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The Man Who Came Up With Planned Obsolescence.

When most engineers hear the phrase "planned obsolescence," it carries a slightly negative connotation. If your new dishwasher breaks down a month after the extended warranty expires, you may grit your teeth and say to your spouse, "Planned obsolescence!" But the first person to use the phrase in print had something quite different in mind: a scheme to raise the world's economy out of the dismal depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. As described by Giles Slade in his 2006 book Made to Break, Bernard London saw planned obsolescence as a way to enforce consumption of new goods in order to get the economy going again.

London, a New York realtor, saw his business slow almost to a stop in the summer of 1932 as the economy continued its free fall from the highs of the 1929 stock market. Apparently, at his own expense, he published a 20-page pamphlet entitled "Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence." The main problem, as he saw it, was that people were suddenly fearful of buying anything new, preferring to use their old appliances, clothes, cars, and even toothbrushes until they got the last particle of good out of them. He summed up the problem by saying, "People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence."

London's solution? He proposed a deliberately planned obsolescence for all manufactured goods, mandated by law. Every product would have a certain lifetime assigned to it at the factory. At the end of that lifetime, consumers could turn in the product to the government in exchange for credit of a new item. If a new product was unsold, and still in inventory when its lifetime expired, it would be considered legally "dead," and a government agency would pick it up and destroy it. Government boards made up of engineers, economists, and mathematicians would decide the legal lifetime of a product.

London's idea of government-controlled planned obsolescence never caught on, unless you count date codes on food products, and even those are not usually legally mandated. But enough people read his pamphlet that the title phrase "planned obsolescence" made its way into the language. And the bare concept, without the regulatory trappings, is very much alive today.

In his book, Slade shows how impermanence is a necessity to modern industrial production. Although General Electric never implemented their plan to deliberately shorten the lifetime of light bulbs to increase sales, Slade dug up some memos that show the company thought about it. And as recently as last year, Apple admitted that some of its iPhone updates to older phones slowed them down, although the company claimed that the slowdown was a side effect of reprogramming because of a battery issue that sometimes made the devices shut down suddenly. Either way, customers found that they were being involuntarily pushed to ditch their old iPhone for a newer model.

No one expects things to literally last forever, but the actual useful lifetimes of most consumer electronics these days are determined by factors other than how long the hardware will keep running. Cellphones are a good example of how we are burying ourselves in electronic scrap that still works, but has outlived its usefulness because new software or newer models have leapfrogged the previous technology--or at least that is what the sellers want us to believe. Hundreds of thousands of tons of phones are thrown away every year in the U. S. While some manufacturers recycle materials used in their phones, one can't help but wonder whether the whole situation would be more efficient if the system let people hang on to their hardware longer.

If you try to buck the system and stubbornly insist that what you have now is just fine, you will soon find that the world has passed by and obsoleted your software, which makes your hardware pretty useless too. The illusory freedom offered by a constant flow of "new and improved" products often just means "new and you'll have to get rid of your old one soon." This is not freedom--it's a lockstep march toward shorter and shorter product cycles that end up serving the makers of products more than the consumers.

In your own designs, do you plan obsolescence ? Do you think product life cycles are too short and make things harder for consumers? Send responses to

Karl Stephan, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Texas State University
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Title Annotation:Final Thought
Author:Stephan, Karl
Publication:Product Design & Development
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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