Modular Design: Definition, Practice And Possibilities
Life is better now than it has ever been before. The current age of information and technology has allowed global communication at speeds never before seen. A combination of this and a capitalist climate has led to outsourcing to different regions so that products can be assembled rapidly and more cost-effectively. This has allowed greater accessibility of products to the broader population, increasing the average quality of life drastically. However, this has also led to what is now being called the ‘throwaway culture’, where it has become an easier and more economical solution to replace items rather than repair them. This is especially true with many household appliances, such as fridges or hair dryers.
This research report will look at modular design, assessing how it could potentially mitigate some of the issues that have been caused by the current materialist climate through allowing flexible and intuitive design in common household appliances. To do this, there will be a brief evaluation and deconstruction of modern consumer culture and the role that capitalism has played in creating it. To follow this up, there will also be an assessment on a current product that utilises a modular design, and the direction appliances are tending towards. At each step, we will be evaluating how appropriate a solution modular design is.
There are many ways to define consumer culture. However, not everyone agrees on a set definition as ‘consumer culture’ encompasses many different attributes of capitalism, and has even been described as ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams 1958). Gabriel has provided one of the more widely accepted definitions as ‘the collection of behaviours, attitudes, and values that are associated with the consumption of material goods and services’. This will be the definition to which this report will be assuming, however, it may also be necessary to narrow down further to a potentially more accurate term where applicable, Material Culture. This is ultimately a very similar term, but this term applies to material objects, rather than a range of services. Lury describes material culture as ‘The study of person-thing relationships; it is the study of things- or objects-in-use’ (2011: 1).
Now that these terms have defined parameters, we are able to dissect the effect that they have had on our society. One of the main topics of discussion that will be explored is the modern throwaway culture, and the likely reasons the various populations of the western world adopted this ethos.
The throwaway culture exists because, in the current economic and social climate, it is usually much more beneficial to discard products or appliances than repair them. This is true for several reasons; It is generally more cost-effective to purchase a new device. The table in Fig 2 displays the estimated costs by three separate sources as well as two local businesses in Birmingham for the average prices of repair of three common household appliances, including the labour costs of specialists required to repair the unit. This is followed by a price-range of an average new machine for comparison. From this data, we can see that unless you own an appliance on the higher price range, it is much more reliable and cost-effective to get a new system that will be less likely to fail again in the near future. So then, the answer must lie in buying more expensive and higher quality appliances? This would be the ideal solution, however, as Bauman states in his paper Thinking sociologically,
‘All commodities have a price-tag attached to them. These tags select the pool of potential customers. They do not directly determine the decisions the consumers will eventually make; those remain free. But they draw the boundary between the realistic and the feasible; the boundary which a given consumer cannot overstep’ (1990: 211)
Suggesting that although in theory, anyone is free to buy whatever products they desire, there is a divide between those who can and those who cannot afford. Thus prompting the mindset that having higher value products leads to higher social status. How do those who cannot afford these products counteract this problem? Through capitalism. Although it has its problems, capitalism is a system that promotes competition; this is excellent for innovation. A constant stream of competing brands creating new innovative technology and implementing into new appliances means prices of models that do not contain said innovative features begin to decrease, even if they are relatively newer models.
This leads to our second reason throwaway culture is so prominent. It is much more socially desirable to own newer products and is seen as a symbol of social hierarchy. Dittmar derives in his controversial research paper ‘To have is to be’ (1994) that the rise in this mentality came from a juxtaposition between the prominence of individualism and mass consumerism in society, which led to the individual defining themselves through the objects that they own.
This idea is reflected in Kruger’s iconic untitled print which reads ‘I Shop Therefore I am.’, an apparent reference to Descartes ‘I think therefore I am.’. This is especially symbolic as Descartes was conducting a thought experiment where he wanted to put aside every belief he held and only bring back what was indisputably true as proof that he exists, which he could then centre his being and identity around. Kruger’s take on the phrase is a statement replacing thought at the centre of identity with the material items we consume through shopping, again implying a modern society that defines itself on their material goods.
In theory, this system should work well. It allows most consumers to be able to afford appliances and products that are socially desirable by continually being able to purchase the newer consumables and discarding the dated models. Unfortunately, it creates a significant amount of waste, too much to be ignored. The environmental protection agency (EPA) recorded 57.1 million tonnes of waste in durable goods, defined as ‘Products with a lifespan of 3 years or more’. Fig 3 Displays the amount of waste recorded by the EPA for major appliances which include washing machines, fridges etc. From this graph we can derive that in 2017, of the roughly 5.2 million tonnes of waste created, 60% was recycled. This is vastly better than in Fig 4 which displays the waste for small appliances, such as hairdryers and coffee machines, whereof the roughly 2.1 million tonnes of waste, only 6% was recycled, and an astounding 75% ended up in a landfill.
Why is such a large percentage of small appliances being sent to landfill, and where are all of these products coming from? In the ever-long search for finding cheaper goods that work to a desirable standard, it has become the more popular solution to import goods from other countries, mainly China, where labour and regulations are more easily exploitable. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (FRBSF) economics research team (2019) found about 11% of total US citizen spending is on imported products of which 25% comes from China, which is disproportionately higher than any other source of goods.
Due to the lax regulations, manufacturers in China were able to make replicas of desirable products in the west for much cheaper to the detriment of the quality of the product. The Guardian (2015) found that in 2014, 40% of the items sold online in China were either counterfeit or of poor quality. However, this is not a problem that is exclusive to Chinese exports; this problem can be found anywhere where regulations are exploitable in exported goods. This drop in quality does not matter, however. In the west, consumers were able to obtain items that appeared somewhat genuine, which meant they remained desirable. Unfortunately, the drop in quality resulted in a much shorter product lifespan. Due to the conditions of the product’s design and assembly, dependant on the product, it can be tough to recycle, and even harder to repair. Instead, since the product was at a low price, the consumer will buy a new item and discard the old item. This is a significant contributor to our throwaway culture.
Modular Design Definition
This is where modular design could help mitigate some of these problems. But what is modular design? Unfortunately, as described by Bonvoisin et al. in their paper A systematic literature review on modular product design, although some criteria do exist for modular design, a lot of them tend to be extremely generalised and undefined as they rely on vague ideas and concepts.
‘there is neither a widely adopted measure of a product’s modularity nor a widely adopted systematic methodology that helps designers increase the modularity of a product.’ (Gershenson, 2003)
This mostly remains true, even to this day. Some have however, attempted to make definitive modular design guides and methodologies. In his article for Simplicable, John Spacey (2016) defined modular design as ‘A design approach that creates things out of independent parts’. This seems to be in conjunction with Wang’s (2018) views as he describes modular design as organising sub-assemblies as building blocks that can be integrated into customer and engineering requirements. Although one of the only frequently common denominators for modular design is that it consists of a group of functional carriers, This is perhaps a good baseline to start with.
But these are very broad definitions. Bonvoisin continues to break down modular product design, displayed in the table below, into three categories: Designing with modules, identifying modules, and design of modules. Designing with modules consists of designing an object with existing components; for example, a computer, or Lego. This category will be less relevant to this report as we will be looking at designing objects from new parts rather than existing ones. Identifying modules is the re-imagining of current and existing products and assessing the grouping of components within them, redesigning them in such a way that allows modules to exist. For example, there may be a module of elements that need frequent maintenance; in this instance, these components would be grouped together in such a manner that they are easy to detach from the product. This is an ex-post method of modular design. Finally, Design of modules. This is the opposite of identifying modules in that this is an ex-ante method of design, entailing the designing of separate modules that would then later assemble into a complete product, for example, a group of these modules may create a Designed with modules product once assembled.
In theory, a modular product design allows extreme flexibility. This is because rather than a specific aesthetic or technique, it is more of a concept that can be applied to almost any product. Modular design potentially allows for hyper personalisation through the possible exchange of modules and their aesthetics. It also allows for consistent improvements as modules may be updated one part at a time, meaning you are not forced to buy a new product at each innovation, thus potentially future-proofing the product to an extent.
How can modular design help? If we look at some of the previous issues talked about in this report, we can assess how much of an effect modular design could have. The first issue that was mentioned was the throwaway culture aspect. A device that is constructed from modules could be much more environmentally beneficial. If parts that break can be removed and replaced, this would create much less waste than is currently produced and creates a module that would be much easier to recycle on its own. In Niemann et al.’s assessment of a sustainable product in their book ‘Design of Sustainable Product life cycles’ (2009), they concluded that businesses are aiming to perfect technical systems to optimise production utilisation and maximising value over the lifetime of the product. Modular design would align with this conclusion for a more sustainable product as it would allow the implementation of new technology through modules, thus increasing the lifespan of the product.
Modular design could provide a possible solution to individualism as the potential flexibility of design and personalisation can allow a way for individuals to express themselves through their products. Being able to swap out parts to create different aesthetics is a feature that is entirely feasible with modular design. This could make the object more desirable as you can shift the aesthetic or function of a product through modules to fit the consumer needs.
The final issue we touched on was cost. This is difficult to speculate as it could potentially vary widely. The nature of modular design allows for the possibility of cheaper initial prices that can then be upgraded through the transfer of modules.
These all work in theory; however, how does it work in practice?
Modular design is already being used in the modern world to varying extents and varying successes. The Fairphone 3, which was released in September of 2019, was designed by Bas van Abel and is the latest in a line of entirely modular and eco-friendly devices. This phone is a ‘design of modules’ build as it is made up of modules that were designed to fit this product. It boasts to be the most eco-friendly phone in the world with responsible material sourcing, producing longer-lasting mobile, and reducing waste. This phone is completely modular and every single part can be taken out and replaced, with parts and tutorials being available on their website. This product line has won many awards such as; The German Environmental award (2016) and Responsible business award (2019), and many more as well as being the first-ever phone ‘Ifixit’ awarded a 10/10 in repairability.
This phone was received very well by the consumers with the Fairphone 2 selling out in 2017 and with a total 135 000 sales. The Fairphone 3 has received many respectable review scores with most reviews scoring around 4/5. This is evidence that there is a market for this sort of design. But compared to other phones, it is admitted that you can find a lower price phone with similar specs by many reviewers, but the concept and ethos are more than enough to convince some consumers to switch to this device. It would appear that the majority of those that did make the switch to this phone were consumers who were already environmentally conscious, however, and the slightly lacklustre components the mobile have been met with criticism in the form of aesthetics and ergonomics as well. This is because, beyond the environmental ethos of the phone, there are no real other incentives to commit to this phone. Perhaps then, with this example, there was too much of a focus on environmental aspects, which was to the detriment of other factors such as cost, to appeal to a wider audience.
But how relevant is this phone to modern appliances? Mobile phones are continually improving and evolving, so it would make sense to have a modular design as this can extend the products life cycle. But admittedly, how much do appliances change over time? In the past, very infrequently. This meant that modular design would not have been all that necessary to improve a product. However, it would allow a longer product life span through easier maintenance and possible personalisation. Modular design was relegated to a more niche approach in the design of appliances, often with a more environmentally friendly concept. However, with the surge of technology and connectivity, came the rise of the internet of things, and this changes things.
In a climate that is constantly evolving, it is crucial to assess how plausible modular design would be for future products. One movement that has become increasingly popular within products and appliances is known as ‘The internet of things’. BBC 2, in their programme Click, describe the internet of things as ‘This concept that things which are not technology get hooked up to the net’ (2013). This allows products and appliances to be connected to other devices through the internet to gain information and react accordingly.
This is becoming increasingly popular with the rise of ‘Smart homes’. Forbes (2018) found that 12-16% of US homes use smart devices in 2016. This figure has, according to a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (2018), risen to 30% in just two years. Large companies such as Samsung and LG are heavily investing into smart appliances such as smart fridges and washing machines; these would be able to give the user information, such as when their washing has been completed, or how much food they have left.
How would modular design react to this development in appliances? Considering the flexible nature of modular design, it should be able to adapt very easily. Since smart products have only become popular in recent years, there are very few examples of modular design within them. However, if the appliance is made with smart technology in mind, modular design could allow the customisation of modules similar to that of the Fairphone 3.
In conclusion, political and social movements have dictated what products the consumer purchases. This has led to cheap, low-quality goods that are easily replaceable, but not easily recyclable. This also led to a culture where it is normalised to use a product for a short time and replace it when it breaks. Large amounts of waste are created from appliances as they are not worth being repaired, so they end up in landfills. A modular design methodology contains the tools to potentially aid with some of the problems made by modern consumerism and has been attempted before. Still, these attempts were usually environmentally-focused rather than consumer-focused and so saw varying amounts of success.
Modular design allows for easier recycling, more straightforward repairs and potential future-proofing of appliances through the intuitivity of modules, which increases a product’s sustainability and recyclability massively. It also allows for potentially large amounts of personalisation, and in theory, modular design can possibly provide a wide range of solutions to many of the problems created by our materialist culture. However, it is difficult to accurately gauge the amount of success current modular design has due to an insufficient amount of conclusive research done on the major effects it has or could have. This leads to massive amounts of speculation based on educated assumptions. A combination of lack of research and incentive for larger companies to take large risks into modular design forces significant changes in the are to be pioneered by smaller companies, such as Fairphone. The modular design consists of all the right components and has an enormous amount of potential that is yet to be explored in the current internet of things age.