Thursday, March 5, 2015

Planned Obsolescence

I recently watched a documentary on BBC about planned obsolescence.  It is an interesting view on the current marketplace and how companies have been designing for obsolescence. This phenomenon has been going on for a long time. 

I remember as a kid when all the ballpoint pens had refills, not just the high priced ones.  You bought a pen or two and kept replacing the ink cartridge refills.  Or, you used a fountain pen and bought ink bottles to refill the pen.  I must have gone through most of my primary education with just a few of these pens.

And then I came to the US where everything is disposable.  Bic pens were the first disposable ballpoint pens I used.  I was shocked to see people chucking pens in the trash as soon as the ink ran out. 

Fast forward to 2015.  People are chucking MP3 players and phones as trash as soon as the battery runs out.  Or, in some cases, as soon as the newer version is released. 

Thanks to the advances in 3D printing, we are coming up with technology to literally 'print' everything as a single unit.  No need of assembly, dis-assembly, servicing, replacement of parts, and such things.  You buy one unit and throw it away at the end of its life.  The end of life could be defined by either its functional usefulness or its capacity (battery life, ink, etc.).  This is ultimate consumerism at work.

What this is doing is making consumers spend more and buy more.  This will help corporations sell more and make more money, but we have to look at its global impact.
  • What this does to our environment?  
  • How is it recycled?
  • How do we separate the components for recycling?  
  • How much does it cost to recycle?
There is always a fine line between usability, design and being responsible to your consumers, to the environment, to the economy and to the world as a whole.

There are cases where this technology makes perfect sense.  Say, parts for a satellite which are never serviced once launched.  These parts need to work in harsh environments and need all the protection they can get.  These parts could be built as a single unit so that they are well sealed and can function optimally.

Nanostructures come to my mind as a great fit for this technology but unfortunately, the current 3D printing technology is still measured in mm and not in nm.  These structures are too small to assemble.  It makes more sense to just build them as one cohesive unit. 

3D printing is seen as a boon for making spare parts when none are easily available.  Companies are taking 3D printing to places where no man has gone before: printing food, printing prosthetics, printing tissue, printing organs and other areas that we have not imagined yet. 

We truly live in an exciting world today!