Thursday, March 21, 2013

Planned obsolescence in the Green Party

Edit: A coorporation that was mentioned isn't anymore.

The Greens have published a study which finds widespread planned obsolescence (po). They claim that in order to sell more products, manufacturers deliberately put parts  into their products that will fail shortly after the guarantee ends. I think I can disprove that without even looking at the study. I will just use a bild article about it. I will show that it makes no sense; neither from an engineering point of view nor economically; and will neither help someone who wants to rip of custumors nor a manufacturer, who wants to resell new products faster.

The German word is not the same as the English one. If you look at the English wiki you will find several instances where PO actually does apply. In Germany PO just means making a product, that will fail on purpose a few years in.

In engineering something similar but not sinister is known. In the 19th century after having studied several rail way accidents, August Wöhler found the reason why parts will fail eventhough only loads, so small that there was no permanent (plastic) deformation, were aplied. It is called fatigue. Starting from the smallest material flaws, cyclical loading of parts will lead to ever growing cracks that will ultimately lead to the failure of the device. For example a polished drive shaft will in general survive more cycles that one that has mashine markings on it. Steel, unlike light metals, can be designed in a way that it at least in theory survives an unlimited number of loads.

Green Party members now might ask themselves, why don't we make all parts like this? They might even use more questionmarks to show their frustation (???????). The reasons are simple: the prize increases a lot, making customers less likely to buy. There is a limited design space available, a car for example is usally between 4 m and 5 m (13 ft and 16 ft) long. Also there is a weight limit. Greens might actually find the idea that 20 t cars flood the streets just as stupid as we do. A electric tooth-bruch weighing in at 5 pounds might just not be that practical. Additionally, there is corrosion which will in time reduce the cycles a part will survive. Some people might prefer functioning designs. So for some it might just be more important that an aircraft is able to fly, over an aircraft that is just unable to, but will never ever break. So from a technical perspective it is in most cases just utterly impossible to design something that will be functioning until doomsday. Also, cylces do NOT translate in time. A customer brushing his teeth 3 times a day for 3 minutes will make a product fail faster than a person only doing it before dates.

Economically, it also doesn't make sense to design something that will fail on purpose. The reasons are twofold: 1) Let's take one of their examples: a "milk frother", a simple device that cost only around 7 €. The producer expects 1,000,000 sales. He will be able to sell his product at 4 € and production costs are 3 €, yielding about 1 € in profits (yeah I know he is the best crap product manufacturer, ever). Now, the Green party assumed that he employed several engineers who designed, tested, and simulated the product to make sure it fails after two years. So instead of a designer a test engineer and a boss, working on the project for 3 months to make sure that the product does not fail after a short time, we now have twice as many people working twice as long making sure the product does fail after a certain amount of time (which I showed is impossible). Let's look at profits: at an average pay of 30.000 € p.a. (Chinese engineers and boss), he will be able to keep 970.000 € without PO in profits for the company. Applying PO will reduce that to 880.000 €.

Now the Greens assume the company owner does that, because he thinks, that after the product fails he will be able to sell the "happy" customers his newest product which will also fail within two years. Which brings us to 2): Let's look at that by using a different example they give. Some notebook casings make it close to impossible to clean the cooling fan. I own a A.A. notebook that has exactly this problem. Dirt accumulates infront of the gills. This has already lead to reduced power. I cannot play games anymore that I was able to a few months ago. The Greens make the assumption, that this is done so I will buy a new product faster. Well, this just might happen. I will probably get a new one pretty soon. But two things are 100 % clear. It will neither be an A. notebook nor one, there I cannot clean the fan easily. So actually, if they had done this on purpose, they are rather stupid. Because this also leads to me advising anybody who listens against A. notebooks. I am not the only one, we can savely assume that this happens to anybody using such a device. So this is not PO. This is an utterly stupid design decision which will cost them sales and also damages their brand.

Conclusion: if one buys cheap, he will get a crappy product and he will not buy a crappy product from the same company again. Also, for an engineer it is impossible to design a product that fails after a certain amount of time. PO - as the German Greens define it - is scientifically impossible and damages sales. The party obviously thinks that he who screams the loudest will get more attention. Sadly they are right, because the German "Quality Journalists" just copy+paste without thinking for one second.

Dsiclaimer: there are possibly a few idiot company owners out there who think PO, just like the Greens, makes sense. Those will be crushed in the end. Sadly, this does not apply to the party running around blaming engineers for something that is impossible. But we can safely assume that planned obsolescence makes sense for parties and journalists, since tomorrow then people come out and call them out on their BS they will have moved on. The Greens will haved placed their product in the news and the journalist will have increased their revenue with clicks, by just copy+pasting nonsense.

1 comment:

  1. Many companies are deliberately applying planned obsolescence in their products. To think otherwise is naive. A good example is Apple who assemble products in ways that make them very difficult or impossible to disassemble and repair.

    Example: Why do they GLUE the batteries in the MIDDLE of their products? Because they have to? Well, other companies are not doing it (Samsung for example), so there is no reason for Apple to do it other than planned obsolescence.