I was speaking with a friend recently about obsolescence, and in particular, planned obsolescence in products. We brought up The Man in the White Suit, a British comedy film released in 1951. It was an early starring role for Sir Alec Guinness (known to younger folks Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars), who plays a chemical engineer/inventor. He invents a textile fiber that does not show any wear, nor does it ever get dirty. Essentially, a suit made of the stuff is permanent.
At first, clothing manufacturers were crazy about the idea and the inventor was hailed as a hero. They envisioned a rich future filled with customers buying permanent clothing from the company that held the patent. After they thought about it for a while, they realized each person only needed to buy one of each article—that would be enough for the rest of the customer’s life. Labor really didn’t like the idea either. The hero became a goat. (No spoiler alerts here, you’ll have to watch the movie to see the O. Henry-esque ending.)
That was the movies. In real life, Alfred P. Sloan, who was the president (and along the way, adding CEO and Chairman titles) of GM for more than 30 years, often is quoted as the initiating force behind “model years” of cars, and thus “planned obsolescence.” Sometimes the changes were themselves branded, as was Buick’s “Dynaflow” transmission for the 1948 model year, an automatic transmission for the family car.
The idea of product obsolescence leaves a bad taste in the mouth. A long time ago there were corporate planners who looked at all the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) charts to estimate the time when the customer would be coming back for another widget. However, watching the avalanche of technology overtaking the fabricating industry—and other allied industries—I think you don’t have to plan obsolescence anymore; it just happens.
Here’s a great example from the world of robotics. FANUC America (Rochester Hills, MI) offered robotic welding products for a long time. For many years, a robot could weld based on a target’s fixed position in space, and its own ability to move precisely in X, Y, and Z axes. Several iterations or “model years” of such equipment were quite successful in garnering new business because the changes were worth it. The latest model incorporates a laser and a camera. The laser points at the joint to be welded. The camera follows the laser’s path to get a perfect weld—while it is welding. It can ignore all the light source from the weld and only follow the laser. It’s good, solid physics but it seems sort of magical too. In a way, you’re doing QC during the weld, following the joint perfectly in real time.
The point here is that technological change occurs so rapidly that there is no real need to plan obsolescence. The combination of new features used in unique ways makes it unnecessary. There are enough reasons to buy new equipment: better reliability, more precision and accuracy, faster throughput, better management, you can probably think of many more reasons.
The other interesting thing about the technology invasion is that time windows are getting much smaller. For equipment like top-tier laser cutters, the “model year” actually is about a year. However, we are entering a time in fabricating where the cadence is quickening, and software-based controls will turn over at least two times a year and we are headed for more frequency. Smaller machines like low-end machining centers or even portable welding units become newly available all the time and are not scheduled to debut at a certain trade show or by the year’s end.
The alert is this: nothing is permanent, no matter how expensive, and innovation is a constant because of competition. Be ready for a world with shorter model years.