven models. Also of interest is the creator of these drawings — Herbert Mills, the man who founded our company in 1948.
Roll forming is a manufacturing technique still commonly used today that involves the continuous bending of long strips of metal. The metal passes through a series of stand-mounted rolls, with each roll incrementally bending the metal until the desired shape is achieved. Even today, roll forming is often the preferred method for manufacturing a large quantity of simple-shaped parts.
The ’70s — Customizable Standardization
We learned a lot about appliance handle design from our decade of roll forming. The ’70s introduced a new manufacturing technique that allowed our engineers to manufacture different sized handles using the same basic design. Dubbed “Type T,” these handles could be lengthened or shortened to accommodate the appliance, making them ideal for both ovens and refrigerators. Type T handles were roll formed and included zinc chrome plated end caps and bright chrome to match the aesthetics of ’70s appliances.
Another child of the ’70s, this unique pull handle was a major innovation for Mills Products. Instead of using a single piece of roll formed metal like previous handles, this handle combined a top W-shaped section and a bottom U-shaped section into a single assembly. The W-shaped section would be finished in chrome and the U-shaped section would range from vinyl clad (black) to wood grain. This contrast gave the handle a nice, decorative look that was indicative of ’70s appliances.
The ’90s – Mills Products Makes Hydroforming History
In 1995, Mills Products changed manufacturing forever by producing hydroformed appliance handles. Our client was looking for a cost-effective way to design a beautifully curved, one-piece cold-rolled steel handle. Roll forming and casting were not options; this handle design would require a completely new way to manufacture.
Hydroforming, a method of die forming that is used to shape and expand ductile metals through the use of high-pressure fluids, was a relatively new technique in the ’90s. Hydroformed parts offered significant weight reduction opportunities, excellent bending and torsional stiffness, and thin tubing capabilities along with aesthetic characteristics not previously achievable. It had gained traction as a low-cost solution for automotive parts, but was unproved in the appliance industry.
Hydroforming was relatively new so engineers were unsure of its true capabilities and how to overcome its design limitations.
The part below features curved ends that were extremely difficult to manufacture inexpensively. Traditional castings were being utilized but the parts were expensive. Hydroforming could theoretically be used, but the large expansion of the metal necessary to achieve the desired curve would ruin the structural integrity. Anything beyond a 30% expansion of the metal would compromise the strength of the base metal. At the time, hydroforming could not successfully achieve the required tolerance due to friction limitations of hydroforming lubrications.
Our engineers experimented with different lubrications to find ways to optimize the hydroforming process. We utilized an entirely new putty lubricant that was capable of expanding the metal with very little friction. The real key to success was the utilization of sequential infeeding/pressurization in conjunction with suitable lubricant. Not only were we able to achieve the 30% expansion, we reached 40% in 304 stainless steel without compromising metal strength. This was truly a first in appliance handle design and manufacturing and has yet to be replicated by our competitors.
The 2000s – Modern-Day Appliance Handle Design & Manufacturing
First there was roll forming. Then hydroforming allowed us to introduce more complex handle designs. Now, modern appliances are employing more striking designs — designs that can’t be achieved cost-effectively using previous manufacturing methods.
Though traditional stamping is not often the first choice in handle manufacturing, tubular stamping has expanded our handle design possibilities. Tubular stamping is a relatively new technology capable of producing complex, tubular shaped-parts. Tubular stamping can achieve varying shapes (round, oval, square, etc.) and diameters with high strength-to-weight ratios more cost-effectively than ever before.
The part above, featuring a small, thin end radius and large footpad, could not have been manufactured using hydroforming. Tubular stamping allowed us to meet the client’s specifications to the letter, including the unique slide-on design that has replaced traditional handle attachment methods in some applications. With the slide-on, part maintenance is easier than ever — simply slide off the old handle and replace it.
This project was so successful, we’ve shifted the majority of our handle manufacturing to tubular stamping. Tubular stamping also allows us to include value-added features such as hemmed edged and coined shapes.
The Future of Appliance Handle Design
With aesthetics becoming a larger priority for appliance manufacturers, it will be important for design engineers to work alongside contract manufacturers to achieve the best results possible.
Our engineering team can help you meet your form, fit, and function to help cut costs and improve part strength. We’re the largest manufacturer and supplier of stainless steel handles in North America and are ready to use our design expertise to help you.
So if you need help with appliance handle design or manufacturing, please contact us or call us at 423-745-9090.