Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Waste makers or incompetents?

Discarded white goods
Well over 40 years ago Vance Packard’s book ‘The Wastemakers’ went on the best seller lists in the US and UK. This was unusual for a book that was about the economics of industry.

In it he pointed out that any industry that made a product that lasted for ever would soon go out of business. The market would become ‘saturated’ – in other words anyone who had one would not need another one - and there would be no more demand. 

So Packard’s notion of “built-in obsolescence” was born.

It struck a chord – people had begun to recognise that the products they were buying had shoddiness built in. Things didn’t last and it was cheaper to buy another one than try to get it repaired.

Gee Whizz growth chart
Gee whizz growth chart
In the 21st Century we have become used to the idea that the economy depends on ‘growth’ – we have to keep on consuming more and more otherwise the economy dips into recession. Waste and its removal is now big business.  

But has shoddiness come from another direction as well as this deliberate sabotage? Is the design of products just not good enough?  

I have recent experience of two products that were ready for our scrapheap well before their allotted time.

The printer

Standard printer
The printer was a good and reasonably efficient printer of documents. The make is well known and promoted by high street retailers. We liked its reliability and speed. When the printer ground to a halt after 2 years of heavy use we thought that was reasonable and we wanted to get an exact replacement. The exact model was no longer in existence – however an “upgraded” model at a similar price was available.

Although this new printer - it was claimed - would do everything and anything all we wanted was for it to print documents quickly and efficiently.
It soon became clear that the new printer was useless. Its new system required front loading of paper and after taking the paper through a Uturn to exit - also at the front – frequently jammed. Why had the back loaded paper (using gravity) been abandoned? It had seemed to work well.

Was this incompetent design or deliberate obsolescence?

The washing machine
The washing machine washed clothes – no surprises there – but a few months after the initial one year warranty the paddles attached to the drum fell off one by one. The plastic paddles had been attached to metal teeth inside the drum and rendered the machine useless. The paddles were intended to ensure that the clothes circulated within the drum. These three Toblerone shaped pieces of plastic with fragile tabs were vital for the machine’s function.
I called the manufacturer to find to my amazement that another set of paddles would cost £50 plus postage and packing. When I questioned the cost I was told this was the way it is. If I wanted the machine to function I needed to have them. They were duly despatched and the expensive package arrived – I could wash clothes again.
Eighteen months and three sets of paddles later I ask myself the same question.  

Is this a design malfunction or a cynical attempt to extract money from me a captive consumer?

Planned obsolescence or simply poor design?