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Will Smart Appliances Last Only as Long as Smartphones?

Integrating Internet of Things computerization into devices must not be allowed to accelerate product obsolescence.Ui-Graveyard-iot-obsolescence.jpg

If you follow sustainable product design, you often hear terms such as "designed-for-disassembly," and "modular components" or "self-repair."

These are important concepts. But they're not part of the IoT dialogue, at least not yet. Repairing the digital brains of a smart appliance is not something you do on your kitchen table. It's highly specialized, controlled environment stuff. DIY videos won't help.

We're all award of the major problem of e-waste, the disposal of laptops, tablets and especially mobile phones after a very short lifespan, often a year or two. But what if, by too quickly adding computer "brains" to all of our gadgets, we're actually shortening their viable lifespan drastically? It's not a stretch to imagine a "weakest link" life cycle becoming the norm. When the computerized communication aspect of your refrigerator dies, it's almost impossible to repair, so you're faced with a huge part replacement cost, or you buy a new appliance. This might sound good to some less scrupulous manufacturers, but how long will a brand's reputation last when consumers realize the hidden replacement cost of IoT technology?

Appliances have traditionally been one of the best household investments you could make. Many models last for decades, even being handed down to generations. But will the Internet of Things change all that?

That's the premise of this article from the Sydney Morning Herald about a woman who had to "junk" a brand new, $2,999 dollar high-tech oven. An excerpt:

In the past decade, electronics have been creeping into household appliances more and more, and this trend will accelerate with the rise of what technologists call the "internet of things".

You know about smartphones, smart watches, Fitbits and so on. That trend is about to hit the home in a big way. It's starting with home security systems and smart TVs, but pretty soon your fridge and oven will be online, too.

But what happens when every appliance in your house is a computer?

There are privacy and security concerns, of course, but what many people don't realise is that for the sake of a few whizz-bang features, we could be trading the lifespan of household appliances for something closer to the much shorter lifespan of laptops and smartphones.

Smart Ideas

 One way manufacturers are addressing this potential nightmare of early obsolescence is by including self-diagnosing feature. Many major appliances, such as my Whirlpool condensing dryer, already contain computerized brains that identify malfunctions with an error code. Bigger questions remain, of course, such as what the real value of smart home appliances is. In other words, are we getting more connected simply for connection's sake?

Diagnosis is a good first step. But it doesn't help the appliance owner in a remote part of the U.S., or worse, another country. To rationalize the rise of smart appliances, manufacturers need to be working simultaeously on SELF REPAIR.

If we're going to build devices that the average homeowner can't fix with a screwdriver and a clothes hangar, we need to make sure the devices can either:

  • Diagnose and repair themselves,
  • Contain easily removable modules that can be affordably replaced,
  • Come with longer, more comprehensive warranties and rapid service guarantees.

In other words, a smart appliance has to also be a sustainable product.