With the concept of planned obsolescence embedded in just about every corner of product design, 3D printing is well on its way to redefining the status quo. How this will be achieved is always open to debate.
What we do know is that a disruptive technology like 3D printing is up against an array of natural and unnatural forces committed to keeping things the way they are. Does innovation rely on the continuous drive to consume? If a disruption technology like 3D printing is introduced into our planned obsolescence ecosystem, what barriers need to be overcome to change norms?
Planning for the product to plan to fail
When Brooks Stevens introduced the phrase “planned obsolescence” in 1954, the actual strategy was more nefarious at the time. Not only was the goal to make people own something new and be forced to replace the old, but a governing entity would decide for you when it was time to replace something in the name of sustaining industrial and economic momentum for society as a whole. Pretty weird.
Planned obsolescence has softened since then, where retailers and manufacturers simply embark on a number of ways to influence a consumer’s buying habits using planned obsolescence techniques in product design. It’s not just about designing parts or components to eventually fail; planned obsolescence can involve a myriad of strategies that may include changing product styles or fashions so they are no longer “en vogue”, altering product compatibilities, redesigning functionality, or setting intentional limits on a product’s performance or lifespan.
The goal is to keep consumers spinning in perpetual purchasing mode over a $25 toaster. Even with good marketing and the ability to engineer the perception of product failure, one can influence consumers into replacing something that’s still completely functional.
There are already a number of arguments against planned obsolescence. Apart from the philosophical discussion of consumerism, there are also environmental effects to consider, monetary waste, misrepresentative marketing, and stifled competition.
However, in our present reality, light bulbs or automobile parts have to fail (or at least require replacement) in order to keep the profit motive alive. It’s understandable that planned obsolescence evolved the way that it did in order for our economy to achieve measurable growth over the last century. Of course, there was a time when things were built to last, but manufacturers and retailers realized that you need consumers to come back and purchase again regardless if the product works or not.
Your grandfather’s old tools were indestructible, still operated as designed, offered artisan-like quality, and required absolutely no additional need to purchase another from the company again.
How cool was that?
The flip side
Not all inferior products are intentionally designed to fail in the name of planned obsolescence. There are market forces at work that drive the strategic decisions made by companies in how they approach the design and life cycle of a product. In the realm of electronics, consumer demand for a thinner or smaller device can lead to greater chances of failure. A thinner screen, smaller parts, and more fragile control features all in the name of cutting edge become aren’t always as durable.
Take cars, for example. The more durable the car, the less need there is for consumers to go out and buy a new one. This causes car manufacturers to pivot with a new design strategy that continues to maintain the revenue stream. This could take the form of simply redesigning the cosmetic features of a car in order to make last year’s model look outdated.
Demand for gadget integration into cars means you’ll pay double the price for things like an OEM navigation system or Wi-Fi. What would the fashion industry be like if everyone relied on the same clothing styles each year? There are only so many places to sew a button. Hence, the latest trends seen on magazine covers will dictate a fashion designer’s product design strategy. Ultimately, it can be argued that consumer buying psychology is just as responsible for planned obsolescence as is the manufacturer.
Not your granddaddy’s 3D printer anymore
One day, you’ll grumpily blurt out over the dinner table across from your great grandkids: “Back in my day we just 3D printed a new gosh darn part replacement!” When that time comes, who knows what we’ll be doing to replicate matter – but we’ll certainly want it to be the norm, especially if it offers positive benefits that supersede today’s drive for cruddy products.
Regardless, today we know that 3D printing is branching out in different directions to overcome the specter of planned obsolescence. New possibilities are just around the corner depending on how our “Moore’s Law” pans out for 3D printing innovation. Think of it like the opposing force to planned obsolescence. For now, like yin and yang, the two will need each other in order to maintain economic momentum.
Six 3D printing forces that will obsolesce planned obsolescence
Personalization is the most obvious way that 3D printing puts the power of product design into the hands of users. Size, fit, function, aesthetics, and features can all be developed and fabricated by the user, eliminating the psychology that you need to buy a new or improved to carry on.
Crowd sourced development abandons the thought of obsolescence, thereby letting end-users take design control of the product they actually want. 3D printers provide a level of personal customization to products that traditional manufacturing may not be able to accommodate. A base template design for a product can be modified, allowing individual users to apply their own personal touch.
By employing modularity in 3D printable designs, components of a product can be interchanged, combined, or exchanged without an impact to its function or a motivating requirement to purchase a replacement. New functionality can be integrated into original designs that are 3D printed on-the-fly to meet user needs. Complex systems can be designed for modularity through 3D printing, allowing for easy manageability, implementation, and maintenance. Any product can be designed to be entirely serviceable with 3D printing, allowing users to build augmented parts for support or function.
Repair & Restoration
3D printing your own part for the expressed purpose of repair is a potential a nightmare for planned obsolescence. The concept of “obsolete” becomes an illusion if you’re capable of continuously fabricating part replacements instead of returning to the original manufacturer or retailer.
It’s nothing new – people have always taken it upon themselves to repair a broken product instead of purchasing a new one. When you put a 3D printer in someone’s hands, you’ve just compounded the consumer advantage. 3D scanners can be used to replicate parts before they break, allowing users to store digital files on an entire assembly ready for fabrication.
This is especially true in the world of automobile restoration. Parts that are no longer manufactured can be resurrected thanks to 3D scanning and 3D printing, removing obsolescence from the equation or any dependency on the original manufacturer.
The exchange of 3D printable files over the internet proves to be another indication of the demise of planned obsolescence. Parts and components need to be physically shipped or transported, thus adding to the manufacturing cost of products. Digital files can be sent for nearly for free over any computer and 3D printed from home.
Traditional logistics, which is dependent upon the transportation of spare parts to support a broken product, will be drastically changed. 3D printing eliminates the need for sourcing parts from different locations or manufacturers, thereby removing the power for them to determine a product’s operational life. Whole assemblies can be manufactured from home with more control over design or quality.
Building products to only last a certain period of time is tightly ingrained in our society. Some people build whole businesses that rely on the failure of products. iPhone batteries require replacement – not by the user, but by either the original manufacturer or a third party service. Car mechanics need cars to break down in order to make a living, providing both labor and replacement parts from a manufacturer. Therefore, the psychology of replacement is a barrier that 3D printing can help navigate with consumers.
No one is advocating turning the service economy completely on its head by destroying jobs. However, in terms of psychology, 3D printers can help augment our strategy for replacement by giving users the awareness that they have more control over the outcome of their products. Consumers will realign their buying habits, understanding that 3D printers can provide a layer of insulation from the idea that a product will eventually fail.
Planned obsolescence has negative consequences for the environment. The idea of replacing a product instead of repairing it won’t be sustainable forever. Landfills get larger and pollution amplifies as parts or products are discarded. Who wants to live next to a dumping ground of products that in some cases still operate perfectly? Even with environmentally conscious production strategies, planned obsolescence is necessary for a company to maintain their revenue levels. However, a 3D printer is ready to perform precision manufacturing without material waste thanks to the concept of near net shape manufacturing. The amount of resources used to create a product with 3D printing is almost equal the final product itself. Even the raw material fed into a 3D printer can be green or sustainable itself.
A technocratic clash of civilizations?
In the near future, as 3D printing becomes more widespread, there will be a clash of civilizations. The proto-DIY-maker economy will certainly battle it out with the planned obsolescence philosophy that has been so entrenched by companies across the globe. 3D printing will set out to decentralize the dependency of single source design and manufacturing.
Are we talking apocalypse, cats and dogs living together, and alien hybrids? No. But what we do know is that there’s tension in the air. Perhaps they’ll be a natural convergence of 3D printing that will eliminate planned obsolescence in its current form; achieving a happy medium through free market forces. Regardless, of how long a product is designed to function or last, 3D printing will help change the status quo via imagination, ingenuity, and common sense.
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