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Making tech to last – towards a future of planned durability

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

If you’ve ever rented a flat in Germany and moved home once or twice, you will have noticed that the washing machines provided for tenants’ shared use in the basement are, more often than not, manufactured by Miele. This is not because landlords want to provide their tenants with a glamorous and expensive brand, it’s because they know that this choice is cheaper in the long run – they are following the adage “buy well, buy once”.

It’s a great philosophy and one that our decedents will thank us for as it is more sustainable. But why is it not the norm?

Planned obsolescence vs planned durability

In 1924, when the US automobile market began reaching saturation point, GM embarked on a new marketing strategy, revealing new design changes on a yearly basis. The idea of ‘this year’s model’ was born and consumers were encouraged to feel that they should replace their car annually. The industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, defined this trend in the 1950s as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary,” and that’s the rub – having to re-invest before you should have to.

There was a time when manufacturers prided themselves on making products that were built to last. As mentioned above, it’s not because they can’t – the skills and knowledge required to build enduring technology certainly exists – it’s because planned obsolescence is a marketing tactic.

When it comes to designing products with an artificially limited lifespan, some industry sectors look like they might be worse than others: customers tend to think that mobile phone companies push yearly repeat purchases with older models unable to support new apps, and in the software industry, it seems as if every new version is simply a chance to charge more for licences or to ensure continued service support.

The other side of this coin is planned durability. Instead of assuming that planned obsolescence is necessary for stimulating consumption, planned durability recognises that technology that is intentionally engineered to last longer, translates into fewer disruptions, fewer failures and so ultimately drives down costs – for the consumer, the manufacturer and the environment – over the long term. Examples of the best in durability include Miele, Le Creuset cookware, which comes with a lifetime guarantee as well as Dualit toasters and Henry vacuum cleaners, which are beloved by café owners and facilities managers respectively for a reason. Resistance to planned obsolescence has form: in 1962, VW ran an ad campaign that emphasised the durability of the model by famously captioning a blank page with: “No point in showing the 1962 Volkswagen, it still looks the same.”

Planned durability benefits

The rise in throwaway technology is short-sighted when it comes to the environment and also unfair to users who have been trained to accept obsolescence too soon. Take the example of enterprise business’ office technology. Be they multi-function printer-scanners, PCs or monitors, these are usually built to last on average three-to-five years. The reality is that they are normally installed for about six years, which means that certainly after the five-year mark, maintenance costs start to climb leaving businesses with a stark choice of paying too often for a service visit or paying for a complete lifecycle refresh. Products need to be intentionally engineered to support a longer life to enable users to get the most out of their investment.

Long-term reliability also means better sustainability from built-in features such as power-saving modes; waste reduction; a reduction in consumables usage and recycling programmes for things like cartridges and packaging. New products should be designed to incorporate recycled raw materials and parts traditionally made from plastics made with stronger, more durable and long-lasting metal equivalents. Long-life components reduce interventions, improve serviceability, withstand tough environments better and save time and money for users as well as partners and vendors.

Users and manufacturers must trust each other to co-create an eco-responsible relationship. This is important because product lifespan depends on the daily use of the technology. Power, connectivity, updates all impact the optimisation of equipment. Users need to be ever vigilant and willing to be involved in sustainability initiatives. The appointment of dedicated teams; evangelising to employees; the defining of specific sustainability performance indicators; support in collecting and setting up logistics chains for restocking are just a few examples of how customers and vendors can work together to improve the durability of products.

The planned durability approach for engineering longer-lasting devices includes connecting them to a broader infrastructure, including the Cloud. By engineering devices, solutions and services that work in concert with each other, user and process productivity is improved and management and upgrading simplified. This helps extend investment whilst minimising disruption and reducing costs.

Looking forward to longer lasting devices

Although everyone knows that in-built obsolescence exists, it is rarely named and shamed. In 2015 however, the French government became the first to recognise it in law, legislating that any manufacturer proved to be planning, or causing, the obsolescence of their product in advance of its true end-date would be fined and even face a jail term. The EU is also considering the issue, calling for standards in design to minimise waste in energy, resources and money in addition to clear labelling about a product’s longevity.

Many manufacturers are already on-board with making products built to last longer than the typical three-five years because they understand that planned durability creates a value chain that carries across from design to the user. They recognise that a refresh cycle is expensive for businesses, pushing up costs through the RFP process, new equipment, deployment, user and IT disruption – to do all this more often than is strictly necessary is a drain on resources.

So when it comes to your next technology refresh, be it monitors, phones or printer-scanners, make sure you partner with a company that gives value to its devices by making them last longer, because for you, that means fewer disruptions, fewer failures and helps you get the maximum return on your investment.

Tony Lomax, Product and Enterprise Marketing Manager, Lexmark (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

Tony Lomax is Product and Enterprise Marketing Manager at Lexmark.