The saucepan in your kitchen has, essentially, changed little since the days of the Romans.
The basic pot – with a hand to stop burns and scalds and a lid to help cook food faster – has been a kitchen staple throughout civilisation. And despite the huge advances in technology over recent time, we are using an implement our ancestors would still recognise.
Cookware’s last great revolution came back in 1938, when the non-stick coating Teflon was invented by accident by a US scientist. Since then, the saucepan has got thinner and better at conducting heat evenly, but it can still be unwieldy and difficult to strain, can burn food and the user – and must be constantly checked to make sure it doesn’t boil over.
All of which made London-based design firm Precipice think the saucepan was ripe for redesign in our Imagineering series. Headed by chief design officer Miles Hawley, the team – brand designer Ray Betts, project manager Lee Twycross, design manager Sarah Clark and intern Rob Simpson – decided to update the humble cooking pot for a far more technological age.
Their concept for a cookware for the 21st Century is known as Simr, and uses smart technology to alleviate some of the drawbacks of a simple saucepan. A “smart handle” (detachable if you need to put the pot in a dishwasher) has several modes to help prevent burning and boil-overs. The saucepan’s smart modes would include a timer, a weighing mechanism, a thermometer, and an alarm for when the pot boils over.
The pan is made of two layers, with the outside one angled to increase contact with a hotplate, and the internal one curved to make it easier to clean. Heat exchangers – like those currently used in camping stoves – separate the layers, heating the sides of the pan more evenly. The lid tilts, allowing food to be strained without having to transfer it to another container. The modular design, with the handle being interchangeable with different sized pans, would also help keep production costs down.
Here, Hawley tells BBC Future about the challenges of bringing one of our kitchen staples into a new age.
Why update the saucepan?
The saucepan is a fundamental tool used for a fundamental task. Every household has them, they are used on a daily basis and yet the design has hardly altered in hundreds if not thousands of years. Form, function, materials, ergonomics, storage and visual language have remained fundamentally unchanged since the Romans cast bronze and earthenware cooking vessels.
What are the flaws in the original design?
There are many design features that can be improved. Straining boiling water requires an additional accessory and can be fundamentally dangerous and difficult to control using a standard saucepan lid. There’s no timing facility, and the cooker hob often requires multiple timings for numerous pans and processes.
Utensil storage and management is rarely accommodated. There are poor ergonomics, as lids and handles are commonly bulky, heavy, and difficult to grip.
There is little innovation in visual language, and no status information or metric feedback; is it about to boil over? Boil dry? What’s the temperature? What do the contents weigh? When will the food be ready?
Also, the pans can be difficult and time-consuming to clean, and heating is often uneven, requiring continuous monitoring and management.
How did you address them?
Using our toolkit of advanced analytics we looked at consumer expectations, desires and concerns, together with discursive analysis (the conversations in culture), semiotic codes (clusters of visual meaning) and cultural/visual trends to identify key design opportunities. Our creative team investigated these opportunity areas, to focus and identify potential product solutions. Visual language, CMF (colours materials and finishes), human factors, and new technologies were incorporated to develop our vision of a 21st century intelligent saucepan – Simr.
How have you moved the design along?
Simr has a unique construction, using a distinctive mono-frame handle component, which allows for a twin-skin bowl assembly. This double wall thickness provides two main benefits.
Firstly, a heat exchanger is sandwiched between the layers, conducting the residual heat from the base efficiently up the pan sides. This gives even temperature distribution and creates an energy-efficient product. It also keeps the outside wall temperature low.
The twin wall also allows for a different profile on the inside and outside of the saucepan. The outside has a completely flat, right angled profile, i.e. no large radiuses at the corners as seen on conventional products. This gives maximum contact between the pan base and the heat source. On the inside we have designed a very generous radius allowing easy cleaning and stirring.
Other built-in features include an integrated display that provides live feedback on the temperature, weight and timing of the saucepan contents. Heat and temperature sensors also allow Simr to identify when the pan is about to boil over or boil dry, and actively warn the user. The digital screen is removable for dish washing.
We have integrated the use of a superhydropic coating to the inside of the pan. This uses emerging material technologies to provide a hyper-non-slip surface.
A unique tilting/straining lid, bespoke utensils, storage system, and contemporary aesthetics also make Simr a truly innovative product in this category.
What do you think your improvements are?
Improved heat efficiency, human factors, product safety, intelligent digital feedback and a new visual language. Essentially Simr has been designed to help improve cooking skills, reduce accidents, and make product care and maintenance easier, whilst providing a new design aesthetic resonant with modern living and advanced performance.
Where did the inspiration come from?
Culture. Combining consumer insight with desk research allows us to explore the cultural and physical limitations of current designs, as well as allowing us to understand the ways in which new cultural meanings can be utilised, blended and borrowed in order to create objects that resonate with consumers in the real world. But it is as important to look back at what has been, as it is to look at what is coming, as only this can help us interpret which trends will have traction in culture and which will simply be fads.
What other products – not necessarily related – influenced your redesign?
Camping stoves, 1950’s Scandinavian cookware, domestic interior design and contemporary consumer electronics.
What was the biggest challenge?
While consumers now expect products and devices to be "enabled" and expect continuous progression (such as the progress of the iPhones 3, 4 and 5) there is a parallel momentum towards the authentic and the manual (such as the resurgence of the interest in the processes and practices of baking). The saucepan has long been a relatively "dumb" object, simply a receptacle for contents rather than having any inherent power in its own right. As designers it can be tempting to laden devices with new technologies and materials, but with Simr we have been careful to include only technologies of true benefit; those that genuinely improve efficiencies and safety, and those that empower the user through information rather than automating and overly controlling or modifying the process. By keeping the meaning of the device the same, the product remains accessible to all, whether young or old.
How radically have you altered the saucepan?
The intension was to create a host of new innovative features and functions that allow the user to improve their mastery of cooking. The product aesthetics and product handling were kept intentionally familiar, whilst materials, construction, safety features and digital interface are all radically new in this category.
How easy will it be to produce?
Some elements are easily manufactured, and some more challenging from a technological and cost perspective. All Simr’s features are ultimately commercially viable, however our single vision has been developed to showcase a number of design improvements. In a commercial project it is unlikely that all these would be considered within a single product proposition. Some details will fall by the wayside due to budget, manufacturing and time constraints. It is more likely that the remaining lead features would be developed for a range rather than a single product.
What new technologies, if any, would it require?
All the technologies embedded within the Simr concept are currently available or under development. Thermally resilient sensors for temperature and weighing features, food-grade superhydropic materials, lid-tilting mechanisms, and cost-efficient assembly would all need development. Simr is a product concept, designed to illustrate how new and existing technologies could be used in the context of hob cooking.
What will it be made of?
The intension is to use conventional materials including steel and copper for their thermal and resilient properties. Touch points are moulded in colour-coded elastomers [elastic polymers] to provide better grip, visual reference points and insulated details. Internal surfaces are coated in a superhydropic coating giving best in class non-stick and easy clean properties. Aluminium is used for the handle for lightness and strength, and polycarbonates used for the scratch-resistant screen.
Will you be taking your design on from here?
Some of the thinking and basic product ideas may be useful with some of our commercial clients.