We’ve all been there. You’re in the mall, you walk into the brightly lit tech store with the latest and greatest tablets and phones showing off blazing speeds, crystal clear displays and sleek new designs. It’s so easy to get caught up in the euphoria of your surroundings that you don’t stop and think about how often these companies are coming out with newer versions of the same product. Couple that with the fact that your device has been sluggish recently, or “freezes up” from time to time, and the idea of making a purchase becomes very compelling.
Marketing strategists may debate the profitability of designed obsolescence, but one thing is clear: the consumer does not benefit from the practice of artificially shortening the life-span of a product in order to shorten the replacement cycle. While some level of value engineering may be necessary in order to keep a product affordable, the practices of using non-replaceable or inferior components in key wear areas, or intentionally engineering a device or product to deteriorate quickly has largely been criticized.
Vance Packard, in his 1960 exposé The Waste Makers, identified two subcategories of planned obsolescence: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function. When trends, style, and fashions change rapidly in order to make previously purchased products appear unfashionable or out-of-date, that is an example of obsolescence of desirability. Trend setting fashion designers and marketing outlets create new fashions that are all the rage for a brief period of time and then disappear just as quickly when the next big fashion trend is taking root.
Obsolescence of function occurs when a product is designed to be unusable after a predetermined period of time. Few aspects of the consumer market are more frustrating than the realization that the major purchases we make may come complete with intentional design flaws, and made-to-break parts.
For instance, consider the story about the young Harvard student who walked briskly into the library and quickly took a seat at one of the many computer stations. He immediately reached for his thumb drive and plugged it in, waiting impatiently for the content to appear on the screen. After a few seconds, he pulled it back out and tried another USB port, and then another with no success.
With an air of superiority, he turned to the teenage girl beside him and said, “I just bought this thumb drive a month ago for forty dollars and it’s already failing!” He continued to lecture the young girl on the perils of “designed obsolescence” and the throw away culture in which we live.
The young girl listened to all the man had to say, and then replied, “Or it could just be that you were plugging your drive into my computer console.”
We could cite other examples such as ink cartridges, televisions that become outdated in less than five years, and even the highways on which we drive! Evidently, consumers are often willing to spend a lot of money on having “the latest and greatest” products on the market, even if the items they already own are not completely beyond their useful life. However, when the expectation is that the purchased product will last for a reasonable amount of time, and the reality is that the actual lifespan of the new purchase is much shorter than expected, often just slightly longer than the warranty period, designed obsolescence becomes a problem.
While the evidence that designed obsolescence exists in many aspects of the consumer market is overwhelming, the practice of it is difficult to substantiate. No major manufacturer will include it as part of their advertising strategy, “We guarantee you will need to replace this item in 3 years!” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that many major manufacturers intentionally engage in the practice with an eye to increased sales in the future.
Designed Obsolescence in the Elevator Trade
So what about the elevator trade? Are there certain types of elevators that are designed to be outdated and in need of replacement in a short period of time when compared to the elevators of a few years ago? The answer is YES. In the United States, most building owners would expect no less than twenty-five years of service out of an elevator installation in their building. However, many of the newer machine-room-less designs offered by some of the corporate giants in our industry won’t even fulfill half of that expectation before major modernization will be needed. This is due to lighter duty designs, smaller machines carrying a much higher payload than their predecessors, and non-serviceable parts being installed.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are getting stuck with extremely high maintenance, service, and replacement costs are completely unaware of the changes that have taken place in our industry in the last ten years. While the American public has become accustomed to so-called “fast fashion” and other elements of obsolescence of desirability in the consumer market, designed obsolescence of function in major purchases such as elevator installations is disheartening and costly.
Historically, when other industries have turned to designed obsolescence to increase revenue, the elevator industry has relied on innovation; safer, more durable products; and better service. In these ways, both the building owner and the elevator companies benefited. In the late 1920’s and mid 1930’s when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, the automotive industry introduced the model-year marketing concept. It was during the same era that the elevator industry began providing routine preventative maintenance contracts, which ultimately saved building owners the expense of costly repairs. After World War II, at a time when light bulb manufacturers had “successfully” re-engineered their products for a much shorter life-span, the elevator industry developed safer, more economic automatic elevators, alleviating the expense of employing elevator operators.
Due to the fact that the elevator trade has been reluctant to resort to designed obsolescence, the proven, more reliable technology is still available and still has the longer life expectancy, but the propaganda surrounding the newer, shorter-life, higher-cost machine-room-less (MRL) elevators is literally drowning everything else out.
Customers often say things like “They don’t build them like they use to.” The fact is, independent contractors do! Many customers also rely on a “full coverage” maintenance agreement to make up for any faults in the elevator equipment they purchase. However, an elevator is obsolete when the manufacturer declares it to be so, not when the owner decides that it is. Maintenance contracts cannot cover obsolete equipment because replacement parts needed to perform maintenance are simply not available. I have personally seen a leading elevator company deem one of their own elevators as “obsolete” in less than ten years! In this particular case, the customer needed a drive replaced that would have been covered under the maintenance contract, but instead an upgraded drive was required and the customer paid full price.
We, as independent contractors, have to do a better job of exposing these newer designs for exactly what they are. Consumers have to do their homework and not rely on the industry to do it for them. California, which has a long history of leading the country in the adoption of new laws and safety restrictions, was one of the first states to allow highly-proprietary MRL elevators to be installed. However, California has recently passed very strict legislation regarding the design and installation of new elevators that has effectively outlawed installation of these newer designs. There are already several jurisdictions across the county looking at similar legislation. It’s only a matter of time until we will be rid of this blight on our industry, but what will be the cost to building owners, universities, hospitals, municipalities, and ultimately taxpayers, and how much exorbitant profit will be gained by the large global corporations in the meantime?
At Landmark Elevator, we believe that the best marketing strategies are those that substantially and directly benefit the consumer. We have always striven to grow our business on the solid foundation of keeping the building owner’s best interests as our best interests. When you are in the market for a new elevator installation, a modernization, or a routine service agreement, do not be taken in by the propaganda of the big companies. Make sure you know the life-expectancy of your elevator equipment, and check with your local independent contractor for availability of durable designs that will end up saving you money in the long run.