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Planned obsolescence

Built-in expiry date

Nov 28, 2019 | KARIN WEINMANN

Whether mobile phone or automatic toilets – electronic devices are becoming increasingly complex. And who hasn't heard stories of devices that fail precisely after the warranty has expired? According to Empa researcher Peter Jacob, however, the shorter lifespan is not a malicious "planned obsolescence", but is mainly due to enormous cost pressure. He and his team investigate cases of damage with detective meticulousness.

Old transistor radios could easily be repaired – the repair of modern radios is often hardly worth the effort. Image: iStock

Anyone who purchased a radio around the 1950s spent a large chunk of money on it – but could rely on it being relatively easy to repair in the event of damage. If a modern radio set no longer functions today, it is in most cases disposed of and replaced by a new one. There is a simple reason for this: while the radio from the 1950s consisted of commercially available components and a few easily replaceable standard tubes, today's radios contain electronics with thousands of transistor functions connected in microchips. These chips are usually manufactured for specific applications. If the radio fails a few years after purchase, there are often simply no spare parts left.

Cost Pressure Along the Chain

This explains why electronic devices are often no longer repaired – but why do they often only last a short time? "There is usually no bad will behind this either," says Jacob. The problem lies elsewhere: in a global competitive situation with enormous price pressure – and long supply chains. Internal cost specifications are often very strict, especially for large quantities. Components are specified at their limits. "Today, a capacitor is often subjected to extreme loads at its limits, even if the engineer would prefer a safety margin. This applies not only to low cost electronics such as flashing children's toys, but even to professional electronics – in cars, for example.

The cost pressure is enormous – and is passed on along the supply chain. These are often long and complex; more than 100 different suppliers are often involved in a car air conditioning system alone. This does not make troubleshooting trivial. This also involves a lot of money. Especially in the case of high-volume products, it can be a matter of survival for smaller suppliers if a defect can be proven to have been caused by them. Such cases are investigated by the Center for Electronics and Reliability Technology at Empa as a neutral contact point with detective meticulousness.

A classic case of planned obsolescence: the printer reports that the ink cartridge is empty and blocks printing even though there is still enough ink left. Image: iStock
The Devil Is in the Details

Sometimes the team under the direction of Peter Jacob encounters clear construction errors: In a sanitary system, the circuits with a voltage of 5 volts were simply too close to those operated with 230 volts. The damp environment in the bathroom did the rest – dangerous short circuits were the result.

In other cases, the search for the cause of a failure turns out to be a complex interplay of causes. Jacob mentions an example of a car manufacturer where new vehicles of a certain type landed in the workshop after about 10,000 kilometres – always with the same defect where a certain part of the engine control unit failed. Interestingly, this only happened in countries with no speed limit – and once the unit was repaired, the defect never happened again. A closer inspection showed that the unit had been installed between rubber hoses without grounding. The Empa researchers used a non-contact electrostatic voltage probe to measure the charge on the metal housing of the unit. And lo and behold: no failure was observed at a speed of less than 150 km/h. If the car drove faster, however, high electrostatic voltages suddenly appeared on the housing – higher than Jacobs' probe could even measure. It turned out that the volt- age was caused by the extremely high air flow and its turbulence and could not flow off due to the lack of grounding. The high voltage reached the control unit and destroyed it in a very short time. But why did the problem only occur in the first 10,000 kilometres? The researchers also found an explanation for this: after this distance, enough dirt and dust had collected on the rubber hoses to make them electrically conductive – and to replace the missing grounding. In both cases – the sanitary facilities and the cars – the defects always occurred in the same place – but by no means planned.

Myth or Intention?

So is the planned obsolescence really just a myth – and the ever faster product life cycles owed solely to a system in which consumers thirst for new technology  and manufacturers and suppliers are forced to operate the components to their limits in accordance with competitive and cost pressure? It's not that simple. In fact, there are demonstrable examples where companies are deliberately using obsolescence strategies to force customers to buy new equipment.

The dubious honour of the first documented case of planned obsolescence comes to light bulbs: The light bulbs developed by Thomas Edison were so durable that they had to be replaced far too rarely – and the big light bulb manufacturers failed to make a profit. In the 1920s, the manufacturers' cartel therefore agreed to limit the lifespan of their products from 2500 to 1000 hours. The filament was shortened slightly at the same operating voltage, resulting in a lower burning time. Manufacturers with more durable products were fined. With success: sales of light bulbs increased massively – until the Second World War finally made it impossible to coordinate the manufacturers from now hostile countries and forced the cartel to dissolve.

Today, planned obsolescence cases often involve software: for example, ink cartridges in printers are equipped with chips that make printing impossible as soon as the fill level of the cartridge falls below a certain limit. The cartridge must be replaced even though more than enough ink is available.

Smartphones, too, are not immune to planned obsolescence: in 2018, Apple and Samsung were fined millions because their operating system updates made older devices so slow that users felt compelled to replace them.

Planned or not – that software shortens the lifespan of technical products instead of extending it as once hoped is becoming more and more apparent: The mechanism of software updates leads to ever new demands being made on the hardware. This probably contributes more to the devaluation of devices than the planned obsolescence.

And if the "Internet of Things" becomes a reality, software obsolescence threatens to become even more frequent. Because now all everyday objects potentially become dependent on software updates. Empa had to experience this with many perfectly functioning microscope cameras when they suddenly had to be replaced in series because of a Windows software update. On the Internet of Things, situations are no longer far away where a perfectly cooling refrigerator has to be replaced – because the circuits used in it are no longer compatible with the latest software update.

Further information
Prof. Peter Jacob
Transport at Nanoscale Interfaces
Phone +41 58 765 42 88

Editor / Media contact
Karin Weinmann
Phone +41 58 765 44 54

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Radio programme on SRF1 Espresso of 6 December 2019 in German.

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