Today I succumbed to the fact that even though this toy has never left the first floor of my house, the number 4 stacking cup from my daughter’s new set no longer exists.
The whole set was $8.79, but we’ve only had it unwrapped for about 20 days – the fact that we’re already missing a piece is irksome. Immediately I thought about how nice it would be to be able to go on to Amazon and buy a replacement part. Unfortunately, even in a world where DFL products are the norm, I’ll never be able to buy just a number 4 stacking cup. Where is the lower limit to the idea of having replaceable parts for a product and how can we determine it?
My daughter’s number 4 stacking cup, which has since gone missing.
The constraint on having replacement parts has a supply and demand side of things. From the supply side, there is a question of scale and logistics. To supply users with all these replacement parts, a business needs to stock them, which incurs inventory and holding costs. Parts need to be packaged and shipped to the customer just like the full product. In this case, it is possible that the packaging cost, holding cost, and the cost of labor to find that part in a warehouse and ship it to the customer can be worth more than the part itself. Also, if the replacement part is priced the same or more than the original product, or the original product is not priced to absorb the costs of replacement parts or sold in large enough volumes to pay for those expenses, then the business will not be profitable.
This is where the idea of standardization helps make products more maintainable. Forget the stacking toy for a moment, let’s say Hewlett-Packard sells 10 different types of printers. If every HP printer uses the same printer head, then they need to hold and package roughly 500 printer heads at any time to meet the demand for replacements. If they use 3, 5, or 10 different printer heads across their lines then they might need to hold 200 of each printer head to mean fluctuating demands. It is not only more expensive for them to stock those units, but also harder for the user to determine which part to buy to replace a broken head. Standardization helps make parts more maintainable from a customer perspective and more efficient from a business perspective.
From a demand standpoint, the issue is about both money and time. As we’ve said before, there are several factors that will motivate a user to try and repair or seek a replacement part for their product. First, they need to love (or at least like) the product performance enough to want to fix it. Next, of course, is the cost of the overall product. Lastly, is how easy it is to find and buy the replacement part. The ‘ease’ is subjective to the user, however, both the time it takes to find and obtain a replacement part and the frustration factor to find that part feed into it. If the user values their time more heavily and the price of the item is small enough, the user will likely replace the whole unit rather than go through the effort of purchasing and installing a replacement part.
Lack of product maintainability has been a strategy of some companies using planned obsolescence. Users calling in to a customer service line trying to fix a printer will often be told to buy a new one rather than being instructed how to replace the printer head. If a company is not helping its user maintain their products, that increases the frustration factor and the time it will take the user to learn how to repair their product on their own. This instruction from a business might be fueled by the desire to sell more product, or a reaction to the additional costs associated with making replacement parts available. Also, competition can cause a business to lower their prices so much that they don’t have the margin to support replacement programs properly. Something like an electric toothbrush, for example, which already sells replacement heads, may only have one or two more parts that make sense to offer as replaceable, so it doesn’t cause much more pressure on the logistics infrastructure for the company. The product and company were also designed with replicability in mind. This example shows that some products will be easier to make fully maintainable than others.
My daughter’s stacking cup set, minus the number 4 cup.
Going back to my daughter’s stacking cups, the scale is very high – this is a standard toy for most tots, but the cost to separately package, house, and ship individual cups is probably almost the same as the whole toy. I will either need to buy a new set or my daughter will learn to count 1, 2, 3, 5, and it will be fine. By the way, just because something like a stacking toy will never have replaceable parts doesn’t mean that toys like this can’t meet other DFL criteria. They can be sustainable by being made of sustainable or regenerative materials. They can be loveable and durable. They can even be end-of-lifeable, because as a child’s toy, the product is only going to be used for a few years – it’s likely a few pieces will go missing so the end stage should be on designers’ minds.
So where do we draw the line and say, “below this level it’s not worth having replaceable parts”? Because it is based on factors of scalability, price, and time from the consumer, I think it’s a dynamic target. Some less expensive products may be able to offer replacement parts because they sell so many base units and have few parts that need replacing. As we move towards valuing our possessions more, consumers may be more willing to put in the time to maintain them, increasing the demand for replaceable parts. While I think the lower limit is a moving target, the way we can aim for this target is for more companies to offer replaceable parts and for more consumers to look for them.
In every case, even if it is my daughter’s toy or an electric toothbrush, maintainability as a result replacement parts can be part of every product so long as it is a well-thought decision made from the company at the conception of the product design process. No matter the cost or the complication of the supply chain, it is each company’s intention to offer this option to its customer that matters the most. Consumer behavior is based upon our needs and what companies offer.
It is this interaction between companies and customers that moves the needle towards new habits and consumer mindsets.