Gotta Makea Product Service Systems
Now, let's sort a couple things out early so they don't bite us later. Product service systems aren't really an exact science. They can exist at any point along a continuum from pure service, like a fleet of taxis in a city, something which is very close to a product, like Dell's failed "upgrade-a-PC" system. Second, like so many other hot new design ideas, PSS is not actually new. Before the advent of mass production and the ubiquity of tools, most tool-based work involved service systems. Shoes made by a cobbler could be returned for re-soling at a modest price as many as ten times over the life of the shoe. Lawn mowing, knife and scissor sharpening, even sheep shearing had elements of PSS built into them.
Of course, when no one could afford to actually own a full set of yard equipment, or grinding wheel, or have the specific knowledge to own and operate a pair of sheep shears, they had very little trouble buying into the idea of only paying for the lower cost of the service of the item, rather than the high cost of the tools and learning. Today, fooled by low initial prices, consumers rarely make the leap to realizing that the products they are buying are really just carriers for the services that they want, and are much more expensive than they could be.
In order to discuss this further, lets look at two concepts. The first, is a model which has worked as a PSS for years, and continues to work in various forms. The second, is a product begging to be made into a service system, but without the proper technology to support it.
The concept of the "video store" came into being in the early 1980s . The development of the VCR and VHS tape meant that finally, personal entertainment could be somewhat controlled. At the same time, the high cost of individual movies on tape, and the machines to watch them meant that no one had access to the technology. This is the classic symptom of a PSS. Lots of service is available, but heavy infrastructure is needed to make it work. So, the first video stores opened up renting not only a variety of movies, but machines to play them. A large selection of videos meant that customers could, indulge their particular daily whims on a greater scale than TV (with 4-20 channels before cable exploded) or movie theatres (again, with a maximum of 8-10 titles playing). Store rental of the VCRs helped the store by ensuring that video titles could be played in any home, and freed the customer of having to perform repairs on their own machine.
We can see in this system exactly the pieces necessary for a service system to be created:
1) Benefits to both customer and business. Product service systems aren't hippy enterprises run out of the goodness of our hearts, or in order to save mother earth at the expense of our pocketbooks. PSS thinking actually makes business sense. For the price of one video, a person could rent and watch three or more, with a wide variety of choices. Similarly, rather than selling a tape once, the video store owner could sell the same tape over and over again.
2) The product which delivers the service is durable or cheaply repairable. This point is crucial, and often overlooked. As Jamer Hunt is fond of saying in our classes, "Just because its a service system doesn't mean that all the design is in the service." Video tapes, and now DVDs for companies like Netflix, are only a dirt-cheap carrier for the real product, the movie. So, when the break, or wear out, the video store can get new copies, since they are paying per-license, rather than per tape. Early VCRs were also built for durability, and could be repaired quickly -- a feature which has disappeared in our current "fix it by buying a new one" model for consumer electronics.
3) Forces which allow people to overcome their desire to own must exist. This is also of paramount importance. Whether it is human nature, or the product of our individualism driven advertising culture ("you're defined by what unique gear you own"), we love to own products. We love "having" them. We love to brag, parade, and show off our newest toys. During the start of video rental, high prices were enough to keep people renting rather than owning. However, even as video titles stayed rentable, the machines we play them on did not, even though the two functions are seldom separate. The desire to flash around your cool new VCR or DVD player proved to be too strong.
With these factors in mind, let's look at a candidate desperate for induction into the PSS club, but consistently failing at it. The personal computer is one of the greatest generators of consumer toxic waste that we have ever created. Every year, hundreds of thousands of consumers decide that their box of plastic, lead, and heavy metals is not good enough anymore, and they toss it in favor of a new one. This disused computer ends up making it's way through the nascent electronic waste management flow, which ends up scattered and concentrated into far corners of the world. The average usage life of a computer is 3 years. And yet, almost all components, with the exception, perhaps, of cheaper motherboards and fans, have lifespans of at least twice that, and more, and all of them are basically modular already. Why hasn't anyone made the perfect computer PSS yet?
Well, it's not for lack of trying. Probably the most notable example of an almost PSS for computers by Dell. The setup went something like this. You bought a new system or a certain amount per month. At the end of a certain amount of time, you could get a new system, and Dell would take back your old one. Then, theoretically, Dell would re-cycle the parts of those old PCs. This is what Paul Hawken of "Natural Capitalism" fame would call hanging onto your capitol -- Dell paid for the materials to make those chips, boards, and computers once, and if their users throw them away, it's like loosing money.
But obviously, Dell discontinued their project (with the notable exception of some corporate clients who's machines are beefy enough that their parts are still worth something in two years). Consumers couldn't get their heads past the idea that the computer in their living room wasn't "theirs" even thought this was a cheaper way to have the hottest new technology. Dell couldn't find anything valid to do with a bunch of components which couldn't play the latest games or video.
Switching to a service system does some interesting things. First, you, as producer, want to re-use your components. So they have to be durable. They also have to continue to have value in another product. While computers are all made of the same basic stuff, it's really hard to break them down into their components and re-assemble them into a different design. It would be like a customer asking their waiter "Hmmm, I like all the stuff in this soup, but I really wanted a sandwich,"and expecting the waiter to re-arrange the soup to make one. The solution requires more than just a financing plan; You have to create a computer which is easy enough to take apart and re-assemble that it isn't a problem to re-arrange it into a sandwich.
Product service systems are the future. Like them or not, we can't continue our current rates of consumption indefinitely without some serious bad mojo happening. These new solutions will push designers abilities to the limits of material, planning, and PR. But the reward will be that we can continue the cycle of innovation that makes our jobs so much fun. If you want to see a great compendium of PSS examples, Treehugger has quite a few collected. And, if you'd like to read a much more wordy discussion of these wondrous beasts, check out this crazy Dutch PDF.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team