Section 7.3: Product Life Extension – Obsolescence vs Modularity

7.3.1: Planned Product Obsolescence

Planned product obsolescence is a business strategy in which obsolescence (the process of becoming obsolete) of a product is pre-planned and built into it from the start. The product is deliberately designed to have a specific lifespan before becoming obsolete either through a shortened lifespan, persistent unresolvable technical and functional issues over time, or by simply being made unfashionable or aesthetically outdated.

In planned obsolescence, a product is designed to function long enough to develop the consumer’s need and reliance on it. It is also designed to convince the consumer that the product is a quality product even though it will eventually need to be replaced. Oftentimes, such products require replacement or an upgrade before they fail. When the product eventually fails, the consumer’s confidence and reliance on the product convinces them to want to buy an “improved”, “upgraded”, “up to date” version of the same item.

Obsolescence in action
Let’s take a look at some distinct examples of planned obsolescence in our daily lives.

A) Washing machines
Washing machines are designed to have an average lifespan of 5- 6 years. However, they only operate for about two to three years before they start facing minor issues- conveniently just as they have passed their standard product warranty expiry date.

This occurs because most of the washing machine’s component parts have been manufactured using quality materials with the exception of some of the most vital parts. Approximately two years after purchase, the machine may require minor inexpensive repairs or part replacements. However, after four to five years vital components begin to give way or wear out and a replacement is essential.

In this case, for planned obsolescence to work, the pre-determined operational lifespan of the washing machine has to have convinced the consumer that they have seen value for money and fostered the consumer to have enough confidence in the brand, to replace the original washing machine with the modern equivalent machine from the same manufacturer.

Read more about planned obsolescence in white goods here

B) Mobile phones
The mobile phone industry is a highly competitive market, defined by constant technology and technical development upgrades and continual restyling and remodeling.

Mobile phones are often designed only with current technology in mind, in spite of the manufacturer’s knowledge of and investment in future technological developments. For example, a mobile phone may have USB ports, connections, or jack plugs that fit current products, such as head phones and computers. This means that the phone is not future proof.

The manufacturer may already be working on updated phones that connect using different sizes of USB ports or connections. Although the current phone can be upgraded with software, eventually the ‘old’ USB ports, connections, or jack plugs will make the product obsolete. Thus, customers will need to purchase a new phone even though there may be nothing wrong with his or her existing phone. The old phone becomes obsolete.

Access this link to learn more about how mobile phones are designed with obsolescence in mind

Explore this link to learn more about how Apple and other companies are guilty of planned product obsolescence

Strategically, the philosophy of “Built in Obsolescence” may to add to business growth and development over time if applied properly. However, planned obsolescence also promotes disposability (functional products being dumped so that new updated ones can be acquired) and is therefore not sustainable from an environmental point of view.

The dilemma that sustainable green manufacturers face is designing desirable products, with components that can be recycle or reused when the product is thrown away, that can at the same time attract style conscious consumers.

7.3.2: Product modularity – A key concept in life cycle design

The goal of life-cycle design is to maximize the values of a manufacturer’s product line, while minimizing the products’ lifetime costs to the producer, the consumer, society, and the wider environment. For this, engineers have to consider performance, cost and environmental impacts of their designs during the early stages of product development. The diagram below illustrates the typical flow of materials within the lifecycle of a product.

Source: Ishii 1995

Product modularization is a method of to reduce complexity, implemented during the product design process. It is a way of organizing complex products and operational systems into simpler component modules that can be managed independently and used interchangeably (in different systems or configurations) in new innovative ways, without compromising systems integrity.

From a manufacturing perspective, modularity optimizes production and service efficiency as well as permits easy customization. Independent component suppliers (ie. A, B, and C) are allowed freedom and control to over the base design and internal workings of their own components (ie. Blocks A, B, and C). Product leadership however oversees and ensures that the designs of its suppliers are able to function together in different configurations.

Source: Reynold 2014

This allows design customization, and for the product to be assembled or disassembled easily for operational improvements to be made to each component without significantly impacting to the product’s entire system.

Characteristics of modularity
– Modularized products can be easily modified to meet the functional needs of end users.
– Designed with post-purchase service and product downtime to consumer in mind.
– Ease of disassembly and replacement is designed into the assembly and placement of product component.
– Designed for convenient interchangeability and inter-operability with other products.

Benefits of modularity
– Reduced component economies of scale, due to the use of components across manufacturer’s product families.
– Ease of product updates and/or upgrades, due to easily disassembled functional modules.
– Increased product variety and customization options from a smaller number of components.
– Decreased order lead-time (time between initiation and completion of the production process) due to fewer component parts.
– Ease of design and component testing, through the decoupling of product functions.
– Ease of service due to lower consumption and down time.
– Increased flexibility, through reduced production cycle time, to meet changing processes.

Product modularity presents sustainable manufacturers with opportunities to strategically counter planned obsolescence without compromising their competitive advantage. It also allows them to pro-actively design products with interchangeable and interoperable components or parts that can be recycled or reuse, when the product is ultimately disposed of by style conscious consumers.

Supplementary Resources

Planned Obsolescence 

Fisher (2016) “This is the Queen Mum’s fridge. It’s lasted 62 years. So why will yours only last for SIX? We all suspect it. But here’s proof today’s gadgets really are DESIGNED to go wrong”

Del Mastro “Planned Obsolescence: The good and the bad”  

Paris Innovation Review (2013) “Planned obsolescence: a weapon of mass discarding, or a catalyst for progress?”

Product Modularity

Baldwin & Clark (1997) ” Managing in an age of Modularity”

Schrader “How modularity promotes sustainability”

Boer et. al (2013) ” Product modularity and its effects on firm performance” 

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