Planned Obsolescence: Who are those planners?

Publikation auf Englisch

At the Product Lifetimes and the Environment conference (PLATE 2017), Jörg Longmuß and Erik Poppe presented their paper „Planned Obsolescence: Who are those Planners?“ to an international audience.

In their contribution, they provide an insight into the study on longevity and obsolescence in product development processes (LOiPE), which will run until June 2018. The starting point of the contribution are questions about the limits and possibilities of obsolescence and lifespan planning among the actors involved in the product creation processes.

How do you recognise planned obsolescence?

„A large part of the mainstream tries to uncover planned obsolescence by proving weak points in the product, but this does not sufficiently explain whether something is really planned or not“, explains Jörg Longmuß and continues: „our approach was therefore to ask the alleged planners directly“.

Through the support of the IG Metall trade union and other informal approaches, a series of interviews with process-related actors on the current working conditions and paradigms in product development were conducted. Even if the interviews are not representative in total, some important qualitative insights were gained.

Form – Timing – Intention (RTI)

„We found out relatively quickly that planned obsolescence is defined very differently as a concept. Often, however, most critics implicitly speak of the planning of premature obsolescence“, Erik Poppe elaborates and explains further: „but this is analytically very one-sided, because the planning of obsolescence can also aim at enabling longer lifetimes or is a prerequisite for them in the first place“. For an understanding of the phenomenon that is as value-free as possible, both therefore propose a formal definition and supplement this with three characteristics of planned obsolescence (RTI model).

Results from the interviews

Through the interviews, no evidence of planned premature obsolescence could be found so far. However, three reasons can be identified why the intended lifespan is not always achievable:

  • Increase in complexity: Distributed supply chains, decreasing production depths, a growing importance of microelectronics and software are nowadays in many cases an obstacle to long product lifetimes and can only be managed well by individual companies at great expense.
  • Time pressure: Short market cycles and time-to-markets of products and components increase the demands in product development and in many cases force streamlined product testing. In some cases, individual components are discontinued by suppliers or software without alternative, so that the products and components are only supported in the market for limited periods of time.
  • Cost pressure: Low price targets for end products are a major constraint on product lifetimes and qualities.

The above-mentioned limitations act simultaneously in product development and can be understood as drivers of systemic obsolescence.

Approaches to extending product lifetimes

Approaches to avoid premature obsolescence must be jointly managed by manufacturers, retailers and consumers in the sense of shared product responsibility. Possible starting points for this are:

  • Consumer orientation for durable products: Consumer orientation is the starting point for manufacturers‘ product planning. If consumers take longevity, reparability, sharing concepts or reusability more into account as a value factor in the purchase and use of products, new business models can develop for manufacturers that favour durable products.
  • „Multi-Life“ instead of „Single-Life“ products: Products today are predominantly tailored for the first user and become obsolete with the first failure. Sustainable product concepts must focus more on reparability and the possibility of remanufacturing, so that further use of the products by other consumers is also possible.
  • Producer pride as the key to longevity: Product developers and engineers usually have a high level of quality awareness, which can be demonstrably reinforced by anchoring high quality standards in the company’s mission statement.

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