I spent quite a few years doing, what in in the welding trade is usually referred to as maintenance and repair work. I’ve worked on a some heavy equipment, quite a lot of farm machinery and a steady stream of commercial and residential jobs, so I suppose I have practical, but undisciplined views about the longevity of metal mechanical devises. I am not an engineer.
First of all, in the current system there is a huge incentive to master the art of planned obsolescence. When the market is as flighty, and style and trend conscious as Madison Ave. has taught it to be, building too well, designing for durability and longevity puts you out of business. Often a new and improved product is only improved esthetically, sometimes at the cost of function, by designing a fairly short lifespan into a product you can try to guarantee yourself a future market.
Secondly, there’s the issue of building a product that uses current technology well and can be upgraded. The value of new technology probably should be weighed against the cost of manufacturing the machine that incorporates it. I think I could make a pretty good argument that, considering mileage standards, purchase, and maintenance costs, modern pickup trucks are not a great deal. If you added safety upgrades, modern electronics and fuel injection to a 1960’s era pickup, something not all that hard to do, you might have a vehicle that could out work and out last it’s 2012 equivalent. If longevity and function, (I mean hauling loads), were the driving considerations in buying a pickup it wouldn’t be that hard to build a truck in which the drive train could be upgraded and with proper maintenance could function for a very long time at a very low environmental cost. (I do recognize how difficult it is to create a design that allows future technological upgrades when the designer has no idea what technology will develop.) I believe this kind of design can often be found in ocean going ships and some aircraft. A steam locomotive would be an example of technology that would be very hard to upgrade, no matter how well constructed.
Finally there’s the cost of building devices that can last indefinitely. In my world it’s all “cycles to failure”. By adding size and using better material it’s not hard to build a machine that has a hugely increased lifespan, but the trade off is in weight and cost. If too much of a machines operating costs go into merely moving the machine around, or if it’s too heavy and awkward it isn’t a successful design. And, even if a machine depreciates very slowly, if the initial cost is too high and it’s going to outlast your needs, that’s not good design either.
Of these issues, it is the issue of planned obsolescence that I find most objectionable. When a machine can function well and appropriately for it’s time, it just seems wrong to have it be designed fail.