Products Are Designed To Break So You Will Buy Another One

Stay Free! has an interview with Giles Slade, author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America.

STAY FREE!: Have you looked at consumer warranties at all? They seem to be shrinking. I saw some headphones the other day that had a 30-day guarantee!

GILES SLADE: Ha! All I know is that I went to the industrial standards board in Washington and they told me that the standard for durable goods was fixed at three years around the beginning of WWI. I guess that three years came from the three-year product cycle of General Motors. They figured a new GM car would come out every three years, so a car only needed to last three years. The funny thing is that three years now sounds like a long time.

Slade has faced a flurry of criticism but he’s not saying anything insurrectionist. Figuring out long it’s supposed to last is one of the first things a designer does when creating a new product. And over the years, that “product lifespan” has been universally decreasing. — BEN POPKEN

Are consumer products made to break? [Stay Free! Daily]
(Photo: Pro-Zak)

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  1. mantari says:

    I have been quite pleased with the lifespan of my PCs, except for the hard drive. The PCs have almost always long outlived their usefulness. Unfortunately, it is the hard drives that never seem to last long enough. But I am all for PCs that I’m not paying extra for an extended lifespan that I don’t need. (Yes, I know. You run Linux, this doesn’t work for you. YMMV.)

  2. mantari says:

    Sorry. A favorite quote:

    In Germany, there’s something called the Institute for NORML that standardizes electronic devices.

    We have NORML in the United States as well. But I think they’re more concerned with standardizing drug control laws than electrical appliance lifespans. :)

  3. Coder4Life says:

    Very sad but true, and over the years what will happen is they are going to have to increase those warranties to a year or longer

    Just as today, customer service is one of the most important things, quality will become another.

    Less people are buying extended warranties and even if they do they usually have hidden clauses in them so either these companies will see a slump in sales for electronic gadgets or they’ll have to start offering cheap & quality worthy products…

  4. Rajio says:

    add to that the fact that things are made to be ‘unfixable’ as much as possible so that they must just be discarded. few things now are made with the idea that if it breaks, one should be able to repair it.

  5. superlayne says:

    This reminds me of The Brave Little Toster Goes to Mars.

  6. timmus says:

    Well, this is predictable in today’s Wal-Mart culture where low price trumps quality. I’ll be looking even harder for manufacturers who actually care about their worksmanship.

  7. rrapynot says:

    My Kitchenaid mixer will probably outlast me.

  8. Jozef says:

    In most cases, built-in obsolescence can be dealt with, as long as the producer allows the consumer tinkering with the product. For example, I’m still happily repairing Windows 98 computers, and I have a Pentium 100 as one of my servers. The supply of spare parts that work with older systems is still large enough for me to keep fixing old computers for another five to ten years, after which I’ll finally tell my friends it’s time to move on. On the other hand, closed architectures, such as Apple’s, make repair much more difficult. This is where I suspect the bulk of built-in obsolescence to take place; in open architectures what makes people replace their old product is primarily convenience and the promise of new features.

  9. madktdisease says:

    Products Are Designed To Break So You Will Buy Another One

    did anyone else think “ha, are they talking about ipods?”

  10. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    My grandmother said the very same thing 20 years ago. She was convinced things were no longer made to last, and she was right.

    On the other hand, as a society, we own a huge amount of cheap “stuff” that we might not own if it were more expensive. 30 years ago, you were lucky to have one color TV (maybe), one car, and basic kitchen appliances. Now many of us all have PC’s, iPods, cellphones, video games, microwaves, etc., etc., etc. Sadly, particularly with electronics, the chances are a device will become outdated before it’s ready for the junkyard, so there’s no point in making a cell phone that’ll last for 20 years.

    Electronic devices and household items are mass-produced by machine labor, which is cheap..and unfortunately, fixing something usually involves human labor, which is extremely expensive. Why would anyone spend $300 to fix a $400 TV? There are occasional exceptions that apply to things that are extremely well maid (like the Kitechenaid mixer), but they’re more the exception than the rule.

    In many cases, it just doesn’t make economic sense to produce something that will last 10 or 20 years.

  11. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Err…made, even.

  12. hubris says:

    Thing is, when things were made to *last*, it was largely before they were mass produced. You can still buy things that are made to last if you are willing to pay for it. Hell, even things like PCs will last much longer than the average person will use them, but that’s not the fault of the hardware manufacturer, that has to do with software for the most part.

    We’ve created a culture where people *want* the newest and the greatest, and if most people aren’t going to keep something around for 20 years, why make it to last 20 years when you can make it last 10 for half the cost? If people weren’t always buying new stuff and insisted on long-term quality, manufacturers would oblige them.

    I’ve had very few consumer electronics just up and stop working on me. Most of the stuff I replace of my own volition.

  13. Havok154 says:

    @dwayne_dibbly:

    True, but 90 day warrenties are still horrible and what I consider poor customer service. If you buy a product, and usually high end electronics that can be expensive, they should have no less then 1 year on them. If you can’t trust that your product can last a minimum of a year, why should I trust the product enough to buy it?

  14. I own a $28 Wal-mart DVD player. Should I expect it to last forever? no, if it lasts a year I buy another one, if it lasts 3-4 years I’m stylin’. Is this wrong? Probably. However, a $30 DVD player vs. a $300 DVD player which will last forever (or until technology outpaces it) is not a discussion you want to have.

  15. Techguy1138 says:

    I wonder if the decreasing longevity corresponds to the increased complexity. Even simple devices now have hundreds if not thousands of components on them. Each electronic chip has the chance of failing and breaking a device.

    In addition to making things more complicated they make more of them allowing more chance of parts to break in the field.

    I also wonder if the shrinking warranty has less to do with decreasing product longevity and more to do with extended warranties from the maker.

    If the products actually break extended warranties are expensive to sell. So long as the products continues to work its money in the bank.

    Those are just some thoughts.

  16. brokenboy says:

    The funny thing about the main post is that it calls out when cars used to last 3 years, and they say that sounds like a long time? Can you even buy a car today that has LESS than a 3 year warranty? Most cars today will last 15 years easily.

    It all has to do with how complex and how resource “expensive” a product is. Cars have tons of labor and materials costs in them, so they make sense to repair. A cell phone has almost no labor or materials in it. It’s cheaper to re-buy the materials than re-do the labor.

    Designing for repair means it has more parts and complexity. This increases costs and can actually increase the chance of failure. Do you suggest we go to individual transistors instead of CPU’s so that if one fails we can replace just it instead of the whole CPU? It would only take a few man years of work to find the failed transistor.

  17. Bay State Darren says:

    @madktdisease: I did.
    (No one will read this comment.)

  18. mac-phisto says:

    “spend, don’t mend”

    the real question is, when do they start doling out psychotropic ‘medicine’ to keep us all sane.

    ….errr, when do they start making us in laboratories.

    …ok, i give up. when do they start the government-mandated orgies & feelie-films?!?

  19. Bay State Darren says:

    Time to reveal my inner hippie: What about the environmental impact of this? Not only will you buy a new insert-product-name-here every 6 months, 2 years, etc; but you’ll also throw one away. (Who gives a damn about recycling anyway?) That’s more plastic and metal being manufactured to replace other plastic and metal which is certainly not gonna biodegrade.

  20. itsgene says:

    Funny how people immediately think “iPod” — I have an original iPod, the very first model from 2001, and it still works just fine. Perhaps the problem is that Apple releases new models so often that users themselves are creating the obsolescence by discarding the old for the new.
    It’s interesting to contemplate how important planned obsolescence is to a company’s market share: Apple’s Mac computers have a notoriously long life span and you’ll often find people happily using one that is at least 5 years old or even older. But this is a problem because by not buying newer models more often, they are driving Apple’s perceived market share down. (I say “perceived” because sales figures don’t take into account the installed base of older products.)
    If you make a product that lasts too long, you’ll eventually run out of customers willing to buy a new one when the old one is working just fine. A disposable society is bad for the Earth, but good for the economy.

  21. segfault, registered cat offender says:

    My friend also had an original 2001 5 GB iPod. She replaced the battery in it once, and it was still working fine in 2006, when she downsized to a 4 GB iPod nano (second gen)… My first-gen iPod nano is a year and a half old and still works great. I gave my first-gen iPod shuffle to my dad, and it still works great.

    If I don’t mind spending the money, I’ll buy a product that appears to be well-made. Otherwise, I’ll buy the throwaway alternative, but I try to be conscious of what I’m getting.

  22. segfault, registered cat offender says:

    OTOH, I had a wired D-Link internet router that appeared to be well-made, and had a heavy metal case and a retro toggle switch on the back, that one day mysteriously stopped routing packets. I tried desperately to revive it because it at least looked like it should have lasted longer than the five or so years that it did.

    I think that, despite the fact that things are cheaply made with a 2-3 year design life, quite a few of these products end up lasting quite a bit longer than that in practice–perhaps through some freak accident.

  23. Buran says:

    @Moonshine Mike: I have a DVD player made at Wal-Mart (long story) that I got many years ago. It still works fine.

    I’d like to keep using it until I find a better one that can be modified to ignore “unskippable” (UOP) flags in some way. But not an Apex. I had one of those once. It was a piece of junk.

  24. FLConsumer says:

    The other issue with newer devices is the software loaded on them. Just because the hardware is decent and ready doesn’t mean the software is. I went through a few LG mobile phones where the hardware was decent, but the software was borderline unusable. As devices become more complex, the chances of a manufacturer buying parts from outside vendors rather than designing devices from the ground-up will only cause more problems.

    Also, it would be nice if the devices would last longer than 1 month beyond the warranty (EPSON!) As far as PCs, if it’s well-designed it’ll last forever. I’ve seen original IBM-XTs purring along in specialized situations, and I just retired an old Pentium-I this past month, still working. Then there’s the cheap, disposable systems, like the eMachines and Dell Dimensions. I wouldn’t expect to get more than 3 years from one of those systems (if even) and I certainly wouldn’t expect to be able to get parts. Almost all-proprietary in those.

  25. Canadian Impostor says:

    As an engineer I’d like to chime in here:

    Goods are designed to last a certain amount of time. Most people replace their cell phone every year, so why spend more money designing a phone that lasts ten years?

    The decrease in the longevity of our consumer products directly correlates to a shift in buying habits; instead of owning a car for 15 years until it literally died most Americans trade their cars in every three or four years. Instead of watching the same TV for twenty years we buy a new one every two years.

    Manufacturers could make whatever you want that would last forever, but it would be a lot more expensive. If you’re really worried about product longevity buy more expensive premium products that are more solidly built. We’ve all gotten used to cheap junk that lasts about as long as we need it to, but invariably that means something will break early and thus, people complaining on the internet.

  26. thewaz says:

    Seagate has a 5 year warranty on their hard drives! and its relatively likely they will die in that time if you use them more than average.

  27. CaptainRoin says:

    @jorach: ahhh the refreshing wisdom of a fellow engineer. its sad and true fact that people replace things way too early, that’s why i usually buy the best I can get, use it till it dies and repeat. I try not to buy things that I know will break in a few years.

  28. MavsFan says:

    OK. While it’s true many products (such as iPods) don’t an easy way for the user to replace the battery, Giles goes way overboard in his recent article on Mother Jones.

    http://www.motherjones.com/commentary/columns/2007/03/iwas

    In that article, he claims Apple “encourages speedy obsolescence… by introducing spiffy new models shortly after you’ve acquired the latest thing”.

    Can he be serious?

  29. Theseus says:

    @Buran: Funny you should mention Apex. I have a combo TV/DVD from them that I bought about 4 years ago when I moved into my new place.

    I was about to complain about the fact that the DVD player is starting to act funky occasionally, but know I’m thinking 4 years for a mid-tier product means I am actually getting more than my money’s worth!

  30. Charles Star says:

    jorach: I don’t think that short lifespans are consumer-driven – it is more of a feedback loop prompted by the producers. Producers promote the replacement culture via advertising, incremental improvements, dubious-but-heavily marketed improvements, cosmetic changes and fashion (and, occassionally, with real, significant improvements).

  31. mac-phisto says:

    @jorach: i am here to tell you that i would pay more for a phone (& li-ion battery) that will last me 5+ years. i believe there’s a market for this. sure, the cell phone providers won’t sell the phone, but that’s ok, i’ll buy it direct from manufacturer if i have to.

    my phone’s barely a year old & it’s already starting to crap out on me.

  32. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    @Moonshine Mike: Ahh I remember back in my College years working for the big yellow tag..We would have sales on those el-cheapo Dvd players for $30 then ppl would bring them back like “these suck!” well of course they do they are selling for $30 when all the regular name brands are a $100..you get what you pay for.

  33. xkaluv says:

    In the industry they call it “Value Engineering”. They build a prototype that is designed with whatever it takes to get the job done. Then they “value engineer” the product for mass production, cutting costs in every way possible so the product will, more times than not, live past it’s warrenty. (Which they call failure rate.)

  34. elladisenchanted says:

    You know what’s amazing?

    In 1978, my mother bought a Hitachi 13″ color TV. Cost almost $400. Had this awful fake woodgrain finish. She also bought a Ford LTD.

    The LTD died an uncerimonious death in 1985. That Hitachi TV? It’s still working. Never been fixed, it’s been cleaned all of twice, and though the picture seems cruddy by modern standards, I sold the thing for 35 bucks in 1999. I was at my friend’s house not long ago helping out in the kitchen and we were watching Aqua Teen on that very Hitachi TV.

    I’ve never had a TV last over four years since.
    The funny part is that not long ago at work i faced a decision as to whether to buy Hitachi components or another company’s. You know darn well who I picked…because of that $400-in-1978 color TV. That, my friends, is the *real* value engineering.

  35. SexCpotatoes says:

    I bought an Apex DVD player at WalMart back when they cost $120 and single DVDs were $20 at their cheapest. That DVD player soldiers on to this day, and plays anything you can throw at it (except Divx I think).

    The new Apexes are trash, kind of like how Gateway and Vtech respectively built reputations for quality, and then cheaped out on all their parts.

  36. FLConsumer says:

    @mac-phisto: I’m entirely with you on this one. I don’t change products very often. I’d much rather spend $$$ and get a quality product than spend $$ and get a product with questionable quality and equally dodgy beta testing.

    There IS a market out there for these products, and it’s quite a bit larger than most manufacturers and stores would expect. This type of customer would be highly desirable — the type who buy car, homes, and goods for durability and longevity. These tend to be affluent people who come from a long lineage of money, who appreciate the value of good engineering. They will gladly pay well above the bog-standard rates to get quality and service. Case in point: Hammacher-Schlemmer. While not top-quality, they charge like it is and they offer top-notch service. Sure, you can probably get 75% of their items elsewhere for less, but you’re probably not going to get the same level of service.

    For electronics, I’ve resorted to buying products designed for radio & TV stations, where it’s designed to run 24/7. Even some of the gear designed for recording studios isn’t up to snuff now.

    For everything else, I look for commercial/industrial grade products. These are usually built with TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) in mind and can handle quite a bit of abuse.

  37. Elle Rayne says:

    Interesting. I’ll have to pick up that book.