I recently found myself watching The Man in the White Suit, a classic Ealing comedy from 1951. It’s the story of Sidney Stratton, research chemist, who pursues the invention of a synthetic fibre that is virtually indestructible.
The film is an interesting snapshot of its time, from back when The North was probably a mysterious place to many cinemagoers; one of flat caps and funny accents. It’s from a time when it seemed that mastery over the atom would unlock all kinds of potential, but when the UK still made textiles in a big way – in somewhat grim, labour-intensive mills owned by cigar-smoking industrialists, apparently.
It also seems to have been a time when you could lose your job, and simply bob down to the Labour Exchange to secure another. Strange times indeed!
In order to prove his theory, the central character has to conduct his research in secret, the cost of his equipment and materials being hidden from a succession of employers by sheer bureaucracy. Even so, Stratton goes through a number of jobs in the textile industry before he finally manages to produce the miracle material. When he does, he’s surprised to discover that nobody wants his breakthrough to have occurred. Industrialists and trade unions alike conclude that it spells the end for them, with one last boom while they manufacture everybody some clothes in the new fibre, after which they can look forward to nothing but the closure of all their factories.
With hindsight, we can see that the disaster they sought to avert wasn’t all that far off anyway. Despite being the nation that invented the textile industry, the decline was already well established and the UK would become a net importer of cotton cloth by 1958, something that the Cotton Industry Act of 1959 wouldn’t reverse.
The ‘big joke’ of the film is that both the fat cats and the trade unions collude as they seek the same thing. They want the invention suppressed so that things can stay as they were, and this leaves the naïve Sidney Stratton with few allies. Even his landlady is offended by the dabbling of scientists. “What about my bit o’ washin’?” she asks: Stratton’s fibre has a static charge that causes it to repel dirt, so it threatens to destroy service-based activities such as laundry as well as manufacturing.
This, of course, cannot be allowed, and so Sidney Stratton is pursued through the town by a mob… until it turns out that the fibre he has invented is unstable. As the mob closes in, the distinctive white suit spontaneously degrades, the previously indestructible fabric turning into woolly clumps that are taken as souvenirs by the mob. Left in his underwear, Stratton is given an overcoat by one of his pursue, and all is well. (Although in the final scene, it is implied that the newly-discharged scientist will try again.)
Conspicuously missing from The Man in the White Suit is the question of fashion. The idea that an everlasting set of clothes spells the death of the textile industry is flawed because it assumes nobody will ever want a different look. Perhaps in 1951, under postwar austerity, this was a somewhat easier issue to forget… but don’t the economics of the film also assume that people never change shape? Perhaps that’s the same austerity is at work: rationing didn’t completely end until 1954…
In real-world manufacturing, industries face problems every bit as challenging as those portrayed in The Man in the White Suit. That products should have a reputation for quality and reliability, yet still allow an ongoing revenue stream; that products should be as clever and as useful as we can possibly devise and yet still be made better the following year, and again the year after that. ‘Green’ issues only make the problem more complex, by introducing a new set of goals and constraints, but despite all this some industries have responded to these constraints with offerings that work a lot like the fictional White Suit.
Maybe I’m just too keen to make a fast buck, but I actually see a market for a temporarily indestructible product that subsequently degrades. In a sense, it’s the perfect product: something that’s guaranteed a world-beater in terms of durability, but that obediently destroys itself after a known amount of time, such that you can sell the customer another one. If the manufacturing process is affordable enough, a short (but predictable) lifespan might be a good thing.
Imagine if you could make an aero engine that was deliberately designed to have a fixed useful life. Present-day engines are built to last for decades, with occasional overhauls during which expensive spares are fitted, but what if we could dispense with all that faffing about and offer airlines an engine that was guaranteed faultless for twenty thousand flying hours? Once the service life is reached, this hypothetical engine is fit only for the scrapyard.
Is that bad? Well, not entirely. A ‘disposable’ engine ought to be cheaper to make – and you’re going to be taking a conventional engine off the wing for servicing anyway, so switching out the disposable one doesn’t complicate the business of running an airline overmuch. It also offers predictable costs and therefore simpler management. An airline isn’t necessarily interested in engine maintenance, repair and overhaul. They might do it, but it’s not a core competency.
A ‘disposable’ engine might be lighter, and because it’s being replaced outright every six or seven years, it offers a handy way to upgrade if engine technology improves over time. Basically, it’s an intriguing idea… if such an engine could be designed. The White Suit of the aero engine world; always as good as new, until a known point is reached when the whole engine is irrefutably unfit to fly. Some of the work I did on the EU-funded VIVACE project investigated a hypothetical ‘disposable’ engine as one possible future scenario, and we selected it as being worthy of investigation by looking at what has already happened in other, faster-evolving industries where White Suits aren’t all that uncommon.
I recall a Ford that I once owned; it gave me basic but virtually trouble-free motoring until it reached a hundred thousand miles, when suddenly everything seemed to go wrong at once. I gave (yes, gave) it to a scrap yard before it reached 101,000 recorded miles. Although it was inconvenient at the time, I have to admit a grudging admiration for the skill with which the product was designed, to all but self-destruct when its time came. In a sense, this kind of engineering is the holy grail of consumerism. A product that visibly degrades would put out a kind of negative advertising for the brand, but mine was a car that nobody could complain was unreliable, and it didn’t rust or rattle or smoke badly… until the self-destruct phase, when it was time to go and buy a new car.
Consider what’s happened in music retail. If you sold music in 1951, this was almost certainly done in the form of gramaphone records; fragile, grooved discs that allowed customers to hear their favourite songs at home. Whether made from shellac (an insect-derived resin from the forests of India and Thailand) or the exciting new vinyl (invented in 1949) the discs attracted dust, they scratched readily, and (because the record player’s needle must be physically in contact with the medium) they degraded a little bit each time they were played: they were perfect for repeat business potential! Then along came the compact disc (and then the digital download) and music stopped degrading. It’s also put an end to format-hopping: I’d sometimes bought the same album as a record and later as a compact disc, but there will be no more repeat purchases of favourite tunes now that they have become nothing but information. They have become another White Suit.
The device on which the customer plays music has improved in durability as well. Where a 1951 phonograph would have been an expensive, temperamental assembly of mechanical parts and early electronic devices such as valves, the 21st century music player has virtually no moving parts at all. An iPod has a grand total of four buttons on it… and that’s about it. Everything else is solid state, sealed for life… and although you can destroy an iPod if you bash it hard enough, it doesn’t really wear. There’s an issue with rechargeable batteries degrading over time and eventually becoming useless, but this again matches Sidney Stratton’s miracle fibre; the gadget essentially remains good as new for a period of time, and then it stops working. (And manufacturers hope that fashion, or a succession of new features, will be enough to cause you to take the plunge and buy yourself something new in the meantime.)
We might take issue with software upgrades that degrade the user experience for those with older gadgets, but again, this is White Suit economics at work: the manufacturer supports a product to the best of their ability for a while – patching security flaws that are identified, for example – keeping the product working well. Then, after a time, they force you to upgrade, either by discontinuing their technical support or by ‘improving’ their software to the point where older gadgets can’t run it. At which point, ouch: you got White Suited. There is even the possibility of manufacturers designing in a ‘kill switch’ such that they control the life of a product directly. Here’s a link to a story about Epson printers coming equipped with exactly that, courtesy of the Restart Project, and the citizens who are fighting back.