Planned Obsolescence: A Lament for Quality Amid a World of Junk

Our family recently camped for a week in a nearby state forest where our most trusted item was a cast-iron frying pan. Its thickness distributes heat evenly. Nothing can harm it. The wrong kind of spatula won’t scratch some special non-stick coating.With simple care, it will last for a thousand years. Which reminded me how rare that combination of high quality and durability is today.

Most everything else I own is junk and seems to be designed that way. Here are several anecdotal examples:

In the old days, most Americans rented phones from the phone company (“Ma Bell”). My parents still own one, now over 30 years old, that survived raising three boys. These phones lasted forever. Meanwhile, Ma Bell was broken up in the 1980s. One engineer who worked for the phone company before and after the breakup told me of how the engineers were gathered together and given new ground rules: “It was all well and good in the old days to make phones with gold-plated contacts. But now it’s different. Here’s how to make the newer phones…” I think back on this comment as I watch one phone after another die, often after a few months.

I once helped my uncle select a new laser printer for his small business. The printer was a Laserjet 5 made by Hewlett-Packard. That was 15 years ago; the printer still works beautifully. It is made of metal and feels robust. In contrast, current printers, whether from HP or anyone else, feel like plastic junk. Whenever I open a compartment on my current printer, I worry that I will snap off a piece of the case and break it beyond repair.

Many iPhone models cannot have their battery replaced.

My less anecdotal example is textbooks. A standard introductory college physics textbook is Young and Freedman’s University Physics. Why is it in its 12th edition? In the 55 years since it was first published, has introductory college physics changed so significantly and so frequently? Hardly. Almost every idea taught in introductory physics has remained unchanged since the 1930s when quantum mechanics was developed. Indeed, the masterwork in this genre, Feynman’s famous Lectures on Physics was published in 1964 and is still mostly in its original form (there are two newer editions incorporating corrections provided by readers worldwide).

The reason for the 12 editions of Young and Freedman’s University Physics, as for most textbooks today, is planned obsolescence. Textbook publication contracts usually have a clause roughly along the following lines:

You agree to revise the book upon written request from us (the publisher). If you do not agree, we may select an author and pay them from your royalties. The payment will not exceed 25 percent of the royalties for the first revision, 50 percent for the second revision, and 75 for the third revision (and all the royalties for fourth and subsequent revisions).

The original author may be unwilling to do a revision, either because he or she has died or otherwise has no time. The publisher invites another author to make the revision, and voila, a new edition with a longer author list is created.

Best of all, the new edition is not available on the used-book market! Therein lies the publisher’s reason for the new edition: to force students to buy a new book rather than to “recycle” by buying a used copy. Often the newer edition will be nearly identical to the previous edition, except for reordering and renumbering the end-of-chapter problems. Therefore, homework assignments with lists of problems based on one edition cannot be used for a different edition. Conscientious professors will provide multiple problem numbers based on edition. However, after a few editions even the most conscientious will give up tracking the changes and simply require students to buy the current edition.

This deliberate generation of waste might have amazed and shocked our scholarly colleagues from medieval times. In medieval England, a book cost about $10,000 (in 2011 dollars) [H. E. Bell, The Price of Books in Medieval EnglandLibrary s4-XVII (3):312-332 (1936)]. This cost makes sense: Copying a book by hand might take a skilled workman about half a year. That one day books would be so cheap and publishers’ profit so important that people would design books to be thrown out—this would simply have been incomprehensible.


Lucas

The less wasteful approach would be to sell booklets consisting only of homework problems and update them yearly (or even quarterly). The profit margin on a cheaply printed (or even electronically distributed) homework set ought to be high.

Steve S

Long lived equipment is still manufactured. Look at anything built for the "industrial" market, such as machine tools, or a more specific example such as bandsaws. A typical consumer grade bandsaw sells for $500 or less and will put up with a few years of weekend handyman type use. A commercial grade bandsaw sells for $1-3k and will put up with moderate use for 5 or maybe 10 years. An industrial bandsaw sells for minimum $10k but will last for at least 30 years. The "industrial" equipment is also designed to be maintained and rebuilt indefinitely. I have recently seen machine tools in use that had a "wartime production board" identification plate riveted on the side.

But is the consumer going to pay the 20X premium for the machine that will be around for his grandchildren? Most will not, and I am happy they have the choice not too.

Then there are cars. Some cars simply are not going to live very long. We can all think of examples. Then there are cars that will live a very long time, however those cars cost more initially and more to maintain. Porsche likes to brag that about 60% of all their cars ever are built still on the road. We have also all seen 30+ year old Mercedes Benz cars on the road. They were scary expensive when new, but in hind sight they seem a bargain.

I think it comes down to the cost of and access to capital. Someone with money on hand and a great credit rating has a low cost of capital, and does not mind making the investment in a long lived investment. People and organizations with higher cost of capital think in smaller investments for shorter times. These are also the people buying sodas one at a time instead of buying the six pack and putting the other 5 in storage to drink later. These are the companies buying or leasing the cheapest possible furniture to just "get through" the next 2 years or 6 months.

Disclosure: I own a company that manufactures industrial bandsaws. Some of my machines are still in service after 40 years of use. I drive a German car.

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James

"...30+ year old Mercedes Benz cars on the road. They were scary expensive when new..."

Though durability doesn't necessarily correlate to expense. For instance, Toyota's 1980s pickups. Plenty of them still on the road (including mine), and modified by the off-road people. Same for the '80s Honda Civic & CRX: still plenty on the road, and with an active modding aftermarket.

Consumer

It was pointed out that consumers always go for the cheapest but this is not always true. In my case I always go for the best price-performance.
The problem with that is that the utility (measured against money spent) is not linear but logarithmic - aftrer some point you simply get less bang for your buck. So if you are looking for price-performance you are likely to never buy the most expensive (and potentially highest quality) product.

Justin

The problem is, most of the examples you cite aren't really good ones, and you fail to account for the fact that the stuff made today that you see as "nondurable" compared to older models are also much much cheaper in real terms, and therefore could probably be replaced several times over for the less than the cost of the sturdier one made decades ago.

Also, the textbook situation could be easily fixed by having professors who picked a version of the book and stuck with for a decade or more, and refused to switch to every brand new version that hits the shelves. And I'm sure the students would have no objections.

Laura Conrad

I've been grumbling about exactly this problem, too. My teakettle has stopped whistling loud enough to be heard in the next room over the TV or radio.

My mother had a Revereware teakettle for several decades that went on working just as well when it was 40 years old as it had the day she bought it. I've had at least 4 teakettles since moving into my current place 28 years ago. The teakettle reviews on Amazon suggest that none of the brands are going to last any longer than what I've been buying.

Travis

I once heard somewhere that one of the federal agencies (I forget which one) has a guideline that essentially advises waste haulers / dump owners to not let people "scavenge" for usable stuff, despite the fact that much of what gets thrown away still has useful parts if not being fully useful itself.

I think much of the "disposable lifestyle" that we live in now (teflon coated pans that last 3 years, max, plastic bags / wrap to keep everything "organized," Disposable flatware, etc.) came about post WW2. I remember a lot of products, like Saran Wrap had some trouble catching on, because post WW2 people still had the conservation mindset, and it was not natural to throw away things which were still useable or useful.

I've always wondered what the economics of this was.

technologist

The HP LaserJet 5 engine is made by Canon rather than HP. A "feature" of this generation of printer is that when you replace the toner cartridge, you've refreshed most of the paper path assembly, i.e. "guts" of the printer.

I don't know if I'd feel special about a 4 PPM (pages per minute) monochrome printer with high priced, low yield cartridges. And remember how much you paid for it when new. Are you spending the same amount on a quality laser printer today? Doubtful. For the same price you paid then, you can buy a workgroup class laser printer that is quieter, more efficient (sleep mode) and will print out hundreds of thousands of pages @ 45+ PPM before requiring a maintenance kit. At a far lower CPP as well.

It does have the benefit of having a lower cost per page than HP's inkjet printers though!

Eric M. Jones

More on "planned Obsolescence"--

My first real job out of high school (1956) was as a machine operator, inspector, and general shop help. The shop has a giant leased machine that swallowed up huge steel alloy rods and spit out poppet valves for General Motors engines. In the next room, these valves were measured, dipped into plasticoat and put into categories. The really close-tolerance valves went to Cadillac, then the lesser quality valves went to Buick, then Pontiac and finally Chevrolet. Some, but a few valves were scrapped. If there were too many good valves, there would be some higher tolerance valves that went into the lower-tolerance boxes, but they never went the other way, since Cadillac paid for the premium quality part, and they got it.

Obsolete textbooks--"The reason for the 12 editions of Young and Freedman’s University Physics, as for most textbooks today, is planned obsolescence."-- is patently absurd. Every time a book is reprinted presents an opportunity for the publisher and author to make needed updates, revisions and corrections. Yes, it should all be online...any day now. Feynman's pivotal work is updated less BECAUSE HE'S DEAD. Newton's work has been pretty stable for a while now too--same reason. I'm sure both of these authors would made oodles of changes if they only had the chance. The idea that authors and publishers make changes just to obsolete the old book is to be far too cynical.

Your comment on phones--"the engineers were gathered together and given new ground rules: “It was all well and good in the old days to make phones with gold-plated contacts. But now it’s different. Here’s how to make the newer phones…." is anecdotal and likely spurious. No company does engineering this way.

Note to Steve S: "I have recently seen machine tools in use that had a “wartime production board” identification plate riveted on the side."-- Wartime machine-tool production demanded shortcuts at every stage. Ways (sliding surfaces) were often left rough. Castings were often not deburred. There were frequent prized and awards given for money-saving tips. The P-51 Fighter was put together with pop-rivets and eventually came apart in flight. Engines and planes often were expected to last only one-hundred-or-so hours.

There is a story told that Henry Ford would have his engineers examine worn-out flivers. If they found a part that was still good, they would go back and figure out how to make that particular part (such as a steering kingpin) less expensively. The "least total cost machine" is one where ALL the parts become worn-out at once. One's reaction to this design truth shows whether or not you understand the issue--you don't want the worn-out machine to have still-usable parts any more than is necessary. The alternative design choice is to have the device serviced continuously as airplanes and heavy equipment are. This is expensive. The last several cars I have owned...I hardly ever opened the hood. Thank you Henry Ford.

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Anonymous

I bought a "candy bar" phone in Year 2004 with a pre paid plan. It still works! I bought a candy bar phone because I had a flip phone (like Capt Kirk) and because the ribbon cable is bent back and forth each time you call the ship, it eventually fails from metal fatigue with the wire. You would not want to have your flip phone go bad if your car breaks down in the middle of Death Valley! My phone is 7 years old and it has all the features I need or want. An iPhone wouldn't work with a pre paid account anyways, so I don't care. The phone's battery still goes for 3 days between fill-ups.

The car I drive now is sure to last a long time. It's a former police car Crown Vic. It has 170K on the 6 digit odometer (equal to 2/3 of the way to the moon) and cabbies drive used cop cars. I know it'll last with needed maintenance since I don't drive THAT much! Except for gas mileage, the car is great.

But finding quality is getting harder, as "bad money displaces good" with Walmart selling junk made in dime an hour China - and dime an hour labor gives you dime an hour workmanship.

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