Sunday, July 12, 2009

Planned Obsolescence & My Chair

I just got finished with attempting to fix my desk chair.

Two or three months ago the arms (plastic) cracked. I could still sit in it, but do do so further would cause the entire thing to crack and fail. I know that any 6'5" 230 lbs fella could test just about any little thing he sits in, but I noticed that the engineering of the chair wasn't poor or cheap... it looked as if had been purposely made to fail.

The areas where the chair needed the most structural strength were right where the designers decided to bore holes and put the bolts in to attach it to the underside of the seat cushion. I mean, even the shape of the plastic elbow rests forced even more pressure on these areas.

When it broke I just moved it aside and used another chair thinking, maybe I could fix that later. Not the chairs fault. I'm a bigger guy. Well, the time came today to brace the old thing up. I examined the chair trying to figure out the best way to brace it and realized that with all the subtle curves in the plastic I could only possibly go with a bracket about 4" long (and even that I couldn't use any other place but the side of the chair handle.

I headed out to Lowes and got some cheap brackets and screws. It cost me about $3.00. I even purchased twice as much as I thought I needed. Anyway, I'm sitting in my chair with little fear that it will collapse on the floor now. It looks terrible, but it saved me from buying another chair of similar quality at about 40-60 bucks.

So where am I going with this? Well, have I somehow, inadvertently, hurt our economy? Is the company that makes these chairs all the sudden out of another 50 bucks cause I didn't buy a new one? Oh no! Let me check who made it...

Looks like we've got a well traveled chair here. Wow... first off it isn't plastic... it is polyurethane foam... Manufactured in Canada by a place called Office Star Products... individual parts made in China... sold at Target. So designed in Canada---parts fabricated in China---put together (well, mostly) back in Canada---and sold at Target. Interesting. How is that cheaper then making it in the U.S. again? Opps, there is a warning... check the bolts every three months... Are you kidding me!?

I'm reading up on what's called Planned Obsolescence. I'm not an industrial engineer, or designer, nor am I a marketer. The term came up recently with me when Michael Moore brought it up in a letter about GM. After reading it I thought about my chair, thought about the simplicity of it in comparison to a automobile. I know every single piece and part of a car is designed to breakdown at some point on purpose, from the shocks, breaks, tires, batteries, paint, gaskets, heads, lifters, down to each and every nut and bolt that holds it together. I also know that their engineers know when each one of those parts will fail... right down to the mileage and weather condition. They plan it. One could say that everything we purchase we make is designed this way from our Apple products to our clothing. It's a business philosophy that has Americans wanting to buy new homes instead of "used" ones.

In tooling around the web I've found a few things worth reading on this topic. But as always I want to find out where it first came from. Why did it come up?

Here is something worth reading; it is called Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence (1932), by Bernard London. It touches, very frankly, on things we still see today. I mean, look at the "Cash for Clunkers" program. Government sponsored obsolescence, of which Mr. London writes about. Buy new cars, keep Detroit turning!!! ugh.

Most people want something new. It's almost built into us. I'm not saying, by posting this, that I've not seen what goes on (particularly in the computer industry and software). I'm not all the sudden discovering an anti-consumerist attitude 40 years too late. Nor am I having a 'gee, now I see where all the do-it-yourself stuff comes from. I'm just saying that an 80 year old philosophy for getting us out of the depression is still in use. And that is interesting to me. Heck, ever our bodies go obsolete. But, by golly, I'm sitting on my old chair, aren't I?

So why the picture of an old 1968 Camaro up there? I think it because it reminds me of a time when it new design, more powerful engines, and innovation drove the auto market. Now that I'm getting older I am starting to subscribe to the belief that US automakers have not designed a good car since the '70s. Good old fashioned innovation took a back seat to bottom lines and GM has suffered for it. What ended up happening is that GM was forced to tone down the gas guzzlers an make poorly designed dog food crap 10 years too late. Then, in the late 1990s the had to learn the same lesson over again with SUVs, 10 years too late and are AGAIN making crap to try and keep up with Honda, Toyota, and VW, when those guys never really changed at all and didn't have too. They made (make) a quality product with good design. We are in the same auto cycle we were in during the early 1980s. It's painful to see.

I don't believe that building smaller compact cars will help GM get back on it's feet. They can make an efficient engine in a big car if they want. Tricking a customer by just selling a tiny car is a joke if quality and commitment to it aren't there. It has to a revelation in quality and design that does it. GM can point to it's own successful history to help. The former CEO of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan stated in 1941, "Today the appearance of a motorcar is a most important factor in the selling end of the business—perhaps the most important factor— because everyone knows the car will run." Recently, it seems, GM wanted mechanical obsolescence and successful refreshes in design. That failed. What they got were lemons and a mid-nineties Oldsmobile Bravada.

How about I help GM out:

That was in the 1960s. GM is still behind. Catch up and lead damn it.

It's funny to me how they sold the Saturn line. It is a sad misstep for them but a huge gain for Saturn (and Penske, the company who purchased them). It is also sad to me that they are closing the doors on Pontiac. The G series of performance cars look great and are well built up here in Ohio (Lordstown). I'm also looking at Saab, who for the better is going back to Sweden. Then there is the mighty Hummer, a brand who, while being a monstrosity, sold very well and was at least interesting and different. That is going to China. Right where my chair was made.

Hey maybe I can design the next Hummer compact, have the parts manufactured in China, import them back to North America and assemble/distribute them from Canada, then sell it to Wal-mart and make a $7 hr employee sell it here in the United States upon trade of a an older union built American so called clunker! I could even set up customer service in India!!! Everybody wins!!! oh, wait...

No comments: