Preston Smith's Corner

Exploiting Product Modularity As a Time-Compression Tool

1998 Product Development Management Columns

Usually, when managers consider speeding up their product development, they look at the people issues (teams, for instance), processes, and technology enablers, such as computer-aided design. In doing so, they miss powerful opportunities buried in the product itself. The way in which the product is divided into modules—and how this modularity is exploited—is one such opportunity. Let’s consider 7 mechanisms by which modularity, or architecture, can accelerate development.

Smaller teams.
If your development project is a large one, you will need dozens or hundreds of developers to complete it. Unfortunately, the ideal team is just five to eight members, which would stretch out development, if applied directly. But if you divide the product into relatively independent modules, you can put a smaller, more effective team to work on each. This is just what Boeing did with its 777 airliner: 7,000 engineers divided into 240 design-build teams.

Concurrent development of modules.
Another advantage of relatively independent modules is that you can work on them in parallel rather than serially.

Faster module development.
An independent module can often be designed, fabricated, and tested faster than the whole product. This is how the Wright Brothers beat their competition to “market”—building and testing wings, propellers, etc., separately rather than building a complete airplane just to find out that it would not fly.

Modules can run at their ideal paces.
Some modules, the engine in a car, for example, may need lots of development testing. Others, like body panels, need most of their time in tooling fabrication. With modular design, you gain this flexibility.

Incremental innovation.
Once you have the product split cleanly into modules, you can introduce them at will. You can make a new product out of only some of the modules that would normally comprise a complete new product. Pick the modules that are most urgent, add the greatest value, or about which you are most certain, incorporating more later.

Part and design reuse.
Similarly, with modules, you can choose to reuse modules from other products, or from suppliers. Your product will get to market faster if you have to develop only half of it. One common characteristic of personal computers and heavy trucks is that they both make heavy use of standard components, for example, hard drives and axles, respectively.

Easier risk management.
Manage the showstoppers by allocating risk to modules according to what you can handle, for example, by using mature technology in certain modules. These seven mechanisms appear to be technical issues, but they’re really quite strategic, because they are long-term implementations of your strategy. The modularization style of an innovation leader would be much different than that of a low-cost producer. It follows that these issues are too central to leave to just the engineers. Consider the implications of the modularization decision IBM made when it farmed out the PC’s operating system module to a startup called Microsoft. Who runs the PC world now?

Furthermore, these decisions get made, explicitly or implicitly, very early in the development cycle—or in previous products. They can easily get locked in without management’s knowledge. Lastly, modularization isn’t free. We generally pay for it in three ways. First, a modularized product costs more, because it has extra interfaces between the modules (cables connecting modules in a computer, for example). Second, modularization introduces certain performance concerns between modules (the plugs on these cables corroding over time, for instance). Finally, modularization carries with it the extra burden of putting the whole system together later, what we call system integration. These are the tradeoffs that your organization has to be conscious of when making product architecture decisions.

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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