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Readily after the second industrial revolution in the 1910s, many corporations saw stellar increases in profits due to mass production and process replication capabilities made possible by electricity, petrol, steel related technologies.

At the same time, the concept of an international corporation had been honed much into the current state of evolution, pioneered by the British and Dutch East India Companies (The Dutch, VOC, is considered to be the first, with ownership clearly separated from the company operations with defined securities and subsidiary structure, all the way to the global use of a unified logo).

The new levels of production and global reach quickly created new problems like market saturation, so some industries and companies started to create cartels with price controls. When this was not enough, these cartels invented a concept called Planned Obsolescence.

The most famous example of Planned Obsolescence is the Phoebus cartel (1925-1955), which included light bulb makers such as Osram, Philips, Tungsram and General Electric. In addition to regulating light bulb prices globally, the cartel started to gradually lower the bulb lifetimes to generate more sales. All this was naturally concealed from customers and consumer regulators.

The Phoebus cartel eventually crumbled, as the regulators and consumers started to gain experimental data showing the consumer-hurting practices and resource wastefulness on the grand scale. Later we have seen similar initiatives in consumer goods like motor oil (artificially making it age faster) or inkjet cartridges (programmatically making the cartridges stop functioning after certain age).

In many cases, the planned obsolescence has also extended to intellectual property and design, eventually to the detriment of the company practising it. When the key driver of a manufacturer is to obsolesce and sell again only slightly different products, the overall innovation and common knowledge pool slowly deteriorates. After 20-30 years with normal workforce changes due to retirement, the sustainable technological capability might be gone for good.

Planned obsolescence has its place in e.g. biodegradabe products, but in order to stay competitive companies must first and foremost continuously maintain and develop their intellectual property, and not just in patents and laboratories.

Instead of blindly relying on the fire-and-forget business model, a modern company has a spime – a live digital twin – of each product, no matter how simple, that has been delivered to the customer. In the era of globalization, the winner is the one who knows how to fulfil the customer requirement even before the customer gives a call. The service design of how the customer experiences your product should be integrated to your design process from the beginning. It’s equally important as your supply chain.

This might sound simple, but changing 100 years of wastefulness and opportunism – learned business traits – takes time. Buy you can start today: Include a spime to each and every product currently on your design table.


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