Flimsy little bits

There’s much to be gained from appliances designed to last – for everyone but the manufacturer. So what can we do to combat built-in obsolescence? asks Hugh Pearman

Hugh Pearman

When the door release button broke on my microwave, trapping my food inside it, I knew how this little domestic drama was going to play out. Eventually, armed with a Phillips screwdriver, I would work out how to get into the machine. Inside it (apart from a plate of now cold food) I would find some tiny little cheap broken thing. I would then buy a new microwave, because it never makes economic sense to mend an old one.

So it proved. With its casing removed, the microwave was an impressive sight, like something out of a spaceship or a hi-tech hospital. All its various electronic components were in fine fettle after ten years. In fact, nothing was wrong with it at all, apart, of course, from what turned out to be a sheared plastic moulding behind the door-release button. The cost of producing this moulding would have been negligible. It wasn’t complex, clever or electronic. It was just a bit of suspiciously flimsy plastic that had suffered mechanical failure. Making it a bit stronger, so that it did not break, would have made virtually no difference to the production cost of the machine – one small simple moulding costs much the same as another.

So what I was staring at was that curse of modern consumer society/ a piece of genuine built-in obsolescence. Looking at it, I marvelled that it had lasted ten years. I suspect that the manufacturer had calculated five – the length of most extended warranties. Domestic appliances that last longer than that are just a nuisance, so far as the manufacturing economy is concerned. Nearly everyone owns a microwave – if none of them went wrong, who would buy the new ones being churned out by the factories?

Mass production makes such things very cheap. The labour-intensive nature of repairing them (even if you can find the parts after ten years) is very costly. I looked at it, and ran the sums in my head. No question: this bit of almost-but-not-quite fully functioning componentry was destined for the dump. Unless…

With what I like to think was impressive mental agility, I developed a plan involving sticking the handle of a wooden spoon through a hole drilled for the purpose in the side of the casing, which would have bypassed the broken bit of built-in obsolescence and, better still, looked a bit steampunkish. Push the bowl of the spoon down, the catch would be released and the door would open, every time. This might actually have worked. But it was a purely theoretical exercise. No way was I about to start drilling holes through metal when all I had to do was go on the Internet and find a cheap new microwave. So that’s what I did. That’s what we all do.

Sometimes I dream of a resistance movement among designers in a domestic appliance company. Expected to include the mandatory built-in-obsolescence component, they silently rebel, and specify something with a long lifespan instead. The company acquires a reputation for astonishing reliability and longevity. People rush to buy its products. It swiftly achieves world dominance in its sector, backed up by a unique guarantee to repair what few of its machines go wrong, indefinitely.

Faced with such competition, all its rival companies have to go the same route. Of course, there is consolidation – fewer manufacturers are needed. The goods cost a little more upfront, but much less over time. And the world benefits from better, durable, repairable products involving considerably less energy and waste.

It couldn’t possibly happen. Could it?

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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  • Katie Monk November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hugh, I have had similar fantasies. In my white goods idyll, the world is full of products that not only last, they are also cheap. This is firstly because every plastic moulding is engineered to wokr for thosuands of years.

    And then all the useless extraneous ffashion eatures are removed. I dont want my toaster to have defrost settings or variable programmes or computerised settings or to do the ironing. I just want it to make toast reliably, day in day out till I die. Then I want to leave it to my children.

    Too much innovation is simply the opportunity to replace last year’s model with a more expensive version.

    Keep it simple, keep it cheap, make it last, I say

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