Planned Obsolescence

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Planned obsolescence in industrial design is a policy of deliberately planning a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or nonfunctional after a certain period of time. Planned obsolescence has potential benefits for a producer because to obtain continuing use of the product the consumer is under pressure to purchase again, whether from the same manufacturer (a replacement part or a newer model), or from a competitor.

For an industry, planned obsolescence stimulates demand by encouraging purchasers to buy sooner if they still want a functioning product. Built-in obsolescence is used in many different products. There is, however, the potential backlash of consumers who learn that the manufacturer invested money to make the product obsolete faster; such consumers might turn to a producer (if any exists) that offers a more durable alternative.

Planned obsolescence was first developed in the 1920s and 1930s when mass production had opened every minute aspect of the production process to exacting analysis. Estimates of planned obsolescence can influence a company’s decisions about product engineering. Therefore the company can use the least expensive components that satisfy product lifetime projections. Such decisions are part of a broader discipline known as value engineering (a systematic method to improve the ‘value’ of goods or products and services by using an examination of function).

Origins of the phrase go back at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London’s pamphlet ‘Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.’ However, the phrase was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. By his definition, planned obsolescence was ‘Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.’

The term was quickly taken up by others, but Stevens’ definition was challenged. By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly-used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. In fact, the concept was so widely recognized that in 1959 Volkswagen mocked it in a now-legendary advertising campaign. While acknowledging the widespread use of planned obsolescence among automobile manufacturers, Volkswagen pitched itself as an alternative. ‘We do not believe in planned obsolescence,’ the ads suggested. ‘We don’t change a car for the sake of change.’

In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published ‘The Waste Makers,’ promoted as an exposé of ‘the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.’ Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function. ‘Obsolescence of desirability,’ also called ‘psychological obsolescence,’ referred to marketers’ attempts to wear out a product in the owner’s mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote: ‘Design… is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is ‘styling!”

In ‘Democracy in America’ (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville noted the rise of planned obsolescence in the United States: ‘I accost an American sailor, and I inquire why the ships of his country are built so as to last but for a short time; he answers without hesitation that the art of navigation is every day making such rapid progress, that the finest vessel would become almost useless if it lasted beyond a certain number of years.’

The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases, (referred to as shortening the replacement cycle). Firms that pursue this strategy believe that the additional sales revenue it creates more than offsets the additional costs of research and development and opportunity costs of existing product line cannibalization. The rewards are by no means certain: In a competitive industry, this can be a risky strategy because consumers may decide to buy from competitors.

Shortening the replacement cycle has many critics as well as supporters. Critics such as Vance Packard claim the process wastes resources and exploits customers. Resources are used up making changes, often cosmetic changes, that are not of great value to the customer. Supporters claim it drives technological advances and contributes to material well-being. They claim that a market structure of planned obsolescence and rapid innovation may be preferred to long-lasting products and slow innovation. In a fast-paced competitive industry market success requires that products are made obsolete by actively developing replacements. Waiting for a competitor to make products obsolete is a sure guarantee of future demise.

The main concern of the opponents of planned obsolescence is not the existence of the process, but its possible postponement. They are concerned that technological improvements are not introduced even though they could be. They are worried that marketers will refrain from developing new products, or postpone their introduction because of product cannibalization issues. For example, if the payback period for a product is five years, a firm might refrain from introducing a new product for at least five years even though it may be possible for them to launch in three years. This postponement is only feasible in monopolistic or oligopolistic markets. In more competitive markets rival firms will take advantage of the postponement and launch their own products.

The design of most consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications. Planned obsolescence is made more likely by making the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or by refusing to provide service or parts any longer. A product might even never have been serviceable. Creating new lines of products that do not interoperate with older products can also make an older model quickly obsolete, forcing replacement. Examples include change of formats and peripheral devices in computers, change of formats in home movies and audio recordings (records to tapes to CDs and VHS Video to DVDs to Blu-Ray).

Planned functional obsolescence is a type of technical obsolescence in which companies introduce new technology which replaces the old. The old products do not have the same capabilities or functionality as the new ones. For example a company that sold video tape decks while they were developing DVDs was engaging in planned obsolescence. They were actively planning to make their existing product (video tape) obsolete by developing a substitute product (DVDs) with greater functionality (better quality). Associated products that are complements to the old products also become obsolete with the introduction of new products. For example video tape holders saw the same fate as video tapes and video tape decks.

Many portable consumer electronics contain proprietary, often lithium-based batteries. These batteries last only about 500 cycles before losing large amounts of their capacity. Rechargeable lithium batteries always contain integrated circuits (IC); they are required because of the above average risk of fire or explosion the batteries have when improperly charged. The IC keeps track of statistics of the battery to determine the current full charge point for the battery. A manufacturer can set the algorithms of the IC to be ultra conservative or time/cycle based, rather than based around the physical properties of the battery cells; this artificially limits the life of the battery. The IC will not permit the device to charge the battery any more than the IC dictates. Production of these batteries is usually stopped at around the same time the product is discontinued, therefore rendering the product worthless once the batteries start to wear out.

Planned systemic obsolescence is the deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete by altering the system in which it is used in such a way as to make its continued use difficult. New software is frequently introduced that is not compatible with older software. This makes the older software largely obsolete. Even though an older version of a word processing program is operating correctly, it might not be able to read data saved by newer versions. The lack of interoperability forces many users to purchase new programs prematurely. The greater the network externalities in the market, the more effective this strategy is. Often times, developers of hardware will try to prevent a product from being backwards compatible with older interchangeable cartridges and proprietary connector plugs.

Another way of introducing systemic obsolescence is to eliminate service and maintenance for a product. If a product fails, the user is forced to purchase a new one. This strategy seldom works because there are typically third parties that are prepared to perform the service if parts are still available. One place it does work is in proprietary software, where copyright forbids third parties from performing some kinds of service.

Marketing may be driven primarily by aesthetic design. Product categories in this case display a fashion cycle. By continually introducing new designs, and retargeting or discontinuing others, a manufacturer can ‘ride the fashion cycle.’ Such product categories include automobiles, with a strict yearly schedule of new models; the almost entirely style-driven clothing industry; and the mobile phone industries with constant minor feature enhancements and restyling.

Planned style obsolescence occurs when marketers change the styling of products so customers will purchase products more frequently. The style changes are designed to make owners of the old model feel ‘out of date.’ It is also designed to differentiate the product from the competition, thereby reducing price competition. As the former CEO of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan stated in 1941, ‘Today the appearance of a motorcar is a most important factor in the selling end of the business—perhaps the most important factor— because everyone knows the car will run.’

Some marketers go one step further: they attempt to initiate fashions or fads. Successfully created fashions or fads include Beanie Babies, Ninja Turtles, Cabbage Patch Kids, pet rocks, acid wash jeans, and tank tops. Obsolescence is built into these products in the sense that marketers are aware of the shortness of their product life cycles so they work within that constraint. When Beanie Babies sales revenue started to decline, company president Ty Warner decided to go for one last Christmas marketing push and then drop the product.

Another strategy is to take advantage of fashion changes, often called the fashion cycle. The fashion cycle is the repeated introduction, rise, popular culmination, and decline of a style as it progresses through various social strata. Marketers can ‘ride the fashion cycle’ by changing the mix of products that they direct at various market segments. This is very common in the clothing industry. A certain style of dress will initially be aimed at a very high income segment, then gradually be re-targeted to lower income segments. The fashion cycle can repeat itself, in which case a stylistically obsolete product may regain popularity and cease to be obsolete.

Some companies have developed a version of obsolescence in which the product informs the user when it is time to buy a replacement. Examples of this include water filters that display a replacement notice after a predefined time and disposable razors that have a strip that changes color. Whether the user is notified before the product has actually deteriorated or the product simply deteriorates more quickly than is necessary, planned obsolescence is the result. In this way planned obsolescence may be introduced without the company going to the expense of developing a ‘more up to date’ replacement model.

In some cases, notification may be combined with the deliberate disabling of a product to prevent it from working, thus requiring the buyer to purchase a replacement. Inkjet printer manufacturers who employ proprietary smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold (number of pages, time, etc.), even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink or could be refilled. Some medical equipment also exploits this technique to ensure a steady stream of revenue from sales of replacement consumables. This constitutes programmed obsolescence in that there is no random component to the decline in function.

When a product consumes a resource, as when a computer printer consumes ink and paper, it is generally understood that this is unavoidable. But some products also consume related resources that need not be consumed. For example, a 4-color inkjet printer that is used mostly for printing in gray scale and seldom in color, may be pre-programmed to deplete color inks while printing black, so that the color cartridge(s) must be replaced about the same time as the black ink cartridge.

Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly (a market dominated by a small number of sellers). Before introducing a planned obsolescence, the producer has to know that the consumer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them. In these cases of planned obsolescence, there is an information asymmetry between the producer–who knows how long the product was designed to last–and the consumer, who does not. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. When Japanese vehicles with longer lifespans entered the American market in the 1960s and 1970s, American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products.

There are some industries where there is significant competition and consumers have chosen to go for products that will fail more quickly anyway. But, even in a situation where planned obsolescence is appealing to both producer and consumer there can also be significant harm to society in the form of negative externalities. Continuously replacing, rather than repairing, products creates more waste, pollution, uses more natural resources, and results in more consumer spending.

Others have defended planned obsolescence as a necessary driving force behind innovation and economic growth. Many products, such as DVDs, become both cheaper and more useful the more people have them. Planned obsolescence will also tend to benefit those companies with the most modern and up-to-date products, thus encouraging extra investment in research and development that often has large positive externalities.

If marketers expect a product to become obsolete, they can design it to last for a specific lifetime. If a product will be technically or stylistically obsolete in five years, many marketers will design the product so it will only last for that time. This is done through a technical process called value engineering. An example is home entertainment electronics which tend to be designed and built with moving components like motors and gears that last until technical or stylistic innovations make them obsolete.

These products could be built with higher-grade components, but they are not because it is stated that this imposes an unnecessary cost on the purchaser (overengineering). Value engineering will reduce the cost of making the product and lower the price to consumers. A company will typically use the least expensive components that satisfy product’s lifetime projections.

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