Electronics seem to be aging at a strangely alarming rate, says an executive from a design software and services company.
The public’s concept of planned obsolescence is a phantom that has haunted industrial production for decades. The idea that manufacturers build products with an intended lifespan in mind, that businesses profit from making products that will break within a predetermined period and require consumers to replace them, seems an intuitive reality to some people. While such practices may have been true in isolated instances, closer analysis indicates that those who draft the obsolescence plan are just as likely to be the buyers as the sellers.
Concern over planned obsolescence has arisen again, especially in Europe, over concerns about the impact on the environment of waste from obsolete electronic devices, unnecessary overuse of resources, as well as their impact on consumer budgets. Studies have failed to uncover purposeful obsolescence targets for manufacturers. These reports have found, however, that often products are replaced not because they have broken but because they have fallen out of style, overrun by innovation.
The pace of innovation seems to be accelerating nearly exponentially. Where mobile phones with new operational features once came onto the market every few years, today significantly advanced smartphones appear annually, with refreshed designs every three to four months.
Similar patterns have emerged in television electronics. Once HDTV was widely introduced, consumers began racing to upgrade their viewing experience to ever-larger screens. No sooner was large-screen TV defined as a 42-inch flat screen than consumers began demanding 50-, 60- and 70-inch sets. Subsequently, Ultra High Definition TV emerged with spectacularly improved images and within months became available in the aisles of Best Buy and Walmart.
In these and other cases, substantially improved technology became available for little, if any, increase in price. Phones were discounted with service plans, and what people paid five years ago for a large-screen HDTV is about what they would pay today for one of the new Ultra HD sets.
With advancements in electronics making new products easily affordable, consumers have transformed the marketplace into an upgrade society. So the argument could be made that what appears to be planned obsolescence is in large part a response to consumer demand for a continual flow of electronic products that offer new capabilities and features.
Yet, the configurations of some products certainly appear to be designed to require consumers to replace them on a regular schedule. For example, owners of some smartphones are frustrated that, unlike with earlier models, their batteries cannot be replaced; the entire phone needs to be discarded and a new phone purchased in its place. Even the mundane washing machine has critics who claim the placement of its bearings and the materials used for their construction could be improved to extend the appliance’s life.
Whether planned by the producer or demanded by the consumer, affordable upgrades have been made possible by an array of advancements in miniaturization, materials science and production methods. At the heart of these improvements is computer simulation that allows electronics companies to test hundreds of designs for everything from their durability when dropped from a table to the heat buildup from chargers and batteries. Rather than constructing time-consuming, expensive physical models of each concept, engineers employ simulation to pinpoint weak spots in a case or the way heat flows within a device.
The quickening tempo of obsolescence presents society with pros and cons to consider. The consumer’s hunger for more functionality and ease of operation pushes R&D staffs to innovate—and to make their innovations a primary competitive factor. At the same time, consumer demand requires that the latest and best advancements be integrated into devices as rapidly as possible. Additionally, the consistent upgrading of products helps stimulate the economy, with expectations that consumers will regularly seek to buy the latest design and technology. On the negative side, the constant shedding of older technology places a considerable strain on the environment, through the accumulation of solid waste and the potential introduction of harmful materials into the landscape. If environmental concerns become more prominent, as consumers, we may want to pause and ask ourselves if that next upgrade is truly a step up in functionality, or simply the next fleeting trend.
The reality and impact of planned obsolescence may never be quantified, but as long as consumers define success as possessing the most advanced electronics, upgrades will remain synonymous with moving up in the world.
-- Molly Heskitt is a senior director of global electronics and consumer goods at Altair.