Modular design

Simplify, standardize, think modular — puzzleFor greater product diversity, better margins and new markets

The words modular design, and platform-based product development, frequently appear in documents pertaining to the plight of North America’s secondary wood manufacturing industry. In some cases, modular design is touted as a panacea to what ails the industry. In other cases the concept is advocated as a smart way to run a business — any business, especially in light of offshore competition. Some proponents even claim, “thinking in terms of platforms for families of products rather than individual products is one of the five key drivers behind the success of short-cycle-time companies.”
Embracing the concept of modular design is what saved Black and Decker from a series of impending forces that threatened the existence of the company over 30 years ago. It saved them from the looming threat of offshore competition. It allowed them to quickly develop and launch new product at minimal cost. It secured them better pricing from vendors. It saved them millions of dollars in labour. It allowed them to leverage significant operational efficiencies. And it enabled them to pass those savings along to consumers causing some competitors to withdraw from the consumer tool market.

The Black and Decker story is one example authors, Marc Meyer and Alvin Lehnerd use to illustrate the concept of platform-based product design. In their book, The Power of Product Platforms, they describe Black and Decker’s product portfolio as it looked in the early 1970s. At that time, the company had 18 power tool groups comprised of uncoordinated designs, materials, and technologies. The tools relied on 30 different motors, each manufactured by a different set of tooling. Sixty different motor housings were needed to accommodate variations in power and application. The company relied on 104 different armatures, with each requiring its own tooling. Each unique product design required either a dedicated production line or frequent and time-consuming changeovers.
In short, Black and Decker had what Meyer and Lehnerd refer to as a single-product mentality. “The end result of this single-product focus is a failure to embrace commonality, compatibility, standardization, or modularization among different products and product lines. For a given company, the evidence for lack of commonality is found in the products themselves and their component parts. The products use different materials for the same purposes; different switches when one kind of switch would do; a technology developed in-house at great expense to serve a single product; components with the same technical specifications but different sizes (so they cannot be interchanged) and on and on. That is where a product portfolio can easily end up when it is developed and managed one product at a time.”

For a number of reasons key to the company’s long-term survival, Black and Decker made the decision to overhaul its complete product portfolio in one shot and create a product platform; a set of common components, modules, or parts from which a stream of derivative products can be efficiently created and launched.
This, of course, meant a complete overhaul of the company’s manufacturing processes and production equipment. According to Meyer and Lehnerd, “The design of new products is often constrained by existing capabilities in plant and production equipment. In high-volume manufacturing situations one frequently finds very complex, intricate machines that lack the flexibility to accommodate variations to existing product designs. This can be one of the greatest barriers to product innovation and helps explain the incrementalism found in many industries.” Nonetheless, to remain competitive, it is a barrier that must be surpassed, and as the industry strives to move beyond manufacturing commodity type product to producing mass customized product, it is increasingly investing in modular machinery that offers the flexibility required to meet the needs of this quick-change market.
The ability to produce differentiated product quickly is cited by economist Albert Schuler in his report, Identifying Future Competitive Business Strategies for the U.S. Residential Wood Furniture Industry: Benchmarking and Paradigm Shifts, as key to successfully combating offshore competition. The key to making mass customization work and being profitable, he says, “is the capability to use interchangeable components — modular or cell technology — to produce what appear to be customized or unique products to the customer.” New technology enables mass-customization, and, according to Ron Sanchez, who has published numerous articles on design and strategic management issues, and is currently a professor of management at Copenhagen Business School, “the economics of providing product variations for individual consumers on a large scale are approaching the economics of producing a single product for all consumers.”
Design consultant John Edwards, founder of Hatch Design based in Nobleton, Ont., echoes those sentiments. “I have seen more manufacturers achieve greater success in the last few years not by trying to market things that are too cookie-cutter, but by offering distinctive custom styles. They present themselves as ready to do anything but utilize some degree of rationalization. Wood manufacturers today
can employ CNC machining, nested-based manufacturing, and make use of computer technology and lean manufacturing processes all of which lend themselves to producing products that have some degree of rationalization.”
Prior to founding his business, Edwards gained years of experience working for several Canadian furniture manufacturers in a number of capacities, including new product development and marketing. In those capacities, and as an entrepreneur, Edwards has witnessed and has initiated several programs that have seen manufacturers benefit from implementing some form of modular design, or, as he calls it, rationalization.

The programs he recounts involve the rationalization of a product portfolio that, like Black and Decker’s, had become confusing and inefficient to manufacture because of its single-product focus. Another involves the development of a second product family from a single platform that opened up an entirely new and lucrative market for the company, and the third involves the development of a family of products that enabled the company to sell an entire room of product versus a single piece.
Thinking modular, however, is not the starting point for product development, says Edwards. “Prior to thinking modular you have to start at the product level. You have to ask yourself, what kinds of products you can sell based on what you know how to do, regardless of how you make it. Once you answer that, you have to go back and determine how you can rationalize it. In an ideal world, you would start with a very pure product platform and all kinds of wonderful things would grow out of it, but I think you really have to start with your products and work backwards to figure out how you would rationalize something. Gathering customer feedback is the big thing, and so is knowing what is selling right now.

‘‘When I develop products for a client,” Edwards says, “I look at what market they think they are in, and then look at the competition. I’m not looking at what they’re doing to copy, but looking for spots where there are holes. When you look at it from that perspective, you can see opportunities. All product development sort of happens that way. There are internal forces, and internal innovation, but there is also customer feedback and market forces. Once you have a plan, you can figure out how to make the products so not every single piece is different every time.
“When I first joined Office Specialty (now Inscape),” Edwards says, “they made a lateral file cabinet using two completely different cases with different fronts, and a pedestal that was made completely differently, and vertical files which were different again. There were three different production lines. The guys who knew how to build vertical files, didn’t know how to build a lateral, and guys who knew how to build a lateral, didn’t know how to build verticals or pedestals. It was so different, it was confusing.
“So,” says Edwards, “what we did was look at our main product line, which was storage centres, and we looked at that basic cabinet construction with the front supports and rear supports, and drawer slides and all of that and said, if we squashed it and made it narrower, and a bit deeper, it would be a vertical file, and if we cut it down in size, it would be a pedestal, and if we change the fronts but not the case, we can make everything the same way and even use the same drawer slides.
“By doing that,” says Edwards, “we bought in greater volume so we got a better price, we held less inventory, and the same guys who knew how to build one product, could build every other product. We pushed everything down one production line. If the order called for laterals and pedestals in the same colour, both pieces were built on the same assembly line, and then sent to the packaging machine. We even figured out how to package without using different-sized cartons — we shrink wrapped. Although it was a big change, there were all kinds of advantages.
“Establishing a rationalized set of components that can be interchanged and used to create different products or different product styles is really what the goal is,” Edwards says. “I’m not saying it’s easy to do. It’s easier to do when designing office furniture, and the kitchen cabinet industry is doing that already. Even if it’s a residential line like bedroom furniture you could rationalize a basic case construction, things like standardizing on panel thicknesses as much as you can and the positions of cams and dowels, and standardizing the drilling patterns. With custom work your margins are higher, but you don’t want to make everything completely from scratch, completely sized differently. Some guys may say, ‘of course you’re going to use standard panel sizes and standard panel thicknesses,’ but you know, it doesn’t seem to be apparent to everybody. You can make a lot of stuff with the same thickness of panel if you set your mind to it, and it can increase your yield on sheets and all kinds of things.

‘‘One company that does it very well in the contract furniture industry is Krug, out in Kitchener, Ont.,” says Edwards. “They build their wood case goods pretty much the same way using mini-fix cams and dowels, and gluing the corners. Their panel thicknesses are always 18mm, and they rationalized the way they put it together so they can use things like standard set-ups.
“Even though the case is standard, a variety of looks can be achieved,” says Edwards. “At that time they were putting everything on the floor with a little levelling glide so there was basically a little reveal at the floor – it was a very heavy case. So we developed a method of getting it off the floor using exposed aluminum cylindrical legs that gave them some levelling but still didn’t change radically what was already a pretty good platform for building a case. On another component, just by varying the top and making it irregular on what was still a square case, and by cutting the door on an angle so the two doors hinged on an angle, gave it an edgy appearance, but it was the same case, the same doors, the same hinges, the same spacing, the same locks and keys.
“As a designer, sometimes clients ask you to do something very specific, but it’s better if they allow you to do some design strategizing with them because there may be bigger opportunities. That’s what happened with Krug,” says Edwards. “They wanted me to design the electrical box in the conference table, so I had a meeting with them to discuss that. But it was through questioning that we discovered there was a real opportunity to expand the line.”
Edwards explains that, while the initial assignment was to incorporate an electrical interface into the table, he discovered there was no interface with the lectern. It was simply a square box with a light on it with room for 8.5- by 11-inch paper. There was no interface in the lectern to accommodate a laptop. In fact there was no room on the lectern for a laptop. Realizing their products needed updating, the company allowed Edwards to develop a complete line of conference room furniture that would accommodate today’s technology, including the conference table, lectern, AV cart and credenza. This allowed the company to sell whole rooms of furniture instead of just one piece.
Sometimes a fresh perspective can shed light on something that in retrospect seems glaringly obvious, making a valued contribution to innovation. Whether fresh insights are garnered from a designer, salespeople, or from employees within the company not normally involved with product development, innovative insights emerge in a myriad of ways. It can occur in a planned way, as it did with Black and Decker and Inscape, or it can occur in a more intuitive fashion.
“Over time you need to evolve,” says Edwards, “nothing remains a growth industry forever, so companies need to reinvent themselves, or at least reinvent their product and look at things they can change or get into. A good example of how a company developed a family of products that allowed them to reach a different market is when I was with Reff (now part of the Knoll Group).
“At that time,” Edwards says, “Reff made wood furniture using wood veneer, that was all. They manufactured case goods for private-office workstations and used composite veneers in a variety of finishes. At one point they realized they could manufacture product using laminate and colour-matched pvc edging, using all the same machining and the same panel thicknesses, in the same factory, using the same hardware and packaging as they were using for their wood veneer. Although they would save on finishing, they would have to buy laminate sheets, so it would cost about the same. So they decided to dumb it down a bit. Instead of offering all wood drawers inside, they used metal drawers and metal drawer slides, and did a few other things that reduced the cost.

Doing that brought the product down to a different price category, but it opened up a huge market for them which became as important as their initial wood-veneer market. The net result was they weren’t cannibalizing their wood veneer business at all, and they opened up a huge stream of revenue with the other product. That’s an example of how you can have one platform, and two different markets.”
Whether it’s the ability to open new markets, operate more efficiently, achieve quick turn-around times or mass-customize product, the advantages of modular design are many. As Schuler says in his report, “a big part of the manufacturing renaissance has to be mass customization — using interchangeable, modular components that will facilitate the efficient production of higher-margin, unique furniture products aimed at key demographic parts of our society.” And, according to Sanchez, “the first company in an industry that understands how modularity lets you approach the market in new ways and implements a modular strategy, can rewrite the rules of competition.”
Pros and Cons of Platform-driven, Modular Product Design


• Provides the ability to produce
mass-customized product.
• Line changeovers are fewer and faster making it
economically feasible to produce product for small niche markets.
• Shorter production runs.
• Can leverage significant operational efficiencies
(manufacturing, inventory).
• Lowers cost of product development. Go through
one component design process and create a design that can be used in a number of product variations and/or across generations.
• Can quickly bring upgraded components to market.
• Can achieve high levels of product variety including functions, features, performance levels, mix and match at low cost and faster lead times.
• Easier to innovate and embrace technological change when it occurs.
• Reusability of components.
• Can provide forward and backward compatibility.
• Encourages a long-term product strategy


• Faults can affect a wider set of products.
• Suppliers of critical key components can begin to establish a brand for their components.
• Increased development times and costs to develop the initial platform.
• Difficulty of selecting the right platform which is flexible enough to develop an array of components that will meet user needs.

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