You’ve very likely heard the refrain before that “Things aren’t made like they used to be.”

Is it a great conspiracy when your phone charger cables or toaster fail? People often allege that we have to replace things more often now than was once the case. Is that always bad?

Certainly, there are cases where products are engineered to be different, but not better. A famous example is Pyrex, which used to incorporate borosilicate glass as a strengthener, but has included a cheaper soda-lime glass since the 50’s. Whether this matters for the casual home chef is debatable, but it has made a lot of consumers upset – so much so, that they just don’t buy Pyrex anymore. You can judge for yourself, and read more about the history of Pyrex here.

How about a toaster? You can get them for $5, which is sort of shocking given how far it has come before you see it on a shelf. It’s cheap enough for companies to produce them thanks to economies of scale, bulk shipping discounts, networks of suppliers in the same villages, pay variations between nations, and strategic pricing, e.g. you went to the store for a toaster, but you left with bagels, cream cheese, and a bag of grapes as well. You can buy a more expensive toaster, which will hopefully last longer. Maybe it will need a repair, but you may want to buy it for life. Is it always a good idea to buy for longevity?

No. While I sometimes agree with the mantra of “If you buy quality, you only cry once”, some things should definitely be designed to fail.

Witness the humble smartphone charging cable. When they’re not being forgotten in hotel rooms everywhere, they’re failing to work at least sometimes. Over time, the factory-snug-fit at the charging port becomes loose, or bent, or the male connector detaches from the cable, often due to abuse.

What the heck? Is this just designed to fail? Actually, it is, and here’s why that’s actually good.

Inside your phone, there are a female connector and charging port board. If your cable is made to last forever, guess which one is going to wear out first? If the port on your phone doesn’t work, how can you even source the right part, when these kinds of bits and bobs are often changed to any number of variants during a phone’s production, even within a given model number?

And another thing: Cars. Not the engines, but the surrounding structures. Modern cars have advanced crumple zones that are intended to deflect the energy of a collision around the occupant space. Check out the difference. Designed to fail, rather than a rigid car where the car can fail to protect you.

The next time you find that something has failed, will you bemoan it, or will it be a good thing? As for me, I’m on the hunt for a bulk-pack of the cheapest smartphone charging cables.

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