IKEA has become the go-to brand for what are essentially LEGOs for adults -- modular, customizable furniture that's affordable, easy-to-build, and with a name that's impossible to pronounce. There are whole websites devoted to clever tricks to reconfigure IKEA's furniture.
Buried at the core of IKEA is the idea of modular design -- creating products comprised of individual units, or modules, rather than as a whole. When done right, the end result is a product that can be repaired, reused, and re-designed with much less effort.
Writing for our sister publication MD+DI, Nigel Syrotuck, a mechanical engineer at StarFish Medical, a medical device design company based in British Columbia, argues for the medical device space in particular, but all of traditional engineering and manufacturing might do well to adopt the philosophy of the Swedish furniture company.
"In medical devices, we have one main reason to use a modular design: the ability to reuse approved components in multiple products. Testing is cumbersome in medicine, for obvious reasons, but reusing an approved power module in a few different devices leads to a safer product with an extensive history and saves cost and time in development."
He cites several advantages to modular design: faster assembly, easier maintenance and testing, and improved product longevity. There are also technological advantages, especially when it comes to upgrading products. Rather than having to purchase a whole new device when the current model becomes obsolete (yes, we're looking at you Apple), a modular design needs only for the outdated part to be replaced. And, because the modules have been used before, they can be characterized, more reliable, and more predictable.
Of course there are downsides as well including higher initial design costs and expensive connectors (a key component of any modular device). There are also aesthetic considerations for designers since modules are best done in blocks, squares, and rectangles -- not always the best design course, particularly when safety or other considerations would require a product not to have sharp, ridged edges.
Still, more and more technology companies are starting to embrace the idea. Google's modular cellphone, currently dubbed Project Ara, is probably the most prominent example to date. The fully customizable phone will consist of a base board and a series of modular blocks that can add functionality to the phone such as increased storage, a camera, music player, ect. Google debuted a working prototype of Ara last year and has released a modular development kit in hopes that third parties will create their own specialized modules for the phone.
Traditional manufacturing is also showing demand for modular systems. B&R Industrial Automation, for example, produces the ACOPOSmotor, which combines a servo drive, servo motor as power converter, built-in position sensor, and choice of an optional gearbox into one unit. The modular motor is designed to send power and control to an automation system where it's needed, rather than controlling the whole system from one point.
Even the software industry is embracing modular design with so called modular application (mapp) technology that allows programmers working in industrial automation to more easily troubleshoot and more easily configure systems on the plant floor.
While a modular design does require more investment on the front end, the resulting simplicity could be of much greater benefit to manufacturers and end users down the road.
How do you feel about modular design? Do the pros outweigh the cons in your industry? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News