Lessons in Disposable Design from a Cheap Blinky Ball

Planned obsolescence, as annoying as it is when you’re its victim, still has to be admired. You can’t help but stand in awe of the designer who somehow managed to optimize a product to live one day longer than its warranty period. Seriously, why is it always the next day?

The design of products that are never intended to live long enough to go obsolete must be similarly challenging, and [electronupdate] did a teardown of a cheap LED blinky toy to see what’s involved. You’ve no doubt seen these seizure-triggering silicone balls before, mostly at checkout counters and the like where they’re sold at prices many hundreds of times what it took to make them. This particular device, which seems representative of the species, has two bright LEDs, a small controller chip, a trio of button cells for power, and a springy switch to activate it. All this is mounted to a cheap scrap of phenolic resin PCB, with the controller chip and one of the LEDs covered by a blob of clear epoxy.

This teardown one-ups most others, as [electronupdate] disrobes the chip and points a microscope at the die; the video below shows just how few transistors are employed and proposes a likely circuit. Everything about this ball just oozes cheapness, and it’s likely these things cost essentially nothing to build. Which makes sense for something destined for the landfill within a week or so.

Yes, this annoying blinky-thing is low-end garbage, but there are still design lessons to be learned from it. Anything that’s built for a broad market has to be built to a price point, and understanding those constraints is important to understanding how planned obsolescence works.

45 thoughts on “Lessons in Disposable Design from a Cheap Blinky Ball

  1. Some corrections to the text:

    > You can’t help but stand in awe

    … yes, I can. Because the whole premise is wrong.

    > why is it always the next day?

    It is not. You simply forget about all the products that you own, owned, know about or heard of that do NOT fail the day after the warranty runs out. It’s the most simple psychological fallacy many people fall into.
    You only remember those cases where your assumption “next day after warranty ends” is met. Basing an article on a false premise and then claiming that an engineer did marvels to achieve that is … my comment gets deleted again if I write it out in words.

    No doubt that “planned obsolescence” exists. But you can only wager on the precise date of obsolescence. You can not “build for it to met”.

    1. Your username is apt, and I totally agree. I’ve noticed it is the older generation who seem stuck on the idea that things just aren’t made to last – they can be, its just these days we have a wider range of quality (that cater for a wider range of budgets) available, and people won’t pay more if they don’t have to so tend to buy at the lower end. Also the older one is, the more anecdotes one accumulates about stuff “breaking just after warranty” – when stuff doesn’t break, you don’t remember it, leaving maybe alleged “planned obsolescence” examples.

      I mean, its a toy that a child might use for an hour tops, designed to be cheap and cheerful. It serves its purpose well. The failure time was just coincidence.

  2. “Planned Obsolescence” is the reason our planet is choked up with garbage. Far from admiring it, I despise it, and the whole cynical money grubbing “ethos” it represents.

    1. Much as I hate planned obsolescence, I totally disagree.

      Human greed and trying to find fulfilment in “stuff” are the reason the planet is filled up with junk. Cheap credit to pay for it also is a cause in encouraging stupid spending.

      Almost all so-called “planned obsolescence” is just the result of manufactures trying to produce the junk people “want” (but will never keep, so why build it to last) at the lowest possible price point.

      1. I dissagree. People don’t want junk. They just cant determine if a product is build for 3000h of use, or for 5h. So they somehow assume that products are build for equal use, and buy the cheaper one. Or they assume that brand X is better than brand Y, and fall for the low quality product line of brand X, and for their expensive ads.
        This would be different if the manufacturer had to state (like the efficiency ratings) how long it will last. And it would be relatively easy to verify. Just track how much they sell, and how much breaks to early.

        1. And how would the manufacturer determine that? Once the consumer has it, they have no idea how the product will be used, what environment it will be in – they would have to start putting long winded conditions and legal jargon on the packaging to provide any kind of estimate of “time till break”. Consumers who assume different price bands for products have “equal use” (say, the cheapest vacuum cleaner, vs an industrial one) clearly dont’ have much common sense.

          I’m no suggesting there aren’t many “dirt cheap” products that aren’t fit for purpose, just that price is often a reasonable guide to quality. You don’t have to buy the best brand or most expensive, but when it comes to the extreme low end, you can’t really complain about it.

          1. Well, if the manufacturers have no ideas how the consumers will use their products, how are they designing them right now, without getting crushed by refund claims? How can they say: this car is going to use 8L per 100km, not knowing how we use it?
            Actually, manufacturers already do such things. They write “don’t use this mixer longer than 3 min without letting it cool down for a minimum of 15min” in the manual, describing the intended use case, without being able to check if the user violated that rule, thus braking the mixer and claiming unjustified refund. Why not stating how many uses are planned for the product, and make it readble before buying? I’d like that.

    1. Ah well we can focus long before that potential almost future paradigm by making WALL-E variants from that waste and before it’s crushed too, I’m stunned by the immense number of very usable and sometimes powerful steppers in those large format photocopiers. There are also interesting optics and steels, circuit boards with few good easily removed SMD devices with only some minimal attention into acquiring and dismantling them, if at least as an exercise for the kids though helpful to use those parts for all sorts of toys, education devices and where possible useful items and if not then ‘motion art’ of many types :-)

  3. DISPOSABLE DESIGN is just an euphemism for garbage :/
    20 years ago 50% of my garbage can was paper, then bio (food), glass, and at last place some plastic
    today straight 90% is plastic and I fuk%^$ hate it :(

    1. 20 years ago, neither paper, glass, or compostables went in the garbage.

      Today, about half of our plastic goes in the recycling (whether it’s recycled is another question).
      i don’t garden enough to deal with compost, and kids are bad for food efficiency, so I think most of our garbage is food. Closely followed by non-recyclable packaging (plastic wraps, bags, and Jiffy bags) – but might be the other way round.
      By volume, most of our waste is paper/card, mostly amazon boxes.

      If 90% of your garbage is plastic, are you super good at recycling everything else, or really bad at bringing home plastic?!

      1. recycling? we dont even have mandatory recycle bins in my, capital EU country, city! Some people segregate garbage voluntarily, but garbage truck just scoops it all into the same container ;-) and another one dumps it 20 km away in the suburbs (>120 Tons per year).

      2. A lot of plastics intended for recycling ended up in 3rd world countries for processing. But plastics deemed as unfit for recycling where (are?) burned or dumped in the ocean.
        One of the chief proponents of plastic recycling regrets having pushed the movement because it has resulted in even more pollution than it would have if people had not considered plastics as recyclable.

  4. I wonder how much more expensive it would be to create a toy that could be passed on from one generation to the next, or failing that one that is biodegradable, instead of one that will release in to the environment (in no particular order), non degradable silicone, silica, copper, tin, lead (probably), arsenic(probably), cadmium(possibly), gallium(probably), formaldehyde, plastic packaging, cardboard, steel, gold(maybe), alluminium, zinc, manganese dioxide, various chemical dyes with a whole spectrum of unknown chemicals, and a not inconsiderable puff of CO2
    Perhaps we should be channelling our design energies into useful stuff with a low environmental footprint, rather than “cheap crap from China”.

    1. Wooden toys, (blocks, trucks, animals, dolls, etc.) now they can be colored with aniline dyes (safe?) instead of lead paint. Some of the old steel and cast iron toys come to mind as well, they just need the lead paint removed and sharp edges deburred.

      1. Lego is fantastic – it lasts very well (mine is still going after 30+ years), and has lasting appeal

        The problem here isn’t making toys last – that’s easy. It’s making toys that people want to last. Most toys have a passing temporary appeal, and then are discarded. Very few have the appeal to last years, let along generations – Lego, mechano, skelectix – some last and keep us buying more!

        1. Lego aside, I have toys from my childhood that I would be happy to use even now that I’m in 40s.
          The only limitation is the size on these toys that is not compatible with the size of an adult human being. I really need to save enough money and make a suitable excuse to tell wife, to go out and buy an adult size digger.

    2. One word: Lego.
      My adult son still has nearly all of my old collection, and has added to it significantly over the years. Even the bricks I had 40 years ago are still perfectly usable, and I hope that someday my grandchildren will be able to play and learn from those very same Lego bricks.

    3. This is the time of the year when I walk though the shops and see only cheap looking plastic toys at extortionate prices. These are toys that give the child great joy when they unwrap them, because they are big and brightly coloured, but sadly will break by the end of Christmas day. These toys are made to please shareholders not children.

      I must admit, I have bought cheap plastic toys for my nephews, but I tend to prefer wooden toys when I can find them, as I know by experience that it is much more satisfying to hit your siblings with heavier toys.

    4. Silicone is inert, so like iron-oxide, it doesn’t need to degrade.
      No heavy elements in these, because EU and inexpensive testing equipment like XRF.
      Elements like gold/copper/etc don’t need to degrade.

      In regard to a hipster heirloom ball…
      A rechargeable battery with wireless charging in that small of a package would need to retail for >$30 just for those upgrades.

      Making all the contents biodegradable is completely impossible.

      Making it without silicon, copper, tin, gold, etc is impossible.

      You create more CO2 each day than this thing took to produce. Personally, I prefer the cheap crap blinky ball from China.

      The local Amish community is recruiting if you want to make useful butter churns though.

    1. Well, if silicone keeps it sealed and it won’t break down, it is a good thing in my book, as it prevents chemical pollution of the environment from electronics waste within it. However, alas, silicone will break down eventually – it will lose elasticity and then it will crumble, or at least it will rip or break. But I don’t see how any easier-to-fall-apart plastic would make things better in this case.

    2. Completely agree. It’s like gold or rust. They just sit there mocking our existence.

      How dare it not break down like plants and animals. Frickin inert molecules, am I right?

  5. As a parent, I’m just happy when my kids play with something as simple as a ball. No screen, just bouncy fun! (The fact that there’s a blinky light is kind of immaterial.) Also, in my experience, these light up balls somehow seem to last forever, and come out of the drawers for play for years. The material itself (some silicone, a few electronics) is probably less waste than the packaging used for most other things we buy. In summary, I am pro-lightup-bouncy ball! Vote light-up bouncy ball 2018!

      1. there are 4 of them around our house with the silicon removed so the cats can play with the blinky balls, granted they spend alot of time under stuff but they still are blinking after 4 or 5 years of intermittent use.

  6. When I hear or read someone use the phrase “planned obsolescence” I realize most people don’t appreciate that design is about compromise. Make it last twice as long, BOM cost increases 4x, or size doubles, or NRE 10x, etc.

    I’m rarely impressed by complicated systems because they have relatively few hard limitations. Even space satellites with all their design limitations overcome most by just spending massive amounts of money.

    Ultra cheap products always interest me because it represents one of the hardest engineering challenges.

    1. No, normally “making it last twice as long” would not increase the BOM by 4* but mostly by 1.05. Of course this toy does not contain an SMPS with hot electrolytic caps, which are normally the culprits for premature failure, but normally it could make the product last much longer if only slightly better quality (slightly more expensive) caps are used.

  7. Dan – My definition of “planned obsolescence” is when a product is intentionally designed to fail sooner than it could have and not just designed down to a price.

    For example, Apple products receiving an ‘update’ to reduce battery life vs a Vivo phone that’s designed to optimize price vs performance because it doesn’t have Apple’s margins/volume.

    It might be important to use this distinction so people don’t think all ‘cheap’ products are the result of asshole designers.

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