Planned obsolescence is a natural part of the design process...or is it?

I hear about it all the time: planned obsolescence. People can't believe that their computer parts are already breaking and their iPhone started to slow down just days before the next generation of the phone was released. Your TV seems to be programmed to have bugs whenever the manufacturing company wants to push a new product. Companies break their own products to get you to buy more of the same product: light bulbs, phones, batteries, cars, microwaves, computer screens, and even your car key transponder will all stop operating eventually. Either the marketing team or the designers wanted it that way, right? 

Wrong. There are many factors that lead to degradation in performance or outright failure of a product. The root cause is usually cost, although there are many other potential causes.

Farewell, trusty Toshiba Satellites of yore.

 

Your laptop original equipment manufacturer (OEM), such as Dell, Toshiba, or HP, sells batteries that are much more expensive than the batteries from third party suppliers. Why not just as easily get your next battery elsewhere for a fraction of the cost? This is much cheaper in comparison with purchasing a several hundred dollar battery from the OEM, despite each battery appearing to be identical.
 

A host of cheap batteries on eBay waiting to kill your laptop slowly.

There is a difference, however. Buying a battery from the same company that made the laptop means that the same engineer who designed the power supply in your laptop also helped design its battery and the interface between them. A person or a closely coordinating team analyzed both circuits and both mechanical assemblies and decided on the best possible design for their product. A similar process also takes place for the company making the cheaper batteries. However, they have a different set of goals in mind for their product: while the more expensive OEM wants to sell a high-end package of parts that is associated with a reputable brand name and will carry on a consistent level of quality, the replacement battery manufacturer doesn't care about quality. They produce cheap batteries that people want to buy to replace a defunct battery in an old laptop. They aren't worried about the customer retention or satisfaction, and so have the flexibility to decrease investments into the product in order to cut costs.

 

This applies to all products, not just electronics. Latches on pencil cases aren't meant to fail after some number of years or some thousands of operational cycles; they just fail. It is the same with laptop keys or paper clips or duct tape. While there is little functional difference in a product being "designed to fail" at 50,000 operations and the product failing spontaneously due to engineering and material characteristics at 50,000 operations, there is a huge difference in our understanding of how and why that failure happened while you were using it. No company or engineer wants a product to fail at a desired point in time. They can take advantage of a market that desires products that aren't particularly reliable at the benefit of a reduced cost to the consumer. But, if the product could feasibly be made to last forever, then they would make them to last that long—or a different company would do so and reap the financial benefits.

 

Products fail of their own accord. The product is always being designed around a set of parameters (material properties, mechanisms, cost, time, industry regulations, previous products) and an investment into one of those constraints (for example, stronger and stiffer plastic) means trading off an investment into another (each device is more expensive). At the end of the day, those constraints are set in stone and there is very little room to expand how your design utilizes those resources.

 

The third party suppliers of the incredibly cheap laptop battery made a deliberate tradeoff. And while their cost cutting might be extreme, every manufacturer makes similar choices. Even the OEM battery is not designed to be the perfect product in terms of lifetime. Proper understanding of those constraints is crucial to realizing that companies don't design products to fail. They fail in exactly the manner one would expect them to because changing that would have conflicted with how the product is sold. While you can always blame Motorola for making a charging plug that bends too easily or GE for an incandescent that goes out every 6 months or Apple for making a phone with software that is outdated in exactly two years, you have to understand that they made those decisions due to consideration of the product as a whole. If they wanted more lifetime from the product, they would have had to cut costs elsewhere (so maybe it wouldn't be as aesthetically pleasing) or increase the cost of the device.

An array of obsolete batteries.

Consumers will be unhappy if they pay $150 for a battery that stops holding a charge after about a year, but would anyone buy an otherwise identical $210 battery that is said to last an average of 2 years? Maybe. But there is no way for the average consumer to know how long each individual battery is going to last and, frankly, the majority don't care. Unless the more expensive battery comes with obvious additional features, customers won't bother dishing out extra money for most commercial products that are only expected to last longer. The cheaper battery isn't designed to fail first. Rather, it simply is made from a selection of slightly cheaper components or processes because the company thought that would sell better. A $25 battery that is ostensibly identical to the other two more expensive batteries almost certainly has some difference in expected quality. None of the three batteries is designed to fail; they are products designed a certain way and sold at a particular price as determined by the company. The resulting lifetime is a reflection on that quality.

 

The concept of an electronic product being designed to fall apart is a fallacy. Product failure is the result of a decision that involves many more factors than just the expected lifetime of the product. The concept of planned obsolescence is more accurately described as a complex interplay between how the designer wanted to make the product and the price point at which the consumer will buy the product. In short, electronic products aren't designed to fall apart: they are designed to last as long as possible and still be a product that will sell.

 

Comments

9 Comments


  • schedulemike 2015-09-05

    For Amazon is important to take time and rate and rerate items. Ive past up a lot of things at walmart, meijers, ...... Based on reviews.

    • Trent Ziemer 2015-09-09

      I agree. It is very important for informed users to submit feedback to help others find out which products have quality in accordance with price and those that don’t.

  • jssamp 2015-10-16

    Most consumers have no ken of the engineering process and the trade offs involved. A industrial engineering much attention is paid to value engineering. Making your geewhiz too strong, too durable when facing rapid market turn over leads to otherwise useful and still working products being discarded into the waste stream because they don’t have the newest feature everyone wants. That generates expense and waste on both the front and back end of the chain.

    What is often wrongly called planned obsolescence is usually a fine balancing act between multiple marketing and technological forces. What is disturbing and widely considered unethical is the practice of intentionally and unnecessarily designing failure into the product not for sound economic and technical reasons but with the sole intent of forcing customers to purchase a replacement for your products that should have had longer use otherwise if not for the intentional failure.

  • hallwrk 2015-12-01

    I think the more accurate way of describing it is that products are made to the quality that can be achieved while delivering the highest profit margin. Engineers and designers are simply not allowed to spend as much time as they want or use the materials they want if that places the product in an undesirable price range.

    This is not to say that there hasn’t been a fair share of cartels throughout history (Phoebus?) or that companies are not willing to do nefarious things to increase their profit (WV?), so even though generally speaking, companies are not necessarily planning on their products breaking sooner than necessary, I do strongly believe that they do take this into account when budgeting, as anything else would be foolish. Obviously they take as many known factors into account as possible.

    That said, I’ve had my iphone 5 since it came out and it is still going strong and I’ve seen nothing of this apple-induced-lag that people speak of. I have had to change the battery and lightning connector though, but who knows how many cycles those poor components have been through…

    • OldBeginner 2015-12-19

      Perhaps they are no explicitely made to fail. However certain design practices are made so as to further consumption o future products. For example, a product that works perfectly when supplied with exernal power but you can not change the battery after it dies, so as to make it useless as intended - a portable product.

  • picopi 2016-01-22

    Rubish. My parents bought a fridge in 1959 and it’s been working flawlessly since then.
    It’s all about cost cutting and increased profit margins. Anyone who says otherwise, is a tool.
    This fridge is not unique. Most people through away their appliances and bought new ones, because they were sick of them. Not because they broke.
    5 years ago, I bought five appliances and they all broke with in a year. Good thing I bought the insurance. They ended up replacing the fridge for another brand. I guess they were sick and tired of getting a phone call from us.
    Frigid-air, whirlpool and Jenn-air are brand names, yet shitty products.
    If we know more now than ever before about material science, how come nothing we build lasts long any more?
    Cutting corners, that’s how come…

  • CatalinaWOW 2016-01-30

    While there is seldom, if ever, a design requirement to fail after n days, there is almost always a design requirement to make it as cheaply as possible and survive n days.  In the case of the requirement to survive n days, n is determined either by the warranty period or by a marketing goal.  Products which survive longer indicate a failure by the engineering team, because they could in principal have made it cheaper.  It may not have been possible in practice because there may not have been a lower quality component available and no time to engineer it.

    The end result is indistinguishable from planned obsolescence.

  • N11778 2016-02-24

    Now days I say yes it is.  Planned obsolescence is a natural part of the design.
    Resistors that get just a little to hot.  8 or so Months and poof.
    Cheep fans that quit in 4 months, and then the unit burns up. Warranty 90 days.
    No UV. inhibitor in plastic.  Crap in 4 months.  warranty 90 Days.
    I could go on but yes it is built in the design.  No doubt. 
    I talked to an engineer for G.E. asked him what is he working on new and
    interesting?  Lowered his head a bit and said Making stuff cheaper.
    Wow that sounds like an Interesting job I said.  “No comment” there moving
    the company to Canada anyway.  I’m not going.  To Hot up there I guess.

  • drshaw7 2016-06-13

    I agree completely with this article being “rubbish”.  Author, you make it sound like consumers would never pay 10% more to never have to buy another <DEVICE>.  I guarantee that the $500 dishwasher that breaks in 5 years would be far outsold by the $550 dishwasher expected to last for 20.  But that would mean 3 or more sales the manufacturer couldn’t make, so they’d never do that.  And since all the brands are doing this, losing the next sale because of a frustrated consumer switching brands doesn’t matter because you’ll pick up a new consumer who’s mad at a _different_ brand.  It’s this huge virtuous cycle for them.  Frankly, I don’t buy your thesis and remain convinced that manufacturers are indeed manufacturing obsolescence regardless of whether or not that phrase is written as a specific goal in the company’s pillars.