Designed to Fail – sounds baffling at first instance, isn’t it? Well, what if we say that it is true! That products and services today are intentionally manufactured to be defective or to get worn out soon. But why would companies do that? Why would they produce an inferior good that could actually hurt their brand image? Let us find out.
Crux of the Matter
The Centennial Light
The Centennial Light is the world’s longest-lasting light bulb, burning since 1901. The handmade bulb has never been switched off and is running for 120 years! If handmade bulbs can survive this long then why don’t our present day bulbs?
In December 1924, senior executives of world’s top light bulb companies had met in Geneva, Switzerland.
Major firms include : Philips (Netherlands), General Electric (US), Tokyo Electric (Japan), Osram (Germany), Associated Electrical Industries (UK), etc. This group came to be known as Phoebus Cartel.
Purpose Of Cartel
In a move to increase the sale of their products, the cartel decided to cut down the lifespan of their bulbs to 1000 hours, which was then almost half of the existing period. Each member’s sample light bulb was tested at a lab to see if they have confirmed with the 1000 hour limit.
Companies were heavily fined if bulbs surpassed the limits. For instance, for a bulb lasting 3,000+ hours, a fine of 200 Swiss Francs for every 1,000 bulbs sold was charged.
Life of Bulbs over the years
While Phoebus Cartel died in 1939, the practise of planned obsolescence continued.
What Is Planned Obsolescence?
It is a strategy of making a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a predetermined period of time. It also means not creating an efficient product even if the manufacturer can easily provide its customers with a better product.
The Case Of Inkjet Printers
Inkjet printer manufacturers employ smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold, even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink or could be refilled. The poor durability and high cost of repair turn printers into nothing but disposable commodities. As a result, consumers find it easier to buy a new printer instead of repairing the old one.
The Case Of Apple
In 2017-18, Apple confirmed that it did slow down some iPhones, but said it only did so to “prolong the life” of the devices. iPhone owners “were not informed that installing iOS updates (10.2.1 and 11.2) could slow down their devices”.
As a result, Apple was fined 25 million euros by the French authority DGCCRF that was probing Apple for “planned obsolescence” in Apple’s iPhone. Later, Apple also agreed to pay $113 million to 34 states in the US to settle an investigation into its practice of slowing down iPhones.
- Osram apparently means “to poop” in Polish. As a result, many believe that this company failed badly in Poland.
- In 1924, American automobile market began reaching saturation point. To maintain unit sales, General Motors executive Alfred P. Sloan Jr. suggested annual model-year design changes to convince car owners to buy new replacements each year, with refreshed appearances headed by Harley Earl and the Art and Color Section.
- The origins of the phrase planned obsolescence go back at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London’s pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. The essence of London’s plan would have the government impose a legal obsolescence on personal-use items, to stimulate and perpetuate purchasing.