Legend has it that Henry Ford would send engineers out to junkyards all over the US looking for Fords. They were supposed to study each one they found and make note of any parts that had not failed. But it wasn’t so that he could start making all of those parts stronger. Instead, Ford allegedly used this data to determine where he could cut corners in future production runs so as not to waste money by making any part last longer than any other part.
Most things tend to break down rather than completely giving out. Usually it’s only one or two components that stop working and the rest of it is still serviceable. And this is a good thing. It’s what lets us repair PCBs or scavenge parts off them, drive our cars longer, and help save each other’s lives through organ donor programs. Can you imagine how different life would be if each part of every thing failed at the same time?
The clothes and shoes we wear, houses we live in, and the tools and objects we reach for every day are simply not built to last. Some people will tell you that nothing is made like it used to be. Whether that’s true or not, the things of yesteryear still broke down eventually.
Building things to last isn’t really an effective business model anyway. For instance, auto makers have to make their cars safe and reliable, but they also need to keep customers coming back. So year after year, they introduce new models that are sleeker, safer, and have cooler features.
Most any thing that humans can make is only as strong as its weakest point. This is especially true for those things that move, like cars. Before cars, it was horse-driven carriages of all sizes and stripes, including small ones driven by a single horse. A ride in one of these was unsettlingly bumpy by default.
A Carriage Built for Two
In the fields of statistics and economics, there is something called a model of depreciation. One of these, called the light bulb model, refers to a good that gives the same level of service throughout its lifespan. In other words, a thing that actually does wear out rather than break down. We buy light bulbs expecting them to illuminate at the flick of a switch. One day they just give up the ghost. There’s really no fixing a light bulb, and they have no scrap value.
This example of sudden and total depreciation is also known as the One Hoss Shay model. The name comes from informal American speech for ‘one-horse chaise’, a carriage driven by a single horse that is large enough for two people. The one hoss shay was immortalized by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or The Wonderful One Hoss Shay: A Logical Story”.
In the poem, a deacon laments the fact that carriages break down due to weakness at one place or another. Forget assembly lines and cutthroat business practices–these were usually built locally by enterprising villagers. The deacon deduces that if he were to build a one hoss shay using the finest materials from
top to bottom, it would have no weaknesses and would therefore endure forever. So the deacon decides to build the most reliable one hoss shay there ever could logically be, in accordance with the Puritan principles that critics of the era believed Oliver Wendell Holmes to be satirizing.
And build it he does. Every part of it is equally as strong as every other part. This marvel of logical construction lasts and lasts through a parade of decades and deacons, providing perfect service all the while. But as Holmes says, logic is logic, and eventually it catches up to the shay. Exactly one hundred years to the day that the deacon finished it, the whole thing collapses in a heap of particulates, causing the current deacon embarrassment and a sore behind.
The Future of Modular Design
For today’s chariots, the end of this depreciation model would mean a lot more than just dusty pants and injured pride. Whether something breaks down or completely wears out, it’s usually inconvenient for the user. This is especially true with something like smart phones. When they break down, they usually have to be replaced entirely. A couple of companies like Fairphone and Google are working to create architectures for modular phones. With this kind of interchangeability, you could easily replace, say, the camera module in your phone whether it broke or you just plain wanted a better one.
The advantages of modular smart phones go far beyond swapping camera modules and maxing out memory. The biggest issue with wide adoption of this kind of paradigm shift is getting people interested in the first place. Offering special features that no other phone has is a pretty good start.
Modular systems with recyclable parts may be the best that we can do in the future to keep down waste as well as prices. What would you do to ease the pains of planned obsolescence?