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Modular design: an idea that’s not for all products

Last year, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens came up with the Phonebloks concept mobile phone – dubbed the Lego phone – a modular device that would allow users to choose from a range of components, and replace or upgrade them when necessary.

He used the Thunderclap ‘crowd speaking’ platform to put his idea out to the world, expecting around 500 people to sign up and share his video explaining the idea through social media. Instead, the video went viral, gaining seven million views in three days, and was picked up by media channels around the world.

Compliance scheme ERP recently invited experts to discuss the future of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), so MRW asked what the experts thought about the reality of extending the life of electrical and electronic goods, using modularity as Hakkens suggests, to swap components in or out.

Kirstie McIntyre, director for Hewlett Packard’s (HP) environmental responsibilities in Europe, Middle East and Africa, says the manufacturer is already looking at such initiatives. Its recently published Living Progress report ( includes examples of how it is driving towards modularity and what it calls ‘servicisation’.

“So it is not just about the lifecycle of the product – it is designing the product to be a service and selling a service rather than selling a product,” McIntyre says, but warns that: “it does not work for every type of product and you cannot apply it on a blanket level.”

She explains that HP has found that, for products of higher value – such as commercial printers the size of office floors which print the likes of Sunday newspaper supplements or building wraps – it makes sense to design them to be repaired and to be modular.

“Those pieces of equipment cost millions of dollars. So you will clearly design them to be repaired and to be modular because, by the time you put that sort of money into a machine, you are going to want to look after it, whether you are selling it as a service to the customer or whether the customer is buying it themselves,” she explains.

“However, when we are selling a £79 7in tablet, it is going to become a lot more difficult to make that modular or to make it upgradable – there just isn’t the profit in it. And the components [if you want to replace them] are really tiny.”

But she does flag up the fact that HP does not glue in any components so that its equipment can be taken apart, although it is not recommended this is done by non-professionals. HP also publishes all its repair manuals, which many electronics companies do not.

McIntyre says that HP does design products to be modular, citing the example of what it calls an all-in-one desktop PC. It was designed so that the casing completely lifts up, and the components are put inside in such in a way that they could be swapped out. It was aimed at graphic designers who would want to put in different graphics cards and sound cards, for example.

But she adds the regular home user typically does not want or need this – they just want to be able to switch on their PC for functions such as playing games or using the internet: “So there is not one size fits all in the electronics sector.”

Rob Holdway, co-founder and director of environmental management consultancy Giraffe, which does work on sustainable design, says that designing with modularity and for extended life is already happening.

“The job of any manufacturing company is to minimise complexity internally and maximise variety for the customer,” he says. “It is about modularity and platform planning [where various models have shared components and process steps].”

He says this does not happen across all organisations, and sometimes the enabling technology used means it cannot be done.

“We take apart a lot of products, so we have seen pretty much every manufacturer’s washing machine: some that are made in Turkey, some made in Germany, others from Korea, for instance. We have seen everything from original equipment manufacturer stuff to original brand manufacturers – the same with fridges, vacuum cleaners and laptops. So we know a lot about products.

“What you see is that the high-end manufacturers, the quality manufacturers, are trying to extend the life of their products. They are well made, they have modularity and platform planning involved, and they are actually pretty good [on this front].

“The lower end, cheaper products – and this largely comes from the work we have done with major retailers, where all they are doing is saying ‘we will have that chassis with that motor’ and choosing colours – that is where some real effort can be made, par ticularly in smaller household appliances. It depends how ephemeral and how valuable materials are, but most manufacturers are doing a pretty good job.”

Giraffe’s work has previously included proving that recycled plastics can perform as well as virgin material. It chose to use recycled plastics in a premium product, a Ferrari-branded hi-fi, and proved there was no loss of functionality but instead a 70% saving in carbon and 24% saving on costs.

On good design, Holdway cites Dyson as an example of a manufacturer that considers consumer repair needs. For example, its vacuum cleaners have been designed so that, if the brush gets clogged at the front, you need only a coin to unscrew it rather than a screwdriver. It also offers a repair service for customers, and does diagnostics over the phone if there is a problem with a product.

Having taken apart so many devices, Giraffe has seen first-hand how even washing machines within the same brand will have different designs for elements that could be fairly standard, such as detergent drawers and the way they are attached to the machines – areas where there is scope for improvement.

“There is not one utopian product on the market,” Holdway adds.

Kieran Mayers, head of environment and technology compliance at Sony Computer Entertainment, agrees with McIntyre that the “reality is a bit more complex than assuming that design for modularity or extended lifetime is suitable for everything, particularly products which have a certain technological window”.

He explains: “You would not want to design [a product] to last more years than the technology because you are going to end up wasting materials in that product. The fact that technology moves on means that the consumer is going to want to replace it.

“And what does that mean in terms of technology? How can you design modularity so that you can upgrade your product? It is pretty tricky given the types of technological revolutions we are looking at. You could not upgrade your CRT TV to be an LCD. You could not upgrade your LCD TV to be a smart TV with your computer inside it. So it doesn’t always make sense to do it.”

But he adds that there are examples of where it does make sense for manufacturers to prolong the life of their goods: “Looking specifically at the PlayStation, that is a product we use to get people to buy games. We want people to buy games – that is where we make money. So we want our technology, the console, to last as long as possible in the home.

“We offer an out of warranty refurbish/repair service so that, when the warranty is finished, you can call up and the next day you will have a refurbished model. We will take the old one back and repair it. And through that we will learn what goes wrong with the product and try to modify it. For example, if the discs get stuck in, we know we can put a flip-top on instead.

“So there are things we can do to make a better design to keep those units in service. But what ends that is when the technology [becomes] obsolete in terms of what computers can do – the pixels are too big so the graphics do not look state-of-the art any more.

“People wouldn’t want to buy a console then, so you bring out a PlayStation 4. Now, there is no way that you can upgrade PlayStation 3 into PlayStation 4 because it is leagues ahead.

“We have also integrated systems on the chip technology. So we have taken all those components that could usually be made separate, modular and replaceable, and put them all on one microprocessor. That means the machine can be incredibly energy efficient because everything is on one chip but, if one thing goes wrong, it is a lot more difficult to fix and replace. So these kind of maxims of sustainable design and development do not often sit together.”

In McIntyre’s words, “there is no one size fits all”, but manufacturers, particularly the larger ones, believe they are looking into more sustainable design, with different solutions for different products that make good commercial sense too.

Choosing the path to resource efficiency

Can we really have a circular economy?

Rob Holdway, co-founder and director of environmental management consultancy Giraffe

“It is still okay to be resource efficient in a linear economy. A lot of this lexicon around the circular economy, is, I think, running away with itself. Walter Stahel [influential in developing the field of sustainability] and all the performance-based models are well worth referencing and looking at, but they work in circular context and circular ways. The whole typeology of circular economy business models is that they are appropriate for different organisations.

“So I still think it is okay to say we are going to be resource-efficient and design-out waste in a linear economy, and that is still a valid thing to do – although it is not so trendy to say so. There seems to be a deterministic air that this is the panacea for solving all the world’s problems…I don’t like the deterministic language of it.”

Kieran Mayers, head of environment and technology compliance at Sony Computer Entertainment

“Pragmatically, we live in a world that has various realities we have to deal with. It is not always possible to design into a circular economy. And there are things like producer responsibility, climate change, how to get energy-efficient design and lifecycle thinking that make it complicated.

“There are solutions if you are prepared to think in these ways. But if you follow ‘design for x for a circular economy’, you can actually be sub-optimal and cause problems because you don’t consider the broader reality.”


Kirstie McIntyre, director for Hewlett Packard’s (HP) environmental responsibilities in Europe, Middle East and Africa

“Last year HP published a complete carbon footprint of our supply chain, down to Scope 3 emissions and third tier suppliers. It was one of the most comprehensive carbon footprinting exercises that has been done, and it was a first in the IT sector.

“To some extent, we looked at it and thought ‘we know that’: it showed clearly that 61% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sit with the product in use with our customers. What that tells us is that we have to continue to work on resource efficiency and must make our products increasingly energy-efficient.

“And we have done amazing things – our power supplies are now 80% more efficient than they were just five years ago. But there is much more to come.

“On the circular economy side of things, 34% of our GHG emissions sat in our supply chain – manufacturing, logistics, materials – and nearly all of it was in materials. It is materials that feed into circular economy, and that is why we are working on closing our material loops.

“Not only because the world is becoming a more complicated, more difficult, more resource-constrained place. That is becoming very clear on the amount we procure: it is becoming quite difficult to get hold of stuff in the amounts that we want.”

McIntyre is working on getting the HP business units to agree on a target for recycled content, although this is difficult because, while some products already have up to 65% recycled content, others have much less.

“The challenge, certainly in the recycling sector, is that recyclers need to stop thinking that they are waste management companies – they need to start thinking that they are ‘resource’ and are commodity providers to the people like us, who want to buy the stuff.

“I think the metals industry is there: I have no idea how much recycled aluminium we use in our products, because we are just buying aluminium. But in plastics we are still maybe 20-30 years away.”

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