Electronic's Lifespan

I along with many others here lament about the lifespan of most products we interact with. The concept of the toaster that has lasted 35 years and still going strong seems to be a good strong symbol of sustainable design on these forums.

The thread of convergence (Convergence - #26 by Lmo) as well as Tarngerine’s Modai project (Project Modai: Humanizing mobile devices [FINAL]) got me thinking about the lifespan of our products.

I believe it was LMO that put a photo of cell phones being dumped by the thousands out of a bucket onto a conveyor belt. Implying that they’re headed for the dump or some other pile of obsolescence. If the typical lifespan of an electronic device is about 18 months, we’re consuming at a pretty incredible rate.

How do we stop this? Many of the most beloved products of designers (I’m looking at you iPhone) has a limited lifespan. Don’t agree with me? How long do you think a fully enclosed Lithium Ion battery will last before it can’t hold a charge and is useless.

How does this change? Can it change? The skeptic in me doesn’t think so. There’s an inherent lifespan in electronics. Whether it is with Moore’s Law, or the simple fact that most electronic devices are used daily. That’s a LOT of wear and tear for a device that fits in your hand. Rubbing in your pocket or purse all day. Getting dropped onto everything from tile to concrete and into toilet bowls.

It is also a question for all of those barking words like “sustainable” but wearing their iPhone’s as a badge of honor. Theirs a hypocrisy going on here. This is a bit of a calling out of that. But its also a question in the form of…How can this change?

I was at a conference once and one of the presenters made a claim along the lines of:

You can design the best product or interface in the world. But if you expect people to change their behavior to adopt it…you need to be prepared for complete and utter failure.

This thought really resonated with me. Sustainability, or whatever the latest buzz word is, is a crap concept if we expect the general public to change their behavior. We have billions of people who live in poverty that are slowly clawing themselves into the modern world. Coming online with automobiles costing $2500 USD (http://www.tata.com/), owning cellphones when less than a decade ago they didn’t even own a landline telephone.

Again, the skeptic in me doesn’t believe this “problem” is going to go away with recycling programs or Cradle to Cradle design processes. Until the iPhone (and the billions of other electonics being made a year) are conjoured up (and disposed of?) by Harry Potter i don’t see this rate of consumption going away.

Electronics are inherently nasty bits of engineering. The chemicals and materials that are in there, let alone that are required to create the bits and pieces contain some evil shit. We can make ourselves feel better by buying a product that is dismantled easier than another product or whatever. But the truth is, purely consuming an electronic device is nasty business.

What’s the question? Dunno. I’m looking for thoughts on this. Counters to my skeptical view. Maybe a link to an article that shows a group of people who are onto real solutions to this issues of consumption.

While I agree with everything you are saying, I would not equate Electric products (Toaster) to Electronic products (Cell Phone). The beasts are very different in their complexity and lifespan. That said 18 months for a cell phone is completely ridiculous.

Agreed, Tim…the toaster isn’t necessarily an “electronics product”. But it paints the right image for what people hold as a gold standard for a definition of a sustainable product.

Does the standard change, just because it is an electronic device? Can a cell phone last 10+ years? What is acceptable?

I think some of it will improve as companies adopt standards and components become more modular. I can see a future where I can keep my existing phone’s case and display and swap in a new processor/memory instead of throwing the whole thing away. Maybe even repurpose the old one to power a less demanding application - an ebook reader or something - for which I’d just have to buy the shell.

I think how we relate to our technology and each other needs to change to truly answer the problem. There are tens of thousands of iPhones that will hit the scrap heap this year, even though there still exists people that would want one. Our economy is set up to sell the iPhone 4, but only a few cheapskates like me, would go through the hassle of putting the old one up on ebay. Moreover, the batteries are always a problem.

BTW, last week, I replaced a dying battery in one of my cordless phones with 2 rechargable NiMH AAAs. It works like new.

A lot of people just toss out old tech. when the battery dies. Or, they buy a cheap aftermarket battery and then toss it when it doesn’t seem to perform as before.

Kinda on this topic, is a short story I read last week: Last Day at Work by Douglas Rushkoff. I love this guys stuff:

Toss it on the Kindle and let me know what you think!

Mr 914,

I am guessing you are also lucky, like most countries other than the US, where your phone is not locked so you can easily sell it to someone else. There are so many business models that need to be redesigned.

Funny you mention the Kindle here. One of my concerns in buying the Kindle was how long it might last. Will it be a “typical” electronic device and be dead in 2 yrs? I pretty much factored into my decision to purchase that I expect…with non-daily usage, that I should be able to stretch it to 5 years.

Is 5 yrs acceptable? If it dies in less than that, should I buy another? Will another brand, or the next generation be better?

No…they lock phones in Canada too.

Great topic ip.
I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to solve this issue. Even if things go the route of biodegradable corn based resins or something like Tarngerine’s Modai project (reminds me of the Red digital cinema camera in a more mass consumer line) there are too many factors involved.
When you look at the Modai project, there is a lot of responsibility to actually send obsolete parts back to the manufacturer. It’s a good idea in theory but will the consumer take the time to do it? Will the manufacturer take the hit for shipping?
I think planned obsolescence makes companies a lot of money these days. Do you think they are going to say to themselves “Hey everybody, lets focus more on making something that lasts and not making our ourselves/shareholders rich.” I’m sure there are firms out there trying to achieve the greater good, but I’m also sure there are many more designers out there striving to be the rock stars who have bought in to this cult-ish ideology of mass producing something new and shiny every year. As Industrial Designers I think we’re a large part of the problem, most of us want to have that moment of glory where we see our product lined up row upon endless row. Most of us want to have that moment more then once.

Just came across this presentation…timely?

Timf: I don’t have a cel. I agree that the whole market should be reformed. It’s funny how a country known for ‘freedom’ and ‘capitalism’ has no competition in the cel market that is styled on the European standard of unlocked phones.

I believe it was LMO that put a photo of cell phones being dumped by the thousands out of a bucket onto a conveyor belt. Implying that they’re headed for the dump or some other pile of obsolescence. If the typical lifespan of an electronic device is about 18 months, we’re consuming at a pretty incredible rate.

How do we stop this? Many of the most beloved products of designers (I’m looking at you iPhone) has a limited lifespan. Don’t agree with me? How long do you think a fully enclosed Lithium Ion battery will last before it can’t hold a charge and is useless.

How does this change?


your OP resonates with a discussion Ray and I had off the board about the Apple devices vs. modern housing in terms
of sustainability and longevity. I am so glad to see someone else on the board thinking about the way most designers worship the design of hardware, that in my opinion should be rather built for breakup, not “eternity”.
The picture of the dumped cell phones doesn’t shatter me that much, though. At least they are already separated and may
just head to being recycled.

I am so glad to see, that the US as a whole are slowly playing catchup on recycling and lifespan design,
(which includes end of lifecycle scenarios).
Here in Europe some of the basics have been implemented for 25 years now. (thanks to the green party.) It is simply forbidden to drop electronics into the “trash-can” and every neighbour would point his finger, if you did. There are recycling stations for this, which have separate containers for microwaves, fridges, small electronics, cell
phones etc…

I for one think that a mindset, that was formed within 250 years hinders the US at the moment. In difference to europe there was always plentiful supply of land and ressources. If a burb of Detroit went downhill, just move some more miles out… If the landfill was swamped, create a new one.

So today the landfills of the 60ies are seen as a most valuable ressource to drill in and obtain noble earths.

I am not pessimistic about it, but rather optimistic. If the U.S. as a whole start to shift to “green” sustainability would gather so much momentum! Just remember it being a process of reform and advancement. There are no absolute solutions. Everyone looking for that perfect solution would form a radical position, which would block a valuable
progression in a better direction.


P.S. : My cell will be 5 years in June. I’ll demand a medal, then.

It’s a phone, it’s my “point and shoot” (even video), and my navigator if walking. Why on earth should
I get another one? I even hate to change my car after 100K miles. (company policy)

There are signs that the economic uncertainty is already changing consumer demands in terms of longevity. The whole idea of buy less, but buy better is really taking hold and the change in mindset towards an era of conscious consumption is something that many are predicting will continue well into the foreseeable future (much as the ‘make do and mend’ mindset of the ww2 era continued even after the war ended).

What it actually means for the electronics industry is probably up for much debate, but I am pretty optimistic that the industry will respond to their consumers - the ability to update the software on your phone - effectively getting a ‘brand new’ phone - is an example of this (you didn’t get that on your 3310!). Just look at how much anticipation is put on the next Android update! As long as the hardware supports the software updates for 3-4 years there is an increasingly compelling reason for people to keep their phones for longer. As more and more electrical products become software driven, surely this will begin to apply there too.

Those are my thoughts anyway!

The company I work for put together a concept phone based on longer lifespan cell phones last year…

The idea behind the ‘Revive’ phone would be an object that you would keep for years, while the business model was based around upgrading the internal parts as the technology improved rather than buying an entirely new phone (they even thought up a point system to reward good customers with upgrades and an interface that had more personality).

This would change cell phones from disposable hunks of plastic that last a year or two into into a long term investment that hopefully you would have more of an emotional connection with. It would age and develop a patina that was like a classic wristwatch. The Modai project picked up some the same lines of thought, and I think it’s an interesting idea in general… Maybe not for everybody, but it could reduce a lot of e-waste


Have a look around for a documentary about the towns in China that are taking the piles of recycled electronics and stripping them for the precious metals in them. It works in conjunction with the video I posted above. “Recycling” quite often not “recycling”. But separating. The PCBs of all those electronics can’t be recycled. But they do contain a lot of gold, copper, and other precious metals. Cathode Ray Tubes? Same thing. They have armies of people and children smashing these things up and boiling them down to extract all this stuff. It’s destroying their health in the process.

While recycling is good for “Western Civilization”…destroying lives in developing nations.

Again, I don’t have answers here. But rather looking for those who have new ideas to solve these problems. More to the point, looking for examples of people who are already doing this.

Honestly, it isn’t so much the US that scares me. In fact, I see the USA as the tip of the ice berg. It is the billions of other humans on the planet that haven’t had the luxuries we’ve had for the past 100+ years. I’ve already mentioned it in this thread. There’s an order of magnitude of people that are perched to enter the consumer market as well. I’m enough of a cynic to think that that group of people aren’t just going to say,

“Hey, it’s ok that my family and their predecessors have lived in abject poverty while your family had SUVs, 4 ATVs, Large Screen TVs and a cell phone every year or two.”

I am by no means saying “stop recycling”. But I see the phase we’re in as moving too slow. I’m impatient. I want to see what feels like the right solution start moving. Recycling is a patch. Not a solution.

2 videos about this subject
The Story of Electronics - YouTube Story of Electronics (short story)
http://vimeo.com/17750184 Pyramids of Waste (long story)

This is, from my perceptive, a symptomatic problem and not a root problem (like a runny nose when you are infected with a flu)

I also don’t see this as a problem designers can work around, unless they instead work on changing the root of the problem. (attack the disease, not it’s symptoms)

Products are designed for our needs. (Consumer’s needs + Producer’s needs)
Consumer’s seek needs/wants for the least cost, producer’s seek to maximize profit.
Therefore, what we see becomes natural, people buy the cheapest available for their needs/wants, and so companies provide those products. But in order to maximize profit you have to cut costs, and that can be done so by externalizing costs. So what is ultimately provided is a product with as much of it’s cost externalized, which bears consequences as we all know. That is why charitable/green/social responsible products are becoming trendy, they remove some of the guilt conscientious buyers have when purchasing it.
Now, can our current economic system run efficiently in a market based on charitable/green/social responsible products?
I don’t think so, since nothing physically produced can ever maintain an operational lifespan longer than what can
be endured in order to maintain economic integrity through cyclical consumption.
I kind off already went through all this in this topic Design for the sake of design?
And here is a great lecture on the “disease” part of society i was talking about

I’m enough of a cynic to think that that group of people aren’t just going to say,
“Hey, it’s ok that my family and their predecessors have lived in abject poverty while
your family had SUVs, 4 ATVs, Large Screen TVs and a cell phone every year or two.”

I have so much more trust in humanity. Normaly aspiring cultures do not repeat the big failures
and mistakes of their forbears. The 21st century will be an Asian century, not European or American.
And the Chinese are well on track to shift their economy into better business models. (As are Bahrain
and Katar). There are always doomed examles like Dubai, but what the heck, I’ll rather look at the positives
and try to do what I can in my field of responsibility.

Merry Christmas !


IP, In case you haven’t seen it, take a look at fellow Canadian, Edward Burtynski’s Manufactured Landscapes. (It’s on iTunes)

It’s a pretty uncompromising look at the effects of manufacturing on lives and landscape, mostly in China.

Grim stuff. And a happy Christmas to you and yours.

+1 for Manufactured Landscapes. I feel the good thing about that film is his “non-political” POV, that lets you interpret the scenes as you wish, and admire them for the abstract beauty.

This is a topic that really gets me agitated and concerned. One of my final student projects (in 1996!) was inspired by my recently deceased Sony Discman portable CD player. The context was 1. of course I’m a poor broke student and 2. the CD player had lasted for five years of university, multiple cross-country trips, freezing weather, etc. and finally decided to start skipping. I had the button shapes and sizes memorized, and could play and select songs in the dark, judging by the feel of the buttons and the rumble of the spindle motor.

I found a local electronics repair shop in Syracuse and took the CD player down there, and of course I got the standard answer: “it will cost you much less to buy a newer, better model than to repair this one”. But the repair guys liked that I was asking these questions, and showed me exploded views of similar products, part numbers, assemblies, PCBs…

The project that emerged was another CD player, but more along the lines of a mechanical B&O-type sculpture with parts that could be replaced or upgraded from a ‘standard’ entry-level module. It had a big bolt holding everything in line, and when I presented it to the IDSA Student Merit Awards review board they laughed their asses off! “Look at that bolt!” So, maybe my aesthetic choices were off-base. :unamused:

Now that I design large, heavy equipment, containing many CD players or cellphone’s worth of metal, plastic, and assorted materials, I am forced to confront this on a daily basis. One thing that helps us as a company, and this speaks to the ‘eternity’ model that a previous person wrote, is our industry-leading customer service. When a part breaks in your fitness machine, we have a new one on the way to you, FedEx overnight, for replacement. Sometimes these are larger subassemblies, with pressed-in bearings that cannot be easily removed. At least its a smaller part being discarded, and not the whole thing.

Consumer electronics however are mostly commodity items, made by numerous companies, distinguished by design and social factors that are tailored to the “individual” and marketed relentlessly. They are not engineered to last because people don’t want them to last. (High-end audio components, or electronic testing equipment, is notably different, because it is built to last.)

John Hockenberry wrote an excellent article for Metropolis around this theme, March 2009. He wrote, “reliable growth depends upon getting more people to make the same purchases or the same people to make purchases at a greater frequency. But after 2008, it is clear that the consumer aspiration to buy nothing - whether out of exhaustion, bankruptcy, or simply to pay other bills - has become a plausible narrative.”

(This post is too long. I should plan for obsolescence.)