GE's new Micro-Kitchen packs in everything plus the kitchen sink (hands-on)

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By the end of this year, GE's small-batch manufacturing site, FirstBuild, plans to meet its first challenge. The newly opened arm of GE Appliances and Local Motors on the University of Louisville campus hopes to foster innovation in a creative community of makers. FirstBuild provides resources and knowledge to ambitious inventors, both in person and online, allowing them to create prototypes of interesting products that might not otherwise have seen the light of day in a normal massive manufacturing environment. The first two challenges it hopes to tackle are micro kitchens and indoor grilling.

Now, GE has announced official plans to start manufacturing micro kitchens through FirstBuild by the fourth quarter of this year, and has announced availability only in the US. Aiming for an increasing number of millennials and baby boomers who have flocked to small urban-living environments, the design concept currently referred to as a "monoblock" will fit all of the functionality of a high-end kitchen into a single 6-foot-wide unit (about 1.8 meters), which can be customized to blend seamlessly with the cabinetry.

The current design for the FirstBuild Micro-Kitchen includes three columns that look like typical cabinets. The interior is anything but typical. On the right, a walnut cutting board covers a sink with a retractable faucet. Underneath is a high-end dishwasher. Move to the middle and you'll find compartments that serve as a freezer or a fridge, with the option to convert pieces back and forth as necessary. Finally, the left third houses premium cooking technology. The top has an induction heating element beneath an unbroken glass surface to allow cooking with any size and shape of pot. The middle pulls out an Advantium microwave. The bottom contains an oven with convection heating.

Refining the design

I got a chance to see the model version at the FirstBuild location, and opening drawers to find all of your normal appliances hidden away was a unique experience to say the least. The model wasn't a working prototype, as that's still in development. Even the concept and arrangement isn't necessarily set in stone. GE recently concluded an online micro kitchen contest, where contestants submitted concept ideas that were completely independent from the work FirstBuild designers were doing on the displayed monoblock. Now that GE's team has a concrete concept to work from with the monoblock, they hope to be able to use the ideas from the five winners of the contest to enhance the micro kitchen further. Which ideas they will integrate and how they will integrate them remains to be seen.

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The final product could be completely different from the current model. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Thus, in theory, the micro kitchen might eventually look completely different from the model I saw. If the existing configuration remains at all true to form once the project nears completion, the kitchen set is estimated to retail at about $15,000 (which converts to about £8,900 or AU$16,050). Interested parties will be able to preconfigure the exterior of the monoblock to match the design of their home or office, and can order it from FirstBuild or online. Additionally, GE plans to allow customers to customize their own configuration of modules if they so desire.

How much customization they'll be able to offer remains unknown. Perhaps you'll simply be able to downgrade certain elements from Advantium to a normal microwave, for example, to reduce the cost. Perhaps you'll be able to determine the arrangement of modules for yourself. In an ideal world, FirstBuild would like to offer you the chance to do all of that, and even decide which appliances you'd like to include. That might not be feasible from a retail or design perspective, but even if you can't fully customize the model you order, FirstBuild is happy to have your input now as they put together that first working prototype.

Open collaboration

Again, FirstBuild functions both as an in-person, and an online community. As they work to complete the micro kitchen, they are reaching out to both for ideas. Not only will they be trying to integrate ideas from the contest winners into the product, any interested party with a good thought can theoretically be heard, and it will help them prioritize what kind of functionality and arrangement they eventually need to produce.

Yes, the exact arrangement of appliances and which appliances will be included have yet to be finalized, but people can also pitch thoughts on how those devices can be controlled. Right now, three touchscreens sit beneath the top surface, one for each column. Whether those touchscreens stay, or get swapped for dials or buttons, or get even more advanced to allow for Wi-Fi compatibility, depends largely on what the community compels them to prioritize.

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GE wants to know how you'd like to control the micro kitchen. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Getting more advanced might be tricky, because for $15,000 for what they have now, GE is already limiting the appeal of its product to the most demanding of consumers. Micro kitchens of varying specifications can be had for around $2,000 to $3,000, but part of GE's goal with this monoblock is to compact a great kitchen into a small space.

Packing in premium

Advantium microwaves can cost a couple thousand dollars on their own. Induction cooktops offer faster and more energy-efficient heat than gas or electric, and convection ovens use fans to help your food cook evenly. Combine that with a pull-out faucet with a touch sensor for changing the water temperature, the convertible fridge and freezer unit, and the dishwasher, and you start to see the justification of the cost for the existing configuration.

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A premium microwave in a kitchen drawer. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Still, if you're a design-conscious gourmet cook, it stands to reason that you'll regularly need more space to keep refrigerated and frozen food than a couple of drawers. You also probably have room for a full-size refrigerator, as all but the smallest apartments can fit them, and if you can spend $15,000 on a set of appliances, you may not be living in the smallest of apartments. That said, the ultra-space-conscious might already make a habit of frequent grocery shopping for the freshest meals and be less interested in storage space.

Perhaps the final design will find a way to let you expand your space where you need it the most. You might swap out the fridge for something else, so at least you can store a normal amount of food in a separate cooler. Still, consolidation is the goal and it would be a neat trick indeed if they can find a way to make things feel roomy enough for comfort while keeping it all so compact.

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Not the roomiest fridge, but that's kind of the point. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Because of the cost, the pressure on GE to deliver its best in each and every component will be high. With so many heating and cooling elements needing vastly different temperatures in adjacent compartments, it won't be easy. If FirstBuild can pull it off, a compact kitchen with top-quality capabilities might find its market, even if it's an exclusive one.

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Where to Buy

FirstBuild Micro-Kitchen

Part Number: CNETFirstBuild Micro-Kitchen

MSRP: $15.00

See manufacturer website for availability.