Could modularization finally be the next big trend in tech?

Supply chain anxiety and right-to-repair momentum provide good reasons to revisit modular tech designs.
27 July 2022

Google put its modular smartphone aspirations on hold more than five years ago, but the concept remains compelling and global pressures make a strong case for resurrecting the idea. Image credit: Bryan Bedder / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP.

Rewind to 2013 and you’d find huge excitement for Google’s plan to build a modular cellphone dubbed ‘Project Ara’ that tapped into the talents of Motorola Mobility, which the US search giant acquired in 2012. Modularized devices promised users the ability to swap out elements such as the camera, battery, and even the processor, to either upgrade the units or replace them if they became damaged or worn out. Based on the huge number of news stories that Project Ara attracted, it was certainly an idea that captured the imagination of tech fans. Designers took note too and pitched some remarkable module ideas, such as a tiny cellphone-compatible aquarium prototyped by Brooklyn-based innovation consultancy Midnight Commercial.

However, despite all of the buzz around the idea, Project Ara got cancelled and its modularized devices were put on hold. But the concept refuses to die. Rumors circulate regularly on the internet that other device makers, most recently Xiaomi, are trying to succeed where Google failed by including modular elements in their product pipelines. And while commercial directors may still need some convincing, there are compelling reasons to lean on modularization in the search for technology success.

Lasting appeal

Research conducted at universities in Germany by Stephan Hankammer and colleagues, points to the ability of modularized designs to extend product life, which would be a big win for consumers and the planet. Although, in a massively modularized marketplace, consumers would need to be able to resist constantly upgrading their devices for any environmental gains to take hold.

Increasing the number of built-in elements could open the door to other sectors, allowing healthcare providers, for example, to benefit from the technology platform. It’s a trend that can be seen in wearables, with products such as the Apple Watch featuring hardware with health monitoring capabilities. Modularization would push this envelope further and widen the range of medical sensors that could be incorporated into the product, with customers free to choose the elements that suit their needs.

Pros and cons

Enterprise IoT could be another winner through modularization with units able to be configured for use in different sectors such as facilities management or in manufacturing. And there’s a track record for IoT products to be designed with base units that can communicate with companion devices over the network.

Working with boards, modules and subsystems is nothing new in electronics, as gamers and anyone else who’s built their own PC will testify. The embedded device community benefits too from an array of plug-in shields and ‘hats’ designed to extend the capabilities of hardware by providing networking connections or display functionality, to give just a couple of examples.

The challenge comes, however, in making modular systems small. Integrated designs come out ahead in the race to offer the most compact and lightweight solution – which could have been the undoing of Google’s Project Ara efforts, or a contributing factor at least. That being said, there are some major market forces now at work that could re-roll the dice in modularization’s favor.

Winds of change

A transitory factor is the massive supply chain upset triggered by the global pandemic and exacerbated firstly by a giant container ship, the Ever Given, getting stuck in the Suez Canal, and – in more recent times – the war in Ukraine. Companies have had to rethink their design philosophies to cope with the shortage of components, with Tesla for instance rewriting its automotive software to remove hardware bottlenecks. Other teams have temporarily swapped digital elements, such as displays, for analog versions.

Modularization has proven to be a helpful way of sidestepping supply chain-related delays that would have otherwise been costly and punched a hole in company profits. Economists Maria Bas and Ana Fernandes, based in France and the US respectively, have examined ‘Trade’s resilience to Covid-19’ in detail and their findings caution industry against attempting to decouple from global value chains – a strategy that comes at a high price. Instead, firms that were able to ride out the disruption were those with a portfolio of options both in terms of supply and production. Modular thinking opens the door to this and gives device makers the much-needed flexibility to keep calm and carry on.

Right to repair (and recycle)

Legislators too may look more favorably on modular products, both for businesses and consumers, that are easy to repair. Governments have worked out that it will be impossible to meet environmental targets unless there is a rethink on electronic waste. And part of the problem is that too many devices are simply thrown away when they could – if designs allowed – be fixed instead to serve longer, more useful lives. European campaigners highlight that e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, with less than 20% of products being recycled.

Modular designs that make it easy to swap faded batteries and cracked screens benefit not just users, who no longer have to throw away their devices in frustration, but also recyclers. Batteries are valuable, more so as competition increases for rare-earth minerals, and modularization could help in separating out materials types for reclamation and reuse.