Radical Re-Modularization: Tradeoffs in Designing Mass Customization Product Architectures

Ryan C.C. Chin, Patrik Künzler, R.D. Poblano


The rise of mass customization has led to changes in supply chain management, openness to customer co-design, and an emphasis on flexible and modular product architectures. The search for better, more compact and efficient modules and product families places a heavy emphasis on compartmentalized customization strategies consisting of cosmetic skins, both large and small plug-in electronics and interior modules, ergonomic treatments, and battery storage. Such strategies allow for endless variation in the elements deemed most meaningful to the customer. However the tradeoffs can lead to wastefulness in materials, poor packaging, issues with structural integrity, and postponement in the fabrication of elements until user preferences are determined. Radical re-modularization is the complete rethinking of product architectures into multilayered and multifunctional product building blocks. Emphasis is placed on the integration of apparently disparate components into new configurations while capturing dual-functionality both at the subcomponent and system level. This paper chronicles the development of a new vehicular architecture following the principles of radical re-modularization and the tradeoffs that result. The research centers upon the developments within the MIT Media Lab's Concept Car project with General Motors. Our development of modular " Wheel Robots " that incorporate embedded electric motors, braking systems, and suspension within the wheel hub allows for a new architecture and a new model of design and manufacture. At a minimum, one quarter of the drivetrain is embodied with a wheel-motor unit, thus allowing the complete separation and customization of the chassis and body of the vehicle. The Wheel Robots perform all the functions of steering, braking, and acceleration. Upgrades to the vehicle can be executed by swapping out any or all of the wheel units. The future manufacture of vehicles can thus be distinctly divided into the creation of 1) standard Wheel Robots that are highly optimized, flexible, and configurable by digital mediation, and 2) highly customized 1 chassis and body solutions. The Wheel Robots can be mass produced; while the remainder of the vehicle can be produced using highly localized manufacturing thus benefiting from advances in computer aided design and manufacture (CAD/CAM). The radical re-modularization of existing product architectures produces a new model of mass customization with flexible customization at the cosmetic, electronic, ergonomic, and structural level.

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