The Sum of [Electronic] Parts

How could modular design approaches shape a more inclusive, flexible & sustainable future for consumer electronics?

The shortening life cycle of newly purchased, soon obsolete, and then quickly discarded electronic goods is not only expensive and unfulfilling for consumers, but it is also costly for the environment. In fact, estimates suggest that only 30% of electronic goods are effectively recycled, with the rare, valuable and potentially toxic minerals used to develop them ending up in landfill and it is estimated that the US throws out over $60m worth of gold and silver alone in e-waste each year.

With this, comes a growing need for modular electronic products that not only adapt to the dynamic demands of consumers, but also provide greater longevity as the rate of technological advancement and product obsolescence accelerates.

Recognising this challenge, Danish design collective turned audio company AIAIAI created the TMA-2 modular headphones. With a vast range of interchangeable options across sound, function, comfort and design, their headphones can be adapted to fit the spectrum of needs from professional DJs and audiophiles to regular users, will evolve to keep pace with changing use-cases and even insures against obsolescence.

For instance, when Apple’s discontinuation of the 3.5mm headphone jack signaled the obsolescence of a 50+ year standard, AIAIA’s modularity protected users from this disruption - allowing them to easily upgrade to the Bluetooth enabled headband at a fraction of the cost of a new headset.

The public failings of high profile modular devices such as Google’s Project ARA smartphone show us that creating a seamless and scalable mass-market modular proposition in the digital space is no simple task. However, the soon to launch Blocks smartwatch is a promising example of how the concept of modularisation could be applied in this complex environment.

The strap of the Blocks watch is made up of several individual clip-on modules, each adding additional functionality or performance enhancements. Early blocks include a flashlight, extra battery, camera and expandable storage.

What’s more, the system is completely open source, encouraging 3rd party developers to create and sell their own modules - increasing the overall utility of the product, while reducing the pressure on Blocks to develop functionalities that keep up with shifting demand and competition. 

Modular Electronics - Blocks

So what?

Whilst still in their infancy, modular electronics provide a flexible alternative to the traditional buy, use, dispose model. In an age of accelerating change, they promise to prolong product lifecycles and reshape our perception of devices as a standalone hardware to a sum of parts that evolve over time to keep pace with technological advances and changing consumer needs alike. At the same time, opening new business models to the manufacturers of these products as they move towards a less centralized, more collaborative design process (while specialist providers develop individual components to fill market niches).