Future Proof Product Designs in an Era of Customization and Sustainability

Modularity and an organized product lifecycle are the keys to staying relevant.

Hey, design engineers, stop me if you’ve heard this one. The bosses say sales are down. They tell you customers are requesting products to be more sustainable, customizable and cost effective. These are trends everywhere else, so why would your industry be any different? It was only a matter of time. Now it’s up to you to rethink your offerings from the ground up to meet these market demands.

Customers are sick of integral product architectures. Modularity is the way to go. (Image courtesy of Bigstock.)

Customers are sick of integral product architectures. Modularity is the way to go. (Image courtesy of Bigstock.)

Where do you start? How can you ensure your design is going to be green, affordable and reconfigurable from the get-go? What tools do you need to get this all done on budget?

The solution is to rethink your product architecture with a modular spin, and to make better use of your PLM platform.

Revisiting Product Architectures

Product architecture generally comes in two flavors, integral and modular—though some products have started to combine the two.

Integral product architectures are divided into parts and assemblies that form one product. The parts have minor variation, if any, and the products fulfill the same functions at the same performance. This generally saves time and money from a product design and manufacturing perspective. A good example of an integral product would be the iPhone. You choose your version—maybe it comes in different colors or there is an option to get extra storage—but basically, the phones available are the only options until the next model series is announced. And once you get that phone there is no way to easily upgrade it or swap out a part when it fails—the battery, for example.

Modular designs are all about customization. Parts are subdivided into modules that can be easily swapped out so that products can complete different tasks, implement new features, provide new services and be repaired. An example here would be a desktop computer—where one graphics card, hard drive and CPU card can be swapped out for another. If you need an upgrade to run the latest simulation software, you may not need to spend the money on a whole new system. It might be cheaper, and more sustainable, to buy a new GPU instead.

So, what would a combination of these architectures look like? For that, look no further than iPhone’s rival, Android. In most cases, the Android model you get is the model you get. But in this case, there might be a slot that enables you to swap out a memory card or replace/upgrade a battery, thereby prolonging the product’s lifecycle.

The Benefits of Adding Modularity to Your Products

According to Friedrich Halstenberg and Rainer Stark’s paper “Introducing Product Service System Architectures for Realizing Circular Economy,” in Procedia Manufacturing, “Modularization has been found to support a broad range of design goals.”

There are a few design process improvements, such as how modulation can reduce complexity by organizing complex products and breaking them down into simpler tasks—which can then be assigned to one workgroup or another. But where this process really shines in the modern economy is its ability to increase customization and sustainability.

“The scientific community also agrees that sustainability and [circular economy] design goals may be addressed,” explained Halstenberg and Stark. “Modularity has been described to have a positive impact on product maintenance, allowing separate diagnosis of product components and isolation of wear parts, upgrade, adaptation and modification of products or components for an extended service life that may result in a reduction of environmental load. As modular design influences the [disassembly] of a system, it indirectly influences the treatments potentially applicable at its end-of life and may help reducing its environmental impact.”

In other words, just like the Android phone or desktop computer, why buy a new system when replacing one module unlocks the functionality needed, extends the product’s life and saves money?

Why design a single wheel loader when modular product architectures help you design hundreds at once? (Image courtesy of PTC.)

Why design a single wheel loader when modular product architectures help you design hundreds at once? (Image courtesy of PTC.)

Alternatively, why buy a new wheel loader when all you need is to swap out its tool to perform a new task? To take this example to its natural conclusion, why sell one wheel loader when you can sell dozens of modules (comprising various tools, wheels, engines and more) that can be swapped out and mixed to produce hundreds of product variations?

If the modules themselves are all compatible, you only need to mix and match them to the right configuration to meet a customer’s custom needs. Then, just like the ship of Theseus, you can focus R&D on upgrading specific modules instead of the product as a whole, so that the wheel loader your customer buys today will still be state-of-the-art in 20 years—after a few modules are swapped out. In other words, modular design is the ultimate way to future proof your product while offering user-specific customizations and sustainable product lifecycles.

All this modularity sounds great on paper, but it comes with a big drawback. The more modules you produce the more product configurations you can make, and the harder it is to keep track of it all. To account for that, engineers need the right PLM tools.

How PLM Enables Modular Product Design Cycles

A modular product needs product development tools and methodologies that can handle modular design. When one module is designed and configured, it should simplify the creation of new products, not complicate them. Think of it this way: once the CAD, simulations and development of that module is completed, if it’s to be used in a new product, it should be as easy to swap it within the development software as it is in real life—with all the geometry, bills of materials (BOMs) and specifications following into the new 3D model.

This is where PLM technology tends to shine. It enables engineers to keep track of their designs, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a specific flange is needed. Though many PLM tools can do this, it’s important to find ones that are specifically designed to handle modular architectures. This will make it easy to swap modules, plan specific product configurations and keep track of the design process.

With the right PLM tools engineers can swap one module for another during the development process. (Image courtesy of PTC.)

With the right PLM tools engineers can swap one module for another during the development process. (Image courtesy of PTC.)

For instance, on the PTC website, it mentions that “Creo Options Modeler allows you to create and work with configurable structures and when you combine Creo Options Modeler with Windchill, you can manage complex configuration logic easily, including content that comes from PTC or third-party applications.”

The Options Modeler data sheet goes a step further, stating “by using a modular product approach to design, engineers can reduce complexity while still providing a broad range of product offerings without significant increases in cost … [reducing] process errors and engineering rework by directly reusing available 3D models from PTC Creo, as well as BOM and business logic for product configurations from Windchill.”

So, with the right PLM tools, engineers can not only manage the complexity of a modular product design cycle. They can also implement its sustainable, cost savings and customization benefits to the fullest potential.

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at Engineering.com, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.