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Planned Obsolescence—Breakdown on Schedule

Planned Obsolescence—Breakdown on Schedule?

The warranty period has barely expired, no matter how expensive the technical device was, you just know you can start looking for a successor. The consumer of the 21st century knows one thing with certainty—nothing is destined for eternity—and certainly not if it is something of which a company brings a new model onto the market every year. 

It’s the Economy, Stupid! Or Is It Not?

You might know the story of one particular piece of engineering that withstood the tests of time; an everyday object with a ridiculous lifespan of 117 years and counting—a light bulb, known as the Centennial Light (« click to see the world’s longest working light bulb). Today, this sounds astonishing to us, but back when this thing was made, it was nothing special at all. All light bulbs where designed to last that long. Manufacturers tried to outdo each other and make even longer lasting pieces until they realized something—they could make more money if their products would break down quicker. And so it happened that in 1924 the leading light bulb producers—such as Osram, Philips, General Electric, etc.—met to specify that light bulbs should only burn for a maximum of 1,000 hours. As the glow wires became thinner and burned out faster, the customers rightfully became more and more suspicious. How come all of the sudden they had to buy light bulbs again and again because they broke down?! That was something new to the amazed crowd. As it usually is, it took authorities a while to catch on until they finally caught on to the ‚Phoebus Cartel‘ in 1941. The lifespan of only 1,000 hours remained though.

But what about today? Don’t you have the feeling that the things you buy break quicker than they used to when you where younger? Wasn’t it easier to fix a TV than it is today? But why is that? Or is it just a feeling? When we take a closer look at this, we find out that there is a complex pattern of obsolescence for us to elaborate. So let us take a look at some products each of us is quite familiar with.

Nothing to See Here, Right?

Apple started a trend in the smartphone sector which other manufacturers naturally liked to pick up: they permanently installed the battery of their devices and thus made a simple battery change virtually impossible. So, once the battery becomes weak and reaches the end of its lifetime, you have to buy a new phone instead of just a new battery. Sure, nowadays it is not only the the battery that is of concern but also the software updates. Just recently, Apple was in the headlines because it slowed down older iPhones with its software updates. According to them this was only to prevent unexpected shutdowns because the batteries of older phones were so much weaker than the new ones. But is there really no way to build a phone with a changeable battery without making it thicker? And is that something customers just don’t want anymore? Apple and many other smartphone producers say so.

The Inside of a modern Smartphone

The Inside of a modern Smartphone

However, typically a phone does not even get to the point where its battery gets tired because many of us buy a new phone long beforehand. Today, many people buy the latest model of their favorite manufacturer as often as every year. Not because the previous model had blatant shortcomings, but simply because it has become psychologically obsolete. The marketing effort of the manufacturer has made it obsolete for the consumer and made them long for something new, even if—objectively speaking—it wasn’t necessary at all.

That being said, is there really such a thing as planned obsolescence? According to many experts—such as Siddharth Prakash from the Institute for Applied Ecology in Freiburg, Germany—there most probably is. The problem is, that it is hard to answer this question with certainty because manufacturers can always point to weak points in their supply chains, which are usually globally organized and hard to trace. Blockchain might be a technology to help solve this problem—there is an interesting article about this topic on our blog, click here to read it.

Of course, manufacturers calculate a certain life cycle for all their products. This includes various factors: average load, usage profile, innovation cycles, fashion, price decline, maintenance interval and repair service, availability of spare parts, etc. However, this should not be seen as an active influence on the product’s lifespan, but is an integral part of the product policy.

Where Product Life Cycle and Planned Obsolescence Meet

This is the point where it is getting interesting, where product policy and planned obsolescence cross. This is especially true for all products, which have already reached a very high degree of perfection—such as hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, blenders etc. There is only little innovation to be expected, but nothing revolutionary, which would end the life cycle of its predecessors. Let me illustrate this with a personal experience.

I used to own a very good blender, which was perfectly balanced—as all things should be—but stopped functioning from one day to the next. Being curious, I took it apart to find out what had broken. It was a plastic gear wheel that cost the manufacturer maybe half a cent, if anything. If they had used a metal wheel, the hand blender would probably have lasted forever. The blender was about ten years old by that time, which is the average time of when they break down according to research by the German Federal Environmental Agency (German).

According to product policy, this sounds like something reasonable. But what if I had used the product more often or more intensely than intended? If it had broken quicker I would have felt betrayed and so do a lot of customers. A lot of manufacturers do not know how long their products will actually last due to a lack of quality controls. These kinds of controls are expensive and because of the immense price pressure a lot of companies just skip them. But this leads to a problem for the consumer: why should I spend more money on a certain product when it is just as likely to fail as a cheaper one? So, the price pressure keeps building up and the product’s quality keeps getting worse.

The 4 Types of Obsolescence

Usually, there is a complex pattern of obsolescence at work and not just one. In short, there are four types of obsolescence we can identify:

  • Material Obsolescence
    like a broken plastic wheel gear
  • Functional Obscolescence
    thanks to a software update
  • Economical Obsolescence
    if repairing it is more expensive than buying it new
  • Psychological Obsolescence
    you don’t have to buy a new one, but you want to

The most important one is indisputably the psychological obsolescence. One of the first industries to realize the importance of this was the automotive industry in the United States. Ford was super successful with its ‚Model T‘, but its competitor GM figured out that annual redesigns might push customers to buy new cars. This proofed to be very successful and was to some extend adopted by all other industries in the following years with no end to this trend in sight. Instead, the lifespan of products is getting even shorter. With the advancing digitization, more and more products are likely to be part of this shorter lifespan period since they all will rely on software. Therefore, functional obsolescence might become an even bigger threat.

The Loss of Rare Earths

The Loss of Rare Earths

Is this sustainable? For how long can we keep this up? Will we run out of raw materials and rare earths to fuel our future? We will see about that. But in the end, the Centennial Light might still be shining a light down on our long, dark smartphone displays.

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