This post was written by a guest of Brainmates, Heidi Quinger, a consultant from Germany.
Modularization is a method that can be employed during the product development process to create innovative products that customers love, while keeping production costs low. Key to a modular, customizable product is to identify which are the functions and parts of the product that are noticed and important to the customers. The rest of the product should be kept standard for as many product lines as possible. That way you can offer your customers choices and give them a feeling of having this unique product they were looking for, while saving big in the background.
Modularization, standardization and platform building are principles that have been used for many years in the automobile industry. Volkswagen as one example builds up to 10 different cars from the same basic platform, delivering completely different car brands and brand images from Volkswagen to Audi to Porsche. Only the parts recognizable and important to the customer are adjusted for each brand. Modularization also works in consumer products such as furniture. The famous IKEA bookcase “Billy” is another example for modularization. It is assembled from very standardized basic parts or modules, but can be put together or expanded in many different ways customized to different tastes. While the parts, basically just boards of different wood types and a couple of different screws, can be designed and produced in very cheap mass production, they open possibility for broad individual product customization.
In the example of aircraft cabin design, things get a little more complex and we also look at a slightly different, capital-intensive product. Yet for a short-range aircraft production is similar to a mass consumer product, with high monthly volumes and the need to offer products to the market while producing at low costs. In this case in particular, modularization offers great possibilities for customization, cost savings and lead-time reduction.
Market research and consumer studies for each cabin item build the basis to identify which are the critical parts recognized by customers. These parts should be separated from the rest of the product and moved to the very end of the assembly process. The other parts and non-critical functions can be left to the engineers for optimization and innovation.
In aircraft design in particular the wishes and needs of both airlines and end-customers, the passengers, need to be considered. Looking at a lavatory, this could mean offering different types of faucets or towel dispensers to cater for passengers’ wishes, or different places for individual aircraft branded trim and finish, a number of different lavatory arrangements etc. to cater for airline wishes. These customer critical items should then be “separated” from other more standardized parts of the lavatory, e.g. the toilet seats itself, or the sink. By moving the branding and customization items to the end of the assembly process you can quickly produce a big number of very standardized aircrafts and with little final steps turn them into a unique product to your customers’ wishes. Applying a modular approach to the entire lavatory design also allows you to outsource the design, testing and production of whole modules to suppliers and such greatly decrease the time of final assembly at the aircraft manufacturer. This applies to all parts of the aircraft cabin.
Modularization may not work for every product, but if possible it can make individual customization a lot easier (e.g. by offering bundles) and make development and engineering a lot more efficient without cutting back on customer choices and customer satisfaction.