Join William Lidwell for an in-depth discussion in this video Modularity, part of Universal Principles of Design.
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- [Jill] Hi, I'm Jill Butler, and this is the Universal Principles of Design. In this movie, modularity, or the power of thinking inside the box. You may be surprised to learn that the motorcycle manufacturing capital of the world is not in the United States, or the U.K., or Germany, or Japan, but in China. The city of Chongqing, to be exact. Home to more than 130 motorcycle manufacturing companies producing roughly 12 million motorcycles a year.
Now, making this many motorcycles year after year creates an interesting problem. How do you make enough parts to meet this kind of demand? One company making all of these parts isn't really feasible at this level of production. So the only way to do it is to outsource the manufacturing to external suppliers. And that's where one of the world's largest manufacturers, Dachangjiang, did something interesting. Rather than following the traditional method of designing all the parts and then outsourcing their manufacture to a vertical chain of suppliers, they instead broke their motorcycle design into modules, with only broad performance requirements defined, like size and weight.
They then awarded two or three suppliers the responsibility of developing the parts comprising each module. The suppliers were given wide latitude to work with one another to figure out exactly how their parts would work together to meet the requirements, and were encouraged to explore innovative designs. So what happened? Well, given the broad parameters and the freedom to improvise and innovate, the suppliers quickly found ways to cut costs and improve quality.
Rather than the traditional gridal vertical chain of suppliers, manufacturing to rigid specifications, Dachangjiang developed a flexible network of suppliers that were continuously cutting costs and improving their products. Such is the power of modularity properly applied. So what is modularity and how can we use it in design? Modularity is a structural principle used to manage complexity, reduce costs, and increase reliability in complex systems.
In design, it involves identifying functional clusters of similarity in systems, and then converting those clusters into self-contained mini-systems called modules. The result is an effective reduction in system complexity and a decentralization of system architecture. This is the big idea behind Google's Project Ara. Create a cell phone in which all major hardware components are modular, affordable, and interchangeable. Not only would the Ara frame support traditional smartphone components like cameras, keypads, and speakers, it would also enable the innovation and development of completely new kinds of modules by third parties.
So imagine modules for medical devices, night vision sensors, game controllers, and so on. Any of which could be bought as a single module to upgrade your phone, instead of buying a whole new phone. The catch? Yes, there's always a catch. Is that modular systems are typically more complex to design and manage than non-modular systems. And this is why most systems do not begin as modular systems, but are incrementally modularized as a product matures.
This relates to Gall's law, which states that all complex systems that work evolved from simpler systems that worked. So the implication is that if you are designing a complex system, a product, software application, business process, whatever, you should start by designing and building a simple system first, learn what works and what doesn't, and improve it iteratively over time. Then, as the design matures, you begin actively seeking clusters of functions that can be grouped and optimized as self-contained modules.
Design modules that contain and conceal their complexity, and that communicate with other modules using simple, standard interfaces. If you're outsourcing module design, take full advantage of the opportunity by not over-specifying the requirements. Rather, keep requirements simple and broad. And this enables increased collaboration and innovation among your partners. So whether you use modularity to increase system reliability and scalability, to manage complexity in a new, object-oriented programming language, or to diversify your supplier network to reduce costs and promote innovation, remember, sometimes it pays to think inside the box.