Combatting Planned Obsolescence with 3D Printing: Who Owns Your Things?


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John Deere is suing customers, claiming that they cannot be allowed to repair the tractors that they bought. Monsanto (now Bayer) has deemed that it is okay to buy seeds from them, but not okay to obtain new seeds from the plants grown from these seeds. The right-to-repair movement is gaining steam and we see new legislation coming to the fore in several countries.

Notably, the European Union and the U.S. are becoming more repair-minded. In Europe in particular, the right to repair is tied not only to your freedom to fix the things that you own, but also environmental concerns related to waste and production. Repaired products can live longer and even be repurposed multiple times over. Any kind of legal or software powered method for locking access to that item will mean that it will end up in landfill sooner.

The maker-inspired, hacktivist-driven right-to-repair movement seemed a niche concern only years ago— something for the Electronic Frontier Foundation to tackle or for people to wag tongues about at the local makerspace. Now, through its twinning with environmental concerns, the concept is is becoming a more prominent issue.

We must not forget that the E.U. also uses this kind of legislation to fight back against large American firms that it feels are overreaching in their control over the lives of its citizens. Misgivings about Facebook privacy, Google information prominence, and Amazon’s retail prowess can therefore also be weaponized via privacy, sustainability, data protection, and, more recently, right-to-repair legislation. This in and of itself will be a powerful allied force for the coming years.

But, does the average consumer really care about this? Most people would quite happily toss old things or have never really repaired anything. The topic does not inflame the passions of everyone. Maybe it has been explained in the wrong terminology. We’ve seen a lot of push back against DRM, due to the perceived unfairness of paying for a data item and not having complete control over it. The same unfairness concern has not spread as widely for physical things.

If someone only explained it in the right way, then perhaps consumers wouldn’t be so consumer-y over goods. If only we truly wanted ownership over the things we’ve bought. If only we could sufficiently understand that my grandfather could buy a camera that could last a 100 years, my dad could buy one that lasted 30, and I can buy one that lasts as long as the software it comes with. If only we could trigger fairness concerns in between disposable, tethered objects and ones that you truly own. Perhaps a nice warning label, “You Do Not Actually Own This Thing,” may suffice. In the Brittle Spear series, I discussed how the incentives, business models, and market contain us, but may also provide answers for us.

But, even though I saw it as a call to arms, it was only really well-received by the like-minded. Just a holler into an echo chamber then. How can we, then, as a society, claim full ownership of the things that we buy? How can we avoid being ensnared by persnickety terms of service and other contracts? How can we make sure that firms don’t get too greedy?

One related global ailment is planned obsolescence, whereby companies handicap products to cease functioning quite rapidly so that they can make more money when people buy replacement products. This is also something that the E.U. sees as an evil and part of the rational for a minimum two year warranty in the region. Consistently, the E.U. seems to be doing things to combat the fast failure of fast electronics and the associated waste, which is nice to see.

Planned obsolescence is also something that may score you points at the right barbecue, but won’t really fill squares with protestors. However, all of these things are related. Surprisingly, whereas the advantages for companies are limited in scope, the advantages of extending product lifetimes are significant for society as a whole. We have here a classic dilemma where a few companies benefit while running ragged over the tragedy of the commons. Above, we can see a summation of some studies as to what the economic benefits would be of more sustainable longer lasting products. These are substantial. Below we can see what the assumed lifetimes of certain products are.

With billions of electronics being sold, just a slight extension of the product life of your phone could have huge effects. We could gain more utility from it as a society, you could save a lot of money, and we would all waste less. Some things have little to do with the actual lifespan of products, however. I have mobile phone contracts that last for two years, which means that, for me, I almost automatically get a new phone every two years.

But we can already see that any movement in a more sustainable direction would be hugely beneficial. And we shouldn’t wait any longer to make progress. Look closely at the table above. Why should a bed only last ten years? Why can we not make power tools last much longer, as well? Some appliances work for over 10 years, too.

So, with the right incentives, companies could engineer us out of this mess. Or we could take to the streets and protest. Or we could all be incentivized to change our buying behaviors to become more sustainable. Or…we could aggressively hack existing products to significantly lengthen their lifespan. Through 3D printing we have an opportunity to expand the utility of much of our world. In my Design for Disruption series, I outlined how the industrial aftermarket is a huge opportunity.

Aaron Brown at MakerFaire in Grand Rapids, Michigane

However, we can also help ourselves in a much more direct way, as well. We could rekindle the flames of the Maker movement, but now make it more radical and green still by giving it the express purpose of expanding the lives of all of the things, while opening up customization and true ownership. The Maker movement was cute and sold magazines and show tickets before fizzling out and becoming Warhammer with sobering irons. What if we rekindled it and made it a mass movement for the express purpose of greening our lives and our homes? What if essential maker skills were what you needed to take back control and truly own your things— make them just as you need them to be and to live a truly green life?

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