Will designing for planned obsolescence make businesses irrelevant?

By | 3 minute read | November 27, 2017

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For some time now, product manufacturers have been creating their wares with a mission, in part, of planned obsolescence. Whether it’s a household appliance, a cell phone, a TV, or a laptop, consumers have gotten accustomed to buying the latest model every several years, using it to a point of failure, and discarding it in favor of the newest replacement with the latest features. Many a modern business counts this method as a primary source of repeatable revenue.

But the advent of software-driven product design means engineers can now use Watson-enabled processes and the Internet of Things (IoT) to create consumer devices, appliances—and even cars—that don’t have to follow established use-it-then-lose-it patterns.

That’s because these items are now components in increasingly vast ecosystems of connected products that can interact with their owners and each other across networks and upgrade on the fly, which means the owners can theoretically avoid swapping out hardware for considerably longer.

This raises the question: How long before the business goal of designing products for planned obsolescence becomes an act of business suicide?

Brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be

Companies that can convince their customers to keep coming back for their latest version—because of quality, “cool factors,” and tying multiple products into a synergistic ecosystem—have enjoyed strong financial results and pleased their shareholders. “But success with this strategy depends on brand loyalty, since a product owner can always buy a new one from a competing manufacturer,” says Steve Shoaf, marketing manager for IBM’s Watson IoT product development solutions. “And by continuously refreshing functionality through software updates, manufacturers can increase brand loyalty.”

One emerging standard-bearer for this method is Tesla, whose products and design and manufacturing methods are rapidly reshaping the auto industry. By building high-performing vehicles that can be seamlessly updated on the fly—without requiring costly and time-consuming dealer visits—Tesla is redefining what it means to own the latest thing in automotive technology while developing an increasingly loyal following.

Connected products and the IoT are game changers

However, Watson and the IoT are key components of a new reality in which most performance-related qualities of any device can be upgraded via over-the-air software updates. This likely will result in more time between purchases of physical products, because they’ll simply work better and longer.

That’s why forward-thinking companies and their engineers and strategists must begin adapting to how their revenue expectations will change. “[Continuous engineering] perpetuates the service life of the product while generating revenue through software updates,” Shoaf says, adding that this new way of doing business can even extend to cars, which are becoming more connected and software driven all the time.

Adapting to agile design principles

This doesn’t mean you, the consumer, will be stuck forever with whatever smartphone or SUV you buy. Smartphone screens will still crack (or find themselves dropped in a toilet), tires will still go flat, and bumpers will still get dinged. But Shoaf says manufacturers can prepare for the software-driven world by, hypothetically speaking, installing more sensors on a car or more memory in a smartphone or appliance. Even if these add-ons lie dormant at first, they’ll be ready to use once the software has more capabilities. “You wouldn’t do it for the hell of it; you’d have some idea of how you want it to be engineered, but you don’t have to wait until all bugs are completely worked out before you put the product into market,” Shoaf says. “You can put it in now and update it later, which introduces the concept of agile design.”

All of which means that companies and engineers who stubbornly cling to the pursuit of planned obsolescence might soon realize that they’re the ones on life support.

To learn more about IBM’s Watson IoT continuous engineering solutions, visit our product development site.