I think there’s a lot to this, but unfortunately it could use another round or two of “why?”.
Like why do they use thinner metal? Is it because they want the lid to rust sooner? Or because it’s cheaper to make? How much does it cost to ship a washer that weighs twice as much?
Another aspect I think goes unanalyzed is that many of these things were luxury items 50 years ago. I think we need to see some metrics like washing machine cost in weeks of median salary.
I think if somebody really wanted to make a quality appliance, it’s possible to do so, but it would cost a lot. And then you’ll discover you don’t get any repeat business for 40 years. :) But I think such appliances are actually out there, in professional environments. Hotels and restaurants and whatnot aren’t turning over their appliances in 2-3 years. Go buy the stuff they’re using.
Hi, author of the above post here. Thanks for all your interest! I would say the weight for the 40 year old top loader washer was 250 lbs compared to 200 for the one made today. So 25% heavier, mostly due to heavier gauge metal being used. That’s not that big of a deal compared to the horrible paint jobs they do on the new machines. For example, they used to dip the lids in paint so that all the surfaces got thoroughly covered. Now they spray and the parts that aren’t sprayed start developing rust right away.
They are saving a little money with their new methods, but they aren’t foolish. They know they are cutting corners that are going to affect the consumers right away. They could save even more money and switch to a hard composite plastic lid that wouldn’t rust at all, then everyone would win. But, a machine that starts to rust gets the consumer thinking about replacing the machine. It would blow your mind the reasons I’ve been given for people swapping out their appliances, and the manufacturers know this.
Doing laundry used to (and still does in developing countries) take a ton of time. The WWII generation recognized how much time it would save pretty quickly and people adopted right away. My great grandparents actually bought a washing machine back in the early 1900’s which I still have! It’s amazing, made of almost all aluminum and still looks great. I definitely think that the earlier generations built things to last. Why make something so important to break after 5-10 years? That would be crazy! Sadly that generation is almost gone.
I think there is room to build a high-quality consumer washing machine. I think there are enough people that have been burned buying junk appliances that a new player could do quite well appealing to the old school model of appliance making.
“ They could save even more money and switch to a hard composite plastic lid that wouldn’t rust at all, then everyone would win. ”
This is why I brought you in. Options I’d have not thought of that more clearly show suppliers are full of shit. That said, there could be a cosmetic argument against it. The lid might look weird compared to the body with many deciding against buying it. They’d possibly have to have the whole machine done with the composite on the outside. Does that change the argument much in terms of cost?
“My great grandparents actually bought a washing machine back in the early 1900’s which I still have! It’s amazing, made of almost all aluminum and still looks great.”
That’s neat. Do you have a link to pictures or video of that model? Curious what they look like.
Thanks. I’ve never lived in one place long enough to care much about appliance lifetime personally…
My parents, though, just bought a new dryer to replace the old one after 40 years of use. The new one has wifi. I wonder if that will still be working in 40 years.
The WiFi sure won’t be working in 40 years lol…
And then you’ll discover you don’t get any repeat business for 40 years. :)
Let’s consider an idealized situation. Appliances A and B are identical (including manufacturing costs) except that A lasts 10 years and B - 20 years. Looking at the value delivered to the customer, the price of B could be twice as high that of A. The company is facing two choices:
I think that companies would prefer option 1. On top of that, I’m not sure whether consumers would buy again from a brand they consider crappy. Even if all brands are crappy then the chance of repeat business is 1/n where n is the number of crappy competitors.
I’ve heard this argument many times but I really don’t see how it would benefit the company. Am I missing something?
Edit: I’m reading about planned obsolescence mentioned in a comment below but I’d still like to hear your thoughts.
Edit: I found an econ paper about the topic. Fascinating!
“Is it because they want the lid to rust sooner? Or because it’s cheaper to make? ”
Both. These companies are for-profit consolidating to eliminate competition and boost profits. Same motives as always will follow. Reduce costs, get more from customers, pay executives more. If one or two were doing this for competitiveness, then we’d see a combination of high-quality and low-quality washers at various price points. Instead, consumers trying to pay for quality get lied to with basically same stuff inside designed to fail. Those premiums are nearly pure profit. As duclare pointed out, they even started offering warranties on all the stuff not designed to fail first. ;)
“And then you’ll discover you don’t get any repeat business for 40 years. :)”
You at least know their motive for changing things. :)
“many of these things were luxury items 50 years ago. I think we need to see some metrics like washing machine cost in weeks of median salary.”
That’s interesting. I’m asking a few, older people to see how accessible they were in their time.
“Hotels and restaurants and whatnot aren’t turning over their appliances in 2-3 years.”
I asked the article author about that. He said the Speed Queens are made closer to older models with more reliability than average. He said the commercial ones are more reliable. They are also extremely expensive and huge. The size constraint came up repeatedly in HN discussion where many consumer washers or dryers were too big for spots in houses designed to contain them. Self-selects against commercial ones as quality answer. Happened to us as we could barely fit our clunky dryer into ours.
Overall, though, the market won’t supply quality in small form factor in exchange for money. They’ve consistently misled consumers that the quality was impossible while faking upscale ones instead. The Speed Queen seems to be an exception that’s holding out for now.
EDIT TO ADD: Far as business model, I figured the sales wouldn’t be consistent in a heirloom model. Idea would be a hardware manufacturer with some bread-and-butter product(s) that kept selling would do batches of stuff like these when orders were high enough. Just order all the stuff, do an efficient production run, and ship them out to paying customers. Or to distributors, especially small ones with less bullshit. Should be little overhead or overstock in this model.
I think we need to see some metrics like washing machine cost in weeks of median salary.
I agree this is probably a big factor, but not only salary of the purchaser, also salary of a repairperson (or more generally, cost to carry out a repair). Long-lasting appliances traditionally didn’t last forever without any maintenance, but were built to be repairable: interchangeable parts, sturdy construction to survive assembly/disassembly and repeated moves, etc.
But if repairs cost a substantial fraction of the appliance price, the usefulness of repairable machines drops. Both to consumers, who start realizing that repairs are rarely worth it, so machines are to be treated as disposable items to buy cheaply and throw away when they break. And on the part of companies, which once built their reputations around vertically integrated repair service (like the famous “Maytag repairman” in the U.S.). That only really works if you can keep the lifetime repair cost to a smallish fraction of the production cost. And if you aren’t aiming to make it repairable, there’s no real reason to build any of the rest of the machine for a long lifetime either, because it’s probably not going to last 40 years without repairs.
In a different context, I ran into this recently doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations about resoleable shoes. Shoes used to be built with high-quality leather uppers designed to last years, and soles that could be replaced by your local cobbler. Nowadays that is still possible, but typically ends up more expensive than just buying cheaper shoes and replacing them once a year, because resoling shoes costs like 50%+ of the shoe cost, at least if (like me) you don’t have high-end taste in shoes (resoleable shoes can still be a win if you buy high-end shoes, because that makes purchaseprice >> repairprice again).
Great start on an economic analysis. Just make sure you factor cartel behavior into it as most dont despite it being the most prevalent model in capitalism for big companies & mature markets. The basic supply and demand model breaks down as the group of suppliers start collectively looking out for each others interest with how they do supply. They know the race-to-the-bottom nature of free market competition will kill all their bottom lines. Instead, they either naturally or with secret agreements collectively start competing on stuff that doesn’t cost them. They all do the things that hurt consumers, all avoid quality measures that reduce profit, and all pull similar schemes in marketing. The differentiators are BS that doesn’t hurt them much. The market share each has shifts but their profits stay up. Any competitors threatening the oligopoly are acquired where possible or even sued in U.S. thanks to our wonderful, patent system.
With this model, the cost of repairs and appliances doesn’t even factor into it really. Before all other considerations, they will eliminate anything that cost them money on the supply side then transition to manufacturing strategies that increase repeat business. Since it’s a physical product, that means making it break a lot plus be easier to replace a whole unit than repair. Current situation follows naturally. Then, the considerations you mention show up but it’s hard for me to analyze since the cartel behavior has about all of them performing the same way from a reliability and repair perspective. Purchaser behavior might actually shift to the other variables they’re competing on with reliability or serviceability being low consideration since they all suck.
Note: The cellphone and ISP markets are way better to look at to see these phenomenon. Everything was incremental with them throwing out economic & cost-centric arguments left and right. Then, many small towns and Google start deploying Gigabit for the same rate to have the incumbents instantly deploy the same thing. Similarly, the fintech startups in payment processing are showing many problems that existed weren’t necessary at all & could’ve been eliminated with competition. While the banks competed with each other, they collectively avoided competing on specific things that would undermine all their profits. New companies are calling them on it by improving those things. They’ll probably acquire them. ;)
Survivorship bias could also be affecting things here. The good ones will still be around, the bad ones broke a long time ago.
I think they were mostly very good quality, especially the Whirlpool ones I described in the article. They used the exact same parts, motor, transmission, coupler, pump etc for 30 years straight. If used appliance sellers get ahold of one of these machines, they fix it if the body of the machine is in good enough shape. If not, they save a lot of the components and use them to fix other machines. However, junk machines, like the new Whirlpool vertical modular washers that they started making 3-4 years ago, go straight to the scrap yard and most used appliance sellers won’t touch them. So in that case, those models are gone.
Make no mistake, the old Whirlpool machines need basic maintenance, just like cars. There is a coupler that eventually goes out, there are agitator dogs that wear out. All very cheap parts. But, people need to know that it’s worth it to repair them, and right now people know less than ever about the inner workings of their appliances.
This is always possible. Yet, the default on these things from about everyone that had them was they last forever. They replaced them just to have nicer-looking stuff (consumerism). The author told me washer and dryer key components are about the same as they were 20-30 years ago when stuff always worked. The difference is they systematically replaced good components with low-quality ones in some cases with almost no cost difference. Only difference is how often people have to replace it. Whole industry did this after consolidation boosting profits up. That’s how you know it’s intentional.
Cartels, cartels, cartels. Seeing them in about every industry. Always bad for consumers.
My parents' fridge died just a week ago. It had been in the house when they moved in about 16 years ago, and was already back then obviously old and needed new seals (which it were given). The house was built in the 70s and I think it is quite plausible the fridge is the first and only one that had been in the house.
My mother had asked friends for advice on a good fridge. She heard sales people had told the new ones last around 5 years.
It’s useless reading reviews about these appliances, as the article points out. No consumer knows how long the appliance is going to last, and once they find out, well, that model is no longer on the market. Brand loyalty won’t get you anywhere when all the manufacturers seem to be in the race to the bottom.
It doesn’t help that paying more doesn’t translate to better quality. Chances are it’ll buy you something that looks classier and has more gimmicks, but it might break just as soon as the cheap ones.
Then there are companies like LG that advertise a 10-year warranty on some part of the appliance. Like the motor in their direct drive washing machines, or the compressor in the fridges. Rumor has it that it only serves to mislead consumers who might believe the entire application is warranted to last at least that long, when in fact some other part of the appliance (e.g. logic board in washing machine) will die long before, and will be expensive to replace. It’s borderline dishonest.
I can also attest to my parents having a washing machine (Rosenlew) with a rusty lid, only a few years old.
Is Miele any good? I’ve heard they’re still making machines that really do last.
Quality is hard to sell when people can’t know what’s good. Competition often drives quality down, not up.
Hearing stories like this make me sad and it’s what motivated me to start ApplianceSap.com, which my co-founder and I have since shuttered. It was a used appliance marketplace where the sellers were reviewed by every buyer to keep them accountable and to build trust in the industry.
You’re dead on about the LG thing. Another component will break before the parts under warranty.
Depending on where you live, the Speed Queen top loaders are great and the older Whirlpool washers can still be easily found. Best of luck!
The author told me the Sqeed Queen products are best in washer market right now.
I’m sure most of you are aware of planned obsolescence. I liked this piece because he goes into a lot of specific details that could be used to bring reliable appliances back in specific categories. My washer and dryer are 15-30 years old and still kicking. Old computers seem to last forever. I had a 20-30 year old TV at one point that could’ve been re-used in power lifting competitions after it broke. It worked semi-OK though. :)
Meanwhile, we got exploding stuff from Samsung and recent Whirlpool appliances needing replacement in 3 years. It’s cool Ryan is doing a site to reuse the good stuff where possible. Not to mention worth bookmarking in case I want to tap his expertise into a HOWTO for high-reliability startups in these sectors. I know for a fact lower class people would appreciate fire-and-forget type of appliances. Also potential for a luxury version as a heirloom of sorts. I’m banking less on that but some artists could come up with something I’m sure.
Note: Just threw those three tags on it as there’s not quite anything for manufactured products. Maybe should be a tag along those lines as many tech people are interested in this stuff. It’s just real-world application of tech mixed with business’s bullshit. ;)