Modular devices will revolutionise the electronics industry

Consumer electronics are in for their biggest shake-up in a very long while, with modular technology poised to change everything we know about gadgets

Modular devices aim to end short lifespans by allowing products to be updated without waste

Very rarely do companies offer up a truly unique device. Your new fitness band might seem new, but the parts inside it are probably the same as those already in your bike computer, tablet computer and the old pedometer you forgot you had. You already have all the parts to make your own activity monitor, but lack the means. With modular technology close to becoming practical, however, repurposing old gadgets might soon be a feasible alternative to buying something new.

“At Nascent we really like to think about things through data, and one of the things we did when we first started the company [was] we purchased close to 600 products”, said Baback Elmieh, founder and CEO of Nascent Objects.

Assuming a modular system is well designed, refreshed only occasionally, and well supported by its makers, its existence only benefits consumers

Elmieh has a background in consumer electronics and design. He previously worked at Google, and Nascent is his fourth start-up. The company has developed a modular system, which was recently funded on Indiegogo. Instead of selling a range of gadgets, Nascent sells individual packaged components that plug into 3D-printed designs.

Elmieh said that, after tearing apart almost 600 gadgets, his team came to a conclusion both surprising and obvious. “When we looked at these products, we found that 15 components will build 80 percent of what we tore down. And that kind of intuitively makes sense. A GoPro and a security camera are almost identical products in terms of what goes into making them function – the difference is really the chassis, the thing that holds it in place.”

Shape is king
When it comes to consumer electronics, Elmieh said “shape is king”. Very few electronics companies produce unique devices, instead repackaging relatively standard parts into different designs. On your kitchen bench at home you probably have a kettle sitting next to a toaster. Both technically do the same thing (convert electrical current into heat) but their designs apply the heat in different ways. They’re not interchangeable, but if the same company made both they probably share a large number of parts.

“When we found this, we were kind of a little bit taken aback”, said Elmieh. “We came at this multiple times; no matter what we did we found that it’s really true: all these products are built from the same components. There isn’t a platform that can build all of these things; they’re all built independently. But, if there was a platform, they really would be the same product, but different permutations on the same product.”

Following this, Elmieh developed the building blocks of Nascent’s system: the packaged individual components that make up the electronics of the company’s products. The first wave of modules includes a speaker, a camera and a microphone, but more are planned for the future, including screens, a GPS and a motor.

The real benefit of Nascent’s system doesn’t come from the elements you use, but those you don’t. Rather than buy an expensive device capable of a single job, products can be repurposed. Elmieh said he was amazed at the number of different devices that capture 1080p video.

“After I did this, I was always like: ‘Oh wait, when was the last time I took my GoPro out of my closet?’ I take it out during my vacations. I went skiing two years ago and that was the last time I think I used it. That’s the thing: it’s just sitting there and it’s got the equivalent of a smartphone’s processing power inside of it. These are not little products. You could take the processor out of the GoPro and stick it in a drone, and it could pilot a drone. But you can’t do that, right? It’s almost nonsensical, but that’s what we build.”

In fact, Nascent is currently working on a drone that will use the parts from its other devices. The first complete products you can buy are a Wi-Fi speaker, a security camera and a water usage monitor called Droppler. Changing modules looks no more complicated than swapping out a battery. All use the same main unit (a microcomputer acting as the device’s brain), but lever the modules to do different tasks. While the Wi-Fi speaker and security camera are pretty standard fare, Elmieh said Droppler is a device that probably couldn’t exist without modular design.

Niche markets
California is currently experiencing one of its most severe droughts on record. A state of emergency has been declared and water conservation rules are in effect. Droppler is designed to help by listening to running water in your house, calculating the amount used, and displaying a slowly decreasing bar of light as you use your daily ration. The idea is, if you have this information constantly to hand, you are more likely to alter your habits to save water. If you think it sounds like something with a small target market and limited lifespan, Elmieh agrees.

“When we took that product idea out and we were showing hardware companies, they were like: ‘Well, it’s a really niche product, it’s really about California and we don’t think about products that way. You really need an addressable market of tens of millions of people across the world for this thing to actually make sense, and you’re talking about maybe a couple of hundred thousand users in California in your first year, or a little bit more than that? We would never build that product.’”

Elmieh understands that, when California recovers from drought, Droppler will become another piece of e-waste. But, because it’s modular, its parts can be easily repurposed for something else.

“I can totally understand why a regular hardware company wouldn’t do that, because once you tool that thing up and you put this whole supply chain up in China and the rest of the world, what are you going to do with it if it doesn’t sell tens of millions of units? You’re stuck with that whole system. With our system, I don’t care. I think I’m very happy that I can do something for California, I do think that I’m going to sell a significant number of units, it’s just not significant enough for regular hardware.”

In order to produce a gadget at a cost consumers are happy to pay, it currently needs to be made at a certain volume. Elmieh hopes modular systems will allow more niche products with smaller user bases to become viable. Because you already own the guts of a device, you only need to buy the relatively cheap plastic housing. Nascent asked $119 for Droppler on Indiegogo, which is steep considering its limited function, but becomes far more reasonable when you consider the package came with the parts for a speaker and security camera as well.

“Imagine that every movie you ever saw would have to be a Marvel Comics blockbuster. It would be terrible, right? I would hate that world, but [in terms of consumer electronics] that’s what we live in”, said Elmieh.

Nascent’s design software is perhaps even cleverer than its products: 3D designs can be dropped in and modules can be added. The program finds the most efficient wiring layout, drafts an app, and the finished device is then 3D-printed. Elmieh said this gives people who design consumer electronics the same flexibility that software designers enjoy.

“With software you can build whatever you want, right? No one is getting in the way of you and your dream and your ideas, and trying to tell you ‘oh, it can’t be built that way’. A lot of the designers we work with tell us: ‘Oh, one of the things I really like about this is that there isn’t as much between me and my inspiration as I’m usually asked to have for building a hardware product.’ It’s a democratisation as well as ease of use.” Without having to worry about the individual parts of an object, designing a gadget seems to be in reach of almost anyone.

Beyond gadgets
The race is well and truly on to get modular products into consumer’s hands. The Blocks smartwatch, successfully funded on Kickstarter, features different modules in the individual links of its band. Danish headphone maker AIAIAI lets users build their own headphones from modular parts, allowing a personalised sound profile and components to be easily replaced. Personal computers are already good examples of modular systems, but the Acer Revo Build is designed to make it even easier: components stack like coasters on top of one another, and can be added and removed on the fly.

Smartphones have always been different, though. With their slim design necessitating custom-built parts, swapping components is not easy. Still, the race is on to popularise the modular smartphone.

First off the block is Fairphone, a handset manufacturer based in Amsterdam that has launched the world’s first modular phone. Fairphone’s products are designed to have a long lifespan and are made from ethically sourced parts. Individual components can be swapped in and out as they become obsolete or broken.

Daria Koreniushkina is in charge of public engagement at Fairphone and said the design of the new Fairphone 2 focuses on reparability, but its modular design allows for interesting upgrade opportunities. “We’re going to publish documentation for this expansion port, so basically anyone who has the skills could experiment and make their own back covers to connect to the expansion port. We’re looking into releasing modules with additional functionality ourselves, but also others could contribute.”

Fairphone is facing stiff competition as the biggest players in the mobile phone industry test the modularity waters. Google has been flirting with a modular smartphone for years now: prototypes of the elegant-looking Project Ara smartphone show a single metal slab with detachable components. It was initially pegged for a trial release in 2015, but has been postponed. LG’s recently announced G5 handset includes modules that can be plugged into the base of the phone, including a camera grip and a mini amplifier, but the door is open for third-party manufacturers to design their own modules too.

Disrupting the supply line
Elmieh said he could see two reasons modular technology hasn’t taken off sooner: the first is 3D printing technology has only recently become capable of producing the parts needed, the second is Silicon Valley is just too dependant on people replacing their devices every couple of years.

“Sometimes, when you’ve been doing something for 60 to 80 years in a row, you get these meta-stable systems across the entire industries: supply chain, retail, distribution, marketing, engineering. They’ve all co-evolved and it’s ridiculously stable. It’s extremely disruptive to go in there and say: ‘Guess what? What we should do is let people decide what they want their products to be whenever they want them to become something else.’”

A common criticism Elmieh received was that consumers wouldn’t want to bother with the complexity of a modular system. It’s true they have come to expect products that will work right out of the box, but the amount of assembly required for Nascent’s gadgets is minimal. IKEA furniture often shares parts between products and having to assemble your own couch has never dented its popularity.

Modularity is also in line with the current trend towards more personalised products and experiences. It’s already happened online, with digital storefronts and streaming services adapting themselves to the user’s preferences and tastes. It seems inevitable consumer electronics will go in this direction, and the prospect of being able to redesign your products as you need them is the most compelling argument yet for investing in a 3D printer at home.

It might be sooner than you think, with GoPro’s current predicament being a prime example. The maker of rugged little cameras has announced layoffs and a stripped back product lineup after slumping sales. In spite of the high quality of the video output, it seems consumers have decided that durability alone is not enough to justify the premium over other, cheaper cameras with similar video quality.

Elmieh said he sees modular technology gradually becoming more commonplace. “I feel like it’s going to be a small niche at the beginning, and it’s going to slowly grow out and we’re going to see the benefits of modularity, and I kind of feel like 10 years down the road you might actually open up your kitchen drawer, and you’ll see, just like you have batteries, a bunch of different modules in there.

“If you can bring the barrier down low enough so people are willing to do it, it’ll take off. I think it’s going to be better for us all around the world. I think we’re going to get better stuff, and we’re going to feel less guilty about having all that stuff in our lives.”

Assuming a modular system is well designed, refreshed only occasionally, and well supported by its makers, its existence only benefits consumers. As more consumers are burnt by expensive devices they only use a couple of times, modular systems will only seem more appealing. If electronics can be designed with even half the flexibility software designers have, the result will be products we didn’t even know we wanted. Our cupboards might not be filled with GoPros, but they may soon be filled with empty shells awaiting our next skiing adventure.

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