The Gaseous State

The question that I’ve been pondering this week: what if existing models of the supply chain are outdated, and a whole new dimension is required? We speak of workflow, liquidity, pooling of resources… but what if commerce no longer resembles a liquid, but a gas?

A liquid sloshes about, and finds its lowest possible level. We’ve seen that: work gravitates to the place where it’s cheapest (and where regulation and taxation are the least onerous)… but that’s only half the story. A gas expands until it fills every nook and cranny: and it keeps on pushing until the pressure is equal throughout the system.

This is the evolutionary change in the modern-day supply chain. From solid (we expect things to stay put, and we expect to do things the way we’ve always done them) to liquid (everything takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill) to gas, and the ‘new normal’ that everything is everywhere. Instant gratification, same-day delivery, and so on.

The future is... more energetic.

The future is… more energetic.

The change isn’t just a new challenge wrought by new expectations on the demand side, though: the fulfilment paradigm has also changed. New actors participate in the supply chain now, while old ones take on different and expanded roles.

The service sector is being shaken up by disruptive changes. People with a spare room in their home now use Airbnb to compete directly with the conventional providers of short-stay accommodation. People with a vehicle and time on their hands sign up with Uber, offering a service comparable to taxis, on a casual basis.

Manufacturing businesses aren’t safe from disruption of this kind. What’s to stop a manufacturer from selling idle machine time to anybody that can benefit from it? Twenty-five years ago, Prestige Garden Furniture of Bolton were making parts for the Jaguar cars that competed at Le Mans… with good data exchange formats and a growing list of successful collaborations, this sort of thing is only going to increase. Add in ‘the cloud’ and the notion that businesses can tender for work on a case-by-case basis, and the commercial landscape begins to look very different.

On the retail side, who’s to say that the next thing you buy will come from a conventional source? In some applications, a ‘previously enjoyed’ product might be just what the customer needs, simultaneously shielding them from tax and depreciation, and allowing them to feel better about their environmental impact… and in eBay citizens (and businesses) have an excellent marketplace in which to buy or sell with some confidence that prices are fair.

Finance has gone crowdsourced, too. Where entrepreneurs once had to meet with the bank manager, Kickstarter offers a way to fund everything from movies to gadgets, while peer-to-peer loans allow borrowers access to credit and give savers a decent return on investment… with no high street bank in sight.

This is the all-pervasive commerce of the future: where a vastly expanded pool of casual or unconventional actors provide additional capability. Ignore them all and go with old-style formal relationships if you must, but understand that there are a whole lot of other people out there who want to get involved – and might end up working for the opposition. Done well, the coordination of a set of such contributions could be a powerful strategic differentiator because there’s an army of people who could play a part, in every city.

What triggered the change that turned the liquid of old-style commerce into an all-pervasive gas?

Microwaves.

The cellphone changed everything. The Internet made a big change, for sure, but it was mobile that really let the genie out of the bottle. Once calls were make to a person rather than a place, a plumber no longer needed a relative staying at home to take calls and make appointments. Cutting out the ‘receptionist-at-home’ role (and there must have been many thousands of such people) meant they could take on paid work elsewhere. Mobile ’phones also meant a farmer would know if today was the right day to harvest his vegetable crop – and could perhaps secure a price with a buyer, instead of being at the mercy of a middleman. That same mobile telephone allows ride-sharing, live translation services, paperless ticketing and much more.

In my family, when we send holiday postcards, we don’t start by buying a postcard: we use our own photo, uploaded with an accompanying message to a print-on-demand firm who create the card and put it straight into the post. In effect we have become actors in our own supply chain, replacing the professional photographer who formerly earned royalties on their images. We’ve eliminated the foreign leg of the postal service, too: never again will we queue in the bureau de poste and request “un timbre pour l’Angleterre”… and the likelihood that the resulting card will be delivered by the Royal Mail is declining, too: there are so many others who could bid for the contract.

The world has changed, and the lesson to be learned here is not to be the old-style incumbent, selling pre-printed postcards in a digital age. Like any paradigm shift, there will be winners and losers, and the first step towards becoming a winner is to be aware that the shift is underway. The future is digital, no doubt, but it’s also amorphous, chaotic… and gaseous.

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Scheiss Glumpf

We learned a new phrase from our German friends this weekend, or perhaps a part of a phrase: Scheiss Glumpf.

We had to ask: what does it mean? The Scheiss bit is familiar enough, I’m sure… but Germans do so love to concatenate their words. (Remember, these are the people who brought us “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften”: insurance companies providing legal protection.)

Thus, a Bavarian carpenter who strikes his thumb instead of a nail is able to say…

HimmiherrgottZagramentZefixHallelujaJamilextamArschScheissGlumpffaregts

You can see “Scheiss Glumpf” on the bottom row – but what does it mean?

“It’s something you say when your kid is playing with some plastic toy, and it breaks right away,” our German friend explained. “We say it’s just Scheiss Glumpf: it’s garbage.”

I see a lot of Scheiss Glumpf. My son favours quantity over quality, for sure: he’ll always choose a fleet of shoddy injection-moulded vehicles that come three or four on a card from Poundland, rather than one durable toy… but that’s to be expected, because he’s four years old.

Are we all infants? Why do we keep on buying Scheiss Glumpf?

We do, though, don’t we?

Thinking back to my childhood (and a number of toys that came from jumble sales, and were thus older still) the cars produced under the ‘Dinky Toys’ brand were ridiculously tough. US manufacturer Tonka even claimed (with a somewhat unfair test showing everything you will ever need to know about scaling laws) that their toys were tougher than the real thing:

The toys of the 1970s were so well-made that they could be handed down from child to child, in a way that was all but guaranteed to drive their manufacturer out of business. A list of the manufacturers who provided the toys of my childhood reads like a roll call of casualties in the postwar decline of British manufacturing: Palitoy, Tri-ang, Meccano, Chad Valley… all acquired by somebody else, or disappeared entirely. Not beaten by a rival who made better toys, but beaten by their inability to react to the changes wrought by the age of Scheiss Glumpf.

Nowadays, it seems the whole economy is geared towards Scheiss Glumpf: products that are flimsy, but inexpensive. We’ve grown accustomed to teeshirts that look shabby when you’ve washed them a couple of times, but you know that things have sunk to a new low when you start seeing tools that you’re expected to throw away. (Whatever happened to saw sharpening services, anyway?)

Why does anybody need two saws?

Saws used to last a lifetime. Now they’re two for £10 at B&Q. You just know they’re not going to be much good.

Is this inevitable? We shall see. But first a word on the scam that flimsy products work upon us all, eloquently explained by the late Terry Pratchett, in the character of Captain Samuel Vimes:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

“Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

“But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

“This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

– Terry Pratchett, ‘Men at Arms’

How many things do you own that were made in the last twenty years, and which you plan to pass on to your descendants? Can you think of anything that’s worth listing specifically in your will, and that you’ll still have, whether you should die tomorrow, or twenty years form now?

Jewellery, maybe. Not much else.

Patek Philippe, watchmakers, told us in a recent advertising campaign that “You never actually own a Patek Philippe: you merely look after it for the next generation.” If you can afford to spend more money on a wristwatch than most people spend on a car, perhaps you deserve a bit of durability. The rest of us make do with much cheaper substitutes… but probably enjoy a lower total cost of timepiece ownership, over a lifetime. Owning a Patek Philippe, then, is about more than telling the time. You’re buying something else.

So, we choose Scheiss Glumpf for complicated reasons – but it doesn’t just exist at the bottom of the price range. Some people who apparently have more money than sense actually pay a premium for theirs. Apple offer a gold ‘edition’ version of their wristwatch at up to £13,500… for a gadget that your descendants almost certainly won’t take delight in wearing. Being a ‘smart’ watch, it’s subject to a cycle of redevelopment and consequent obsolescence in perhaps two years. It’s guaranteed solid gold digital Scheiss Glumpf.

The holidays are a great time for the exchange of Scheiss Glumpf, whether it’s Easter with its incredibly inefficient format for the delivery of chocolate, or Christmas with all its excesses in presentation, packaging, and the entirely understandable desire to make sure your kids have the “best Christmas ever” (coupled with the low, low price that seductive Scheiss Glumpf always exhibits). But are we any happier?

At Christmas, my in-laws gave us a very generous gift. One that we’ll use for years to come, secure in the knowledge that it’ll never wear out: lifetime membership of English Heritage. I was alarmed to see just how much it cost, but it’s a brilliant gift. Free entry to over four hundred historical sites: from Stonehenge to Cold War bunkers; windmills to stately homes, and much in-between.

Even today, some things aren’t Scheiss Glumpf: choose wisely.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire.

A relic from a time when things were built to last.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

I was doing a bit of teaching recently, and we turned to discussing speed of delivery as a basis for competition. We watched one of the Next TV advertisements where they promise next-day delivery (subject to some fine print) and show off what appears to be a somewhat fictionalised supply chain.

See what you think of the implausibly shiny supply chain, where the chosen dress is apparently untouched by human hands, automatically wrapped on demand before being whisked on its way to the customer along roads that feature no other traffic, just a fleet of modern and clean Next delivery trucks.

Hmm. And yet this is a good strategy for online retail. You can’t really advertise the quality of the fabric, because the buyer can’t touch it. You can’t offer alterations or made-to-measure flexibility, because you can’t touch the customer. So what does that leave? Price-based competition is always going to hurt… so speed is the logical choice. Next day delivery (six days a week, subject to stock and courier availability, as the weasel words at the bottom of the screen explain) is an impressive thing to deliver.

Amazon went one better, and moved towards same-day delivery, in some cities… and then they went better still, if speed is your thing, with ‘Prime Now’, for one-hour delivery.

Stephen Armstrong for the Guardian was unimpressed when he tried ‘Prime Now’ in June 2015, finding the website glitchy and ultimately failing to get the goods. A little over three months later, Steve Myall for the Mirror got a delivery of groceries in 39 minutes. (Regular readers of Capacify might find their hackles rising at Myall’s statement, “Everything was in a paper bag so no environmental concerns.”) There was a minimum spend, and the cost of delivery was £6.99 plus an optional-but-included-as-standard £2 tip for the person making the delivery.

Andrew Hill for the Financial Times drew a valuable historical comparison with Victorian efforts to achieve fast and cheap parcel delivery services in London, concluding that the same factors that caused the London Penny Parcel Delivery and Automatic Advertising Company to disappear without trace are still in force.

Now, there’s always the risk of being proved wrong, but I think that the pursuit of speed has gone about as far as it can go. The logistic control and coordination required for same day delivery are impressive – even amazing – but if ‘within an hour or two’ becomes the new norm, it’s no longer a basis for competition: it’s just a qualifier. That leaves companies with additional expense to recoup, while chasing the same business as everybody else… unless this spells the end of the high street, and the market town.

Beverley, Yorkshire

Does same-day delivery spell the end of the British high street?

Is that a good thing? Is this what citizens want?

Then there’s the big rival: delivery at the speed of light. When I was a teenager, I’d occasionally buy computer games by mail, so as to save money. The first few cheques I wrote were all for mail order computer games, and the advertisements always advised the customer to “allow 28 days for delivery”, which led to a lot of wistful days spent waiting for the postman to come. Nowadays, if I wanted a computer game it would come from an ‘app store’, no disk or postage required. As soon as I click ‘buy’, the download can begin.

Computer game on cassette

Back in the days when it took six minutes to load 48K of data off a cassette, it took up to four weeks to get the cassette in the post.

I told my students that there was once a plan to deliver post by guided missile. That got a laugh, but it’s entirely true. Some research (and this excellent history by Duncan Geere) revealed that rocket mail has actually been attempted quite a few times, over the years. There were proposals to use artillery for postal delivery as early as 1810, and later in the century Congreve rockets were used in an experimental postal application in Tonga, although the residents ultimately floated their post on the sea instead (just as the people of St Kilda did). Then there was Herman Oberth (1894 – 1989) the rocket enthusiast who advocated rocket mail from 1927. Countries experimenting with rockets for post in the 1930s included Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

This business of pyrotechnic postage appears to have been common enough to give us a new word: astrophilately, meaning stamp-collecting relating to post that has travelled via rockets and missiles. Honestly!

Cover flown on space shuttle mission STS-8 and sold to the public after landing.

Astrophilately. All the cool kids are doing it.

This was in no way a precursor to the web-based e-mail called ‘RocketMail’, originating in 1996 and subsequently bought out by the ill-fated Yahoo, although perhaps with rocketmail.com they were trying to achieve a blend of retro-cool and futuristic.

Meanwhile, things had got serious. In June 1959, a Regulus cruise missile containing mail in place of a warhead was launched by a Navy submarine, the USS Barbero. US Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield witnessed its arrival, commenting: “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Let’s not smirk too much at the Postmaster General: we have the unfair advantage of hindsight – and it was nice to see a cruise missile employed in such a ‘swords to ploughshares’ fashion: for the next five years, the Regulus missiles carried by the USS Barbero and her sisters constituted the US Navy’s nuclear deterrent force.

Regulus cruise missile launch

USS Barbero’s twin, the USS Tunny, launching a Regulus cruise missile. The Navy called their first and only postal experiment ‘Missile Mail’.

One organisation that needs a different kind of missile mail is NATO: a Hellfire missile that had been employed during a recent training exercise in Spain was due to be returned to Florida via Paris Charles de Gaulle… where they mistakenly loaded it on an Air France flight to Havana, Cuba. If you’ve ever felt that sinking sensation when your ball goes over the fence and you realise you’re going to have to go next-door and ask the grumpy old man if you can have it back, you will sympathise with the United States military.

Ultimately, it may be that Missile Mail was impractical for the same reason that Concorde never caught on: not because there was no need for something that quick, but because it wasn’t fast enough when compared to the speed of light: telexes, e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing, instead of physical post and physical presence.

Yet Amazon, and others, are said to be experimenting with delivery by drones: pilotless machines that rely upon much the same guidance technology as missiles. Perhaps, once again, “we stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

And you know how well that worked out, last time.

Peg Doubt

In early May 2012, a decision was taken to end the practice of pegging the Malawian Kwacha to the US dollar, instead allowing the exchange rate to be determined in the foreign exchange market. There were some good reasons for abandoning the currency peg – not least because it was a precondition for international aid payments – but what supply chain effects would the new floating currency have?

When you adopt a floating currency, a reasonable supposition is that it will actually float. Bobbing up and down between known limits is acceptable behaviour for a floating currency: sinking like a stone, less so.

Origami boat made out of Euro banknotes

A floating currency?

By the time the new president (Her Excellency Dr Joyce Banda) ended the currency peg, the Kwacha was substantially overvalued. Imports were growing faster than exports, and even while the peg was in place there was a thriving black market in foreign exchange. Downward pressure on the Kwacha was made worse by what economists call depreciation: a fall in the unofficial value of the currency.

On May 7th, the pegged rate of 165 Kwacha to the US dollar ended, and the rate slipped at once to more than 250. This led to panic-buying – and why not, when imported goods are seen to become more expensive overnight? As hard-working and inventive as the Malawians may be, there’s simply no way for an agrarian economy to react quickly to the price of virtually all manufactured goods going up by a third, or more.

BBC News of panic buying as the Kwacha is devalued

May 7th, 2012: Devaluation begins [BBC News]

In October of that year, Malawi Institute of Management asked us to organise a seminar discussing the implications for the supply chain. Understanding these economic issues wasn’t an easy task, given that I was (a) visiting the country for the first time, and (b) a manufacturing engineer, not an economist. Still, I reasoned that a seminar is all about listening, not telling. We had a marquee full of supply chain professionals, and a couple of hours to put the world to rights. (Or at least, the economy of one small nation.)

The seminar involved a number of activities, the first of which was listing the advantages and disadvantages of having a floating currency… but it seemed that the audience were still smarting from the sudden removal of the currency peg: they had nothing good to say about the floating currency. (Bear in mind that anybody who had savings in the bank will have seen them reduced in value, and businesses that had liabilities expressed in US dollars would be finding it desperately hard to service their debts.)

Economic theory says that a currency peg is good in that it increases investor confidence and imposes price discipline (at least until the point when the government ends the practice) but the disadvantage of a fixed exchange rate is that it requires vast stocks of foreign exchange. Basically, the core job of the central bank is to maintain the currency peg: there is limited freedom to address domestic economic priorities. Also, when the International Monetary Fund suspends a major aid programme, suggesting that liberalisation of the foreign exchange market would unlock donor cash… that’s a powerful argument in favour of the floating currency.

So, on May 7th 2012, everything changed. At our seminar, we learned from the delegates exactly what the changes meant for supply chain professionals…

The Difficulty of Budgeting

Budgeting was reported to have become virtually impossible. For example, the budget for a government department had to be planned such that payments could be released throughout the year, but exchange rate changes meant that any sum set aside for purchases in subsequent quarters was likely to be inadequate. This tended to force managers to be reactive, rather than proactive. Long-term plans involving cash flows have very limited value during a time of high inflation, the delegates said.

Procurement Complexity

This was reported to be particularly difficult, since a request for quotation was likely to produce a time-limited offer, often being valid for as little as 24 hours, because suppliers were equally inconvenienced by variable exchange rates. Where an organisation’s purchasing procedures require that three quotes are obtained it was virtually impossible to get all three within the same 24-hour period, and impossible to compare them thereafter, since one or more would have expired… at which point the quotation process had to begin again.

Transportation Difficulties

Delegates reported logistics to be tremendously more complicated as a result of scarce supplies of petrol, and in particular diesel. (Fuel was also reported to be a problem for the construction industry.) This is not merely an issue of high price, but one of availability, with fuel at times not being available at all… or of those who have fuel choosing not to sell it, since they seemed not to want the Kwacha that they would obtain in return. Transportation difficulties were thus compounded by increasing prices in the global market, reduced local buying power, and panic buying. The result – reduced transportation capability – further impacted upon trade, and thus harmed the economy.

Warehousing Issues

This was frequently mentioned by delegates, in the context of preferring to stockpile raw materials or supplies in order to offset price increases by buying early, and in bulk. Some delegates mentioned the danger of spoilage rates increasing as a result of inventory levels being increased, however.

Inability to Save

It was felt to be very difficult for families to set money aside to deal with price fluctuations (for example, by buying in bulk), at a time when any unspent money was liable to be reduced in value if it wasn’t spent immediately. This “living in the now” made major purchases harder to save up for, and was consequently bad for the nation.

Falling Incomes

Some delegates discussed industrial unrest caused by increased wage demands resulting from devaluation. After all, if you only get to renegotiate your salary once a year or so, how do you know how much to ask for?

The Situation Today

The slide of the Kwacha continues. As an occasional visitor, I notice it in things like a laundry list that has a sticker on it, replacing the printed prices with updated ones… and a heftier price for a bottle of Carlsberg ‘Green’.

Value of the Malawian Kwacha over the last 5 years

MWK/USD exchange rate over the last five years [xe.com]

It’s not hyper-inflation of the kind that some nations have demonstrated: you don’t need a shoebox full of banknotes to pay for lunch, as was the case in Zimbabwe recently. Demonetization of the Zimbabwean dollar came to an end in September this year, at an exchange rate of 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to US$1… which at least has the virtue of being educational: I learned how many zeroes there are in a quadrillion. (If you’re interested, a quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000.)

Sweeping up unwanted currency

The Hungarian Pengö performed even worse than the Zimbabwean Dollar, and by 1946 they were nothing but litter.

Wherever it is found, though, a softening currency is a headache for supply chain professionals, and a burden for families… and I don’t have many answers to offer. “Export or Die” might have been the advice of the British Ministry of Information, back in 1946… but what do you do when your principal export is the increasingly unfashionable tobacco?

We shall see.

White Suit Economics

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.

Film poster for The Man in the White Suit, 1951

Alec Guinness was never that fresh-faced, was he?

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.

Trouble at t’ mill: Stratton shows off his new apparel to the Works Committee

Trouble at t’ mill: Stratton shows off his new apparel to the Works Committee

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.

Alec Guinness, detained by his employer, and cronies

The ‘Fat Cats’ are no happier than the trade unionists…

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.)

iPod touch

Audacious simplification: there are more moving parts on a trumpet, quite frankly.

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.

Epson Stylus D68: kill switch included as standard

Boo, Epson: just… boo!