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Modular thinking created modern science – and the modern manufacturing line. Now, many voices are saying we must take modularity a step further to not only face down current supply chain challenges, but as a way to achieve that holy grail of sustainable practices: circularity. Read all about it…

Modularity Is Everywhere

DNA is modular. We’re modular. Families are modular. The same goes for letters, words, sentences and paragraphs. Processes are modular – everything from the scientific method to the Agile approach (going from modular sprint to modular sprint).

It’s how we do things: break something complicated down into smaller and more achievable parts. It’s the only way to solve big problems (and to explain these big problems to others).

For manufacturers, modularity also makes us more flexible – in terms of markets, locations and investment. If something stops working, you can always separate, recombine and reinvent.

Plug and Produce

“The only solution that guarantees success is a modular approach, designed to maximize manufacturing efficiency,” according to ‘The Goldilocks Conundrum Of Manufacturing’.

“With every company vying for market share, executives are rejiggering strategies to best ensure that their product is produced and available at the exact quantities demanded, not too much and not too little.”

“In order to deliver a guaranteed supply of high-quality, consistently uniform product with unmatched performance, manufacturers should think modularly for the flexibility to rightsize and adapt in an ever-changing and somewhat unpredictable market. Ultimately, that is the best and most viable solution to the Goldilocks conundrum of manufacturing.”

Calling Circularity

Creating A Circular Smartphone Economy’ argues that modularity is the route to circularity – the holy grail of sustainable practice. “Several startups, like Fairphone in the Netherlands, are already pushing the boundaries of the modular smartphone as a way to prolong end of life, but the practice has yet to enter the mainstream, where two years still remains a good run and upgrade cycles are still ruthlessly pushed at the expense of support for older models.”

“This is where the idea of the circular economy comes into play – the philosophical shift away from single-use, single-owner smartphones and towards a world where ‘By the time it makes sense to pulverise and turn the product into a sand-like powder, all other opportunities to extract value from the product need to have been exhausted’.”

Driving EV Success

When it comes to modularity, the automotive industry has always pushed the envelope. After all, why replace a whole car when you have a crack in your windshield?

But there’s a shift occurring in the electrical vehicle market: it’s no longer about modularity within a car, but across cars (Thanks Elon). For instance, according to ‘Giga-Casting And Robots: How Volkswagen’s Trinity Aims To Catch Up With Tesla’, Volkswagen is setting up highly modular SSP (Scalable Systems Platform), which will form the basis of a variety of different EV types.

Meanwhile in a similar vein: ‘Hyundai Motor To Invest $80 Billion In Future Electrification With 17 New BEVs And A New Modular Platform‘.

Big money.

Nuclear Pop-Ups

By making nuclear plants smaller and more uniform, various parties hope to speed up the use of nuclear power big time.

“Governments love nuclear, mostly. Grid planners love the reliability, low cost of generation, and prestige of nuclear generation. However, the construction cost, long lead-up time and security implications have deterred governments from investing in new generations of nuclear. Because of these factors, governments have looked toward small modular reactors (SMRs) for a new wave of investment,” according to Where Will The First Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Be?’.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requires high building standards of nuclear developers. The prefabricated nature of SMRs modules allows manufacturers to adhere to the standards while maintaining the efficiency and speed of a production line, lowering the variability and associated costs of nuclear construction.”

But yes, there’s still the problem of getting rid of radioactive waste. One possible solution would be to build SMRs beside existing nuclear sites to tap into the existing infrastructure – and thereby providing even more boom for the investment buck.

Flexible Medicine

“Modular manufacturing is on the rise in the pharmaceutical industry,” according to ‘Modular: The Modern Way of Manufacturing Injectables’. “This popularity is due to the flexibility offered by modular manufacturing, allowing pharmaceutical processors to produce a range of products in a single facility with faster changeovers and improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).”

Meanwhile, BioNTech is using that most modular of units – the shipping container – to bring its COVID-19 vaccine to the world, according to ‘BioNTech To Ship Modular mRNA Factories To Africa Starting This Year’. “Each complete BioNTainer setup, comprising twelve total shipping containers, will have the capacity to crank out some 50 million doses a year.”

And the plan goes beyond dealing with the current pandemic. “COVID-19 might not be relevant in 5, 6, 7 years, but the manufacturing technology will be relevant,” says BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin. “We know that mRNA is a new drug class, which is suitable for different types of vaccines.”  

Radical Modularity In Manufacturing

The author of ‘What If The Top Technologies In Manufacturing Worked Together?’ offers a rather ambitious call-to-action. The author seeks to unify all the current technologies driving modern manufacturing: “Think CNC machining, robotics, 3D-printing, robotics, software, Internet of Things (IoT), digital twins, AI/AR, and photonics, just to name some important ones.”

He wants all these techs to communicate better – since they all obviously still speak very different languages. “I’m talking about changing the entire logic of manufacturing, switching to a modular platform run by drag-and-drop.”

Yes: complex. It will take a lot of modular thinking to get us there.

Let’s get to work.

 

Read: ‘Manufacturing – The News: Time For A Rethink’.