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Nothing lasts forever!

Recently two of the electronic products in my household, a mobile phone and a tablet, both failed. Nothing unusual about that you would think, however they both failed due to one single component that in each case would have cost pennies to replace. After making enquiries the cost of repairing the failed devices was more expensive that buying a replacement. I think this is quite a common experience a lot of us have nowadays, but this seems to be in direct conflict with the world conscious on recycling and sustainability.

It seems we have accepted the mentality that things are not worth fixing anymore. As a child of the late seventies there was rarely a time when my dad didn’t have his head in the back of a washing machine or painfully dismantling the family television piece by piece on a Sunday night, hoping he could get it up and running by the 5pm deadline so we could watch Bullseye.[1] The picture would regularly flicker and then a hue of bright green would descend in the background, giving programmes a sickly looking tint. This was often rectified by the administering of the “sideways thump” the technical term coined for smacking the chipboard casing surrounding the television. This would stir the appliance back into life and we could enjoy another few hours of uninterrupted entertainment. This being the era before remote control technology, the “thumper” could also use this opportunity to cycle though the push buttons channels whilst they were stood there, to see what delights awaited us in the world of entertainment spread across those four channels.

[1] For the 90’s generation Bullseye was a darts based entertainment show, where contestants could win ludicrous prizes ranging from speedboats to fitted kitchens, which they had to often share.

He’d have a set of tools specifically assigned to each repair job, changing the brushes on a washing machine, replacing an element in the oven or putting a new cathode ray tube in the Television.  It didn’t matter what the task was, dad could buy the part and rescue the product from an untimely death upon the heap at the local landfill. Admittedly he got quite frustrated doing this, the air was punctuated with expletives and the occasional thud as a spanner was catapulted angrily across the kitchen; but the point was it was always more economical to repair the product than replace it.

Personally I think these skills and the desire to fix products are as prevalent in today’s generation. The incentive to do it isn’t there, particularly if the newer model is cheaper. I often wonder what has changed since those days. In this blog I have tried to drill down to the essence of the argument and here are some of the main reasons I believe why our gadgets aren’t built to last.

Planned Obsolescence

The idea behind planned obsolescence is that manufacturers feel that with technology moving so fast and with consumers demanding the latest features, the life cycle of products has been dramatically reduced. I don’t believe that there is a conscious effort to design things to fail, that would be damaging for a brand, but I do feel that the expectations of the consumer on how long a product should last has certainly changed.

Take mobile phones for instance. A mobile phone contract normally lasts two years, after that time the consumer owns the handset and they are normally offered a new one, with new features, bigger memory, higher processing power and the whole cycle continues once more. Whether this is an ethically and environmentally sensible thing to do remains to be seen. It’s a viscous cycle, consumers want the latest gadgets and companies want to launch new products to appear innovative. There has often being a suspicion that companies, particularly the ones manufacturing electronic goods, hold back features and development on their products, to give them something to sell when the next generation hits the shops.

In the computing market as soon as a new model of laptop is released, it’s immediately out of date. Faster processors, memory hungry graphics cards, improved operating systems that won’t run on certain specifications, it’s a race you can’t even hope keep up with, never mind win. If you add to this mix the fact that web developers and online content is advancing at such a rate that it demands more from your humble machine, it’s easy to see why your shiny new PC becomes an expensive paperweight in record time.

It may seem like the makings of an anti-capitalist conspiracy theory, but the concept of planned obsolesce does seem to be a reality; whether it’s happening intentionally or not it’s difficult to tell. Perhaps it goes hand in hand with the emergence of new technology and the need to give customers choice? However when the manufactures of mobile phones are only offering 1-2 years warranty on a new device it does make you question if its more about sales than product reliability.

Environmental Requirements

In some cases a product has to be mothballed due to its impact on the environment. It was no secret that in the 70’s and 80’s fridges and freezers were monumentally inefficient. The energy efficiency of modern fridges has improved massively since those days and manufacturers were given financial incentives to produce fridges that were developed with efficiency being a key design requirement. The discovery of the harm that CFC chemicals in the refrigerant did to the environment, in particular the ozone layer, made scientists look at alternative compounds. These factors coupled with the use of more advanced foaming agents and insulating materials means that the new fridges manufactured today are almost unrecognisable from their bulky, power hungry predecessors.

Aesthetic requirements

As designers its part of our job to try and push the envelope where product aesthetics are concerned. It’s an ongoing challenge to make objects sleeker, more economical in terms of size and material consumption and as lightweight as possible. This often means that there is an ongoing battle between the look of a product, the size of the internal components and the assembly methods specified. We have seen an increase in the use of bonding in electrical goods, as oppose to screws, this enables the designer to produce paper thin designs, but does have implications for recycling and repair.

The rise of cheaper manufacturing

It’s a fact that most of the products we use today are manufactured in the Far East and overseas. China has become a global superpower and it has done so by becoming the epicentre of manufacturing for many of the world’s most popular products. The cost of goods, particularly electronic items, is dramatically more affordable than it was even 20 years ago. When you combine this trend with the access of consumers to credit, it’s easy to see why the electronics market has exploded on a global scale.

This success has come at a price though. There have been many stories of questionable manufacturing practices, particularly when it comes to health and safety. There have been reports of companies placing exhausting manufacturing targets on suppliers and squeezing their margins to such an extent that the health of their workers has started to suffer. There have been factory collapses and stories of workers having to endure brutal hours and working conditions.  We have become accustomed to paying the lowest price possible for our consumer goods. A flat screen television is no longer such a big purchasing decision, we have the power to shop around online for the lowest price deals and we know that it’s no longer a lifetime commitment.

 So where does the future lie? The issue of product sustainability will only become more prevalent, especially as the world resources become more finite. Manufacturers and designers have to work together to improve the reliability of their products, with a focus on ethical manufacturing practices, whilst also making them future proof, to incorporate new technology and innovation. When products come to the end of their life cycle the focus should be on how they can be recycled, how the materials and energy used can be harnessed, offsetting against the resources used to produce the newer model.

Scott Bennett – Senior Designer – August 2016







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