Preston Smith's Corner

How can I develop products more flexibly by exploiting product architecture?

April 2006 Quick Tip

Product architectures span a range from integral (visualize a bowl of noodles) to modular, where functions of the product remain physically distinct. Modular architectures are powerful tools for isolating change to certain parts of a design, so that if one part changes, the change doesn’t trigger massive redesign.

In fact, this is such a powerful tool that your biggest problem in applying it is likely to be competing ways of applying it. Modular architectures are also valuable for improving manufacturing or distribution (as opposed to design) flexibility, reusing designs, or improving testability or serviceability. So you will have to choose carefully among these business objectives. If you choose design flexibility as your objective, you will probably have to choose further which parts of the design are most likely to change and thus could benefit most from being modular.

It follows that product architecture is too important to business objectives to be left as solely a technical decision.

To use modularity as a flexibility tool, select the portions of the product where your information is the shakiest or the areas most likely to change. Then use architecture to build “fences” (interfaces) around these portions to isolate them. But don’t over-modularize, which can become expensive. Also, once you have established interfaces, you will need a way of policing them, since they tend to decay over time as designers make compromises.

For more on this, see our list of references. Another important book on product architecture is appearing this month, but I cannot comment on it because I haven’t seen it yet.

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

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