Planned obsolescence occurs when a piece of equipment is deliberately designed to have a specific life span which is usually very short; two to five years in most cases. Within the period that period of two to five years that very technology gains optimum market penetration and speedily gives way to a market take-over (substitution) of a new technology for the older version.

This concept is at variance with our traditional believe that once you acquire a product you never bother to replace it with a new technology even when it is obvious it has physically deteriorated and cost of repair/maintenance has become a financial burden to you.

Usually products are designed with attractive and desirable features to lure customers of its durability, serviceability and maintainability.  All this is for a short time because eventually that technology needs replacement with a newer technology; and that when it fails the customer will want to buy the upgraded version/model.

Consider the advanced technology and global expanse of Ford’s, Peugeot’s, Toyota’s and Honda’s cars. They have infinite potential growth. Every five years or fewer, car models are upgraded to entice customers and retain demand. It is the same way advanced technology drives infinite growth rate of change in global aviation industry.

Take for example an airport central air conditioning system which was installed under a Turn-Key contract with reputable foreign contractor. The system worked perfectly well at test-run and commissioning stages. End-users hailed the project and welcomed the development it brought to their community without coercion and then took ownership. Having seen it function as it ought to at test-run and commissioning stages, everyone attested to the fact that the components were durable and manufactured from quality material.

Frequent travelers breathe a sigh of relief whenever they walked into the airport terminal building.  After two years, the central air conditioning system broke down due to a tiny micro-switch failure and rendered the system unserviceable. The principle guiding Turn-Key project is that end-users/owners take responsibility of the asset and liabilities associated with it upon project completion and acceptance.

In a desperate attempt to get the system back online and running, the airport manager contacted the foreign contractor and demanded for urgent system restoration or else the company will be blacklisted and denied future dealings. End users were shocked to learn that the micro-switch that failed and rendered the central air conditioning unit unserviceable cannot be sourced because the technology has changed and manufacturers no longer produce it. They were advised to go for a new system that is efficient, smarter, user-friendly and more adaptable to local environment which are available in the market.

The situation turned the airport terminal building into a hot oven during the day. The airport management resorted to giant standing fans which they located at strategic positions. That didn’t solve the problem because the fans aggravated the temperature after a while. So rather than enjoy the comfort of this state-of-art terminal building, travelers preferred to hang around outside the terminal building for natural air than sweat profusely inside. To add the dilemma the airport is not economically viable and does not generate revenue but relies 100% on government funding.

The decision makers were caught between repair and replacement. Regardless which way the pendulum swings, cost and system upgrade are major factors that must be addressed if the manager must restore the comfort of the travelling public in the terminal building.

A training institution had put-up a proposal for the procurement and installation of a particular simulator equipment which was captured in the annual budget of the agency. The justification for this capital investment was that it is software driven which basically reduces human error to the barest minimum and increases efficiency and student performance.

As far as the institution was concerned, internet access to information about the simulator’s functional parameters was their Eureka moment. With that conviction, the institution invited the sales representatives for practical demonstration. Sales representatives of the technology supplier took turn to show-case the versatility of their product to the audience but anchored their future profitability on planned obsolescence.

The institution was fascinated by the complexity of the simulator and the multifaceted training tasks it can perform at a given time-frame. Contract for the technology supply was signed, sealed and delivered. The simulator started operation as a training aid in the institution. Within three years of its life span the software expired and the simulator failed to respond to command. It was still looking new but has been rendered unserviceable through planned obsolescence.

In desperation to get the system back online and running, the line managers at the institution contacted the foreign contractor and demanded for urgent system restoration or else the company will be blacklisted and denied future dealings. The institution and end-users were shocked to learn that the software has been upgraded and for the system to be restored to operational status the  upgraded version of the software must be acquired and installed by them otherwise the system is nothing but a scrap. Better still the institution can go for an entirely new system that is efficient, smarter, user-friendly and more adaptable to local environment which are available in the market. Again the decision maker in this institution was caught between repair and replacement dilemma.

According to Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft Corporation, “The only big companies that succeed will be those that obsolete their own products before someone else does.”

Since Windows was developed for the consumer market and services a wide variety of applications, its application to the automation and control world introduces new challenges.

Management and decision makers ought to think through all issues of technology obsolescence and its impacts before embarking on any project involving equipment, systems and devices so as to avoid being caught in the web of obsolescence.