Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence in industrial design is a policy of planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional after a certain period of time. Planned obsolescence has potential benefits for a producer because to obtain continuing use of the product the consumer is under pressure to purchase again, whether from the same manufacturer (a replacement part or a newer model), or from a competitor which might also rely on planned obsolescence.

For an industry, planned obsolescence stimulates demand by encouraging purchasers to buy sooner if they still want a functioning product. Built-in obsolescence is used in many different products. There is, however, the potential backlash of consumers who learn that the manufacturer invested money to make the product obsolete faster; such consumers might turn to a competitor (if any exists) that offers a more durable alternative.

Estimates of planned obsolescence can influence a company’s decisions about product engineering. Therefore, the company can use the least expensive components that satisfy product lifetime projections. Such decisions are part of a broader discipline known as value engineering.

Origins of planned obsolescence go back at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London’s pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. It is interesting to note that the essence of London’s plan would have the government impose a legal obsolescence on consumer articles in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumption. However, the phrase was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. Stevens was due to give a talk at an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954. Without giving it much thought, he used the term as the title of his talk. From that point on, “planned obsolescence” became Stevens’ catchphrase. By his definition, planned obsolescence was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers, promoted as an exposé of “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”

Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function. “Obsolescence of desirability”, also called “psychological obsolescence”, referred to marketers’ attempts to wear out a product in the owner’s mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote: “Design… is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is ‘styling!’”

The rationale behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases, (referred to as shortening the replacement cycle).

Planned obsolescence is made more likely by making the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or by refusing to provide service or parts any longer. A product might even never have been serviceable. Creating new lines of products that do not interoperate with older products can also make an older model quickly obsolete, forcing replacement. Examples include change of formats and peripheral devices in computers, change of formats in home audio recordings and movies (records to tapes to CDs and VHS Video to DVDs to Blu-ray).

Some products are powered by a battery that is soldered into the circuitry or enclosed in a sealed housing, instead of being easily replaceable by a new battery. Although the product owner could resolder in a new battery, most owners will not bother or do not have the required skills. Some products contain rechargeable batteries that are not user-repleacable after they have worn down, so that consumers are required to pay for a service of battery replacement or to buy a new product.

Planned functional obsolescence is a type of technical obsolescence in which companies introduce new technology which replaces the old. The old products do not have the same capabilities or functionality as the new ones. For example a company that sold consumer video tape decks while they were developing DVD recorders was engaging in planned obsolescence. They were actively planning to make their existing product (video tape) obsolete by developing a substitute product (recordable DVD) with greater functionality (better recording quality). Associated products that are complements to the old products also become obsolete with the introduction of new products. For example, video tape holders saw the same fate as video tapes and video tape decks.

Planned systemic obsolescence is the deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete by altering the system in which it is used in such a way as to make its continued use difficult. New software is frequently introduced that is not compatible with older software. This makes the older software largely obsolete. Even though an older version of a word processing program is operating correctly, it might not be able to read data saved by newer versions. The same thing may be said of printers and refill cartridges, for example.

Another way of introducing systemic obsolescence is to eliminate service and maintenance for a product. If a product fails, the user is forced to purchase a new one. This strategy seldom works because there are typically third parties that are prepared to perform the service if parts are still available. To combat this 3rd party repairing — say in the case of replacing a laser assembly in a DVD drive — soldered points are on the PCB board without explanation so unless you know which ones to remove you cannot repair the item. In turn, third parties can overcome this by reverse engineering (a legal practice), but at added expense which may drive up the price of third-party repair to the point that it is economically unattractive to consumers.

Marketing may be driven primarily by aesthetic design. Product categories in this case display a fashion cycle. By continually introducing new designs, and retargeting or discontinuing others, a manufacturer can “ride the fashion cycle”. Such product categories include automobiles (style obsolescence), with a strict yearly schedule of new models; the almost entirely style-driven clothing industry (riding the fashion cycle); and the mobile phone industries with constant minor feature enhancements and restyling.

Planned style obsolescence occurs when marketers change the styling of products so customers will purchase products more frequently. The style changes are designed to make owners of the old model feel out of date.

Some companies have developed a planned notification obsolescence in which the product informs the user when it is time to buy a replacement. Examples of this include water filters that display a replacement notice after a predefined time and disposable razors that have a strip that changes color. Whether the user is notified before the product has actually deteriorated or the product simply deteriorates more quickly than is necessary, planned obsolescence is the result. In this way planned obsolescence may be introduced without the company going to the expense of developing a “more up to date” replacement model.

In some cases, notification may be combined with the deliberate disabling of a product to prevent it from working, thus requiring the buyer to purchase a replacement. Inkjet printer manufacturers who employ smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold (number of pages, time, etc.), even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink or could be refilled. This constitutes programmed obsolescence, in that there is no random component to the decline in function.

Planned depletion obsolescence is when a product consumes a resource, as when a computer printer consumes ink and paper, it is generally understood that this is unavoidable. But some products also consume related resources that need not be consumed. For example, a 4-colour inkjet printer that is used mostly for printing in gray scale and seldom in colour, may be pre-programmed to deplete colour inks while printing black, so that the colour cartridge(s) must be replaced more often.

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