Modules Maketh the Man… Abstract and concrete speculations on the modular imagination

An 18th century mathematic term from the French modulaire and from the Latin modulus the term module originally described simply a ‘small measure’. By the 20th century the term modular was used to describe something more complex. It meant a set or an array of standardized and interchangeable units that could be used to construct a variety of more complex structures. But human interest in things modular began much earlier.

The potential of a standardized ‘small measure’ was understood when early man needed to keep track of regular occurrences such as the phases of the moon and the seasons. Some of the very earliest evidence of mankind thinking about a ‘small measure’ is from notched bones in Africa dating back to 35,000 to 20,000 years ago.

More complex mathematical ‘measures’ and systems only developed when societies settled and developed agriculture and needed to measure plots of land and the produce from that land for the purposes of ownership and taxation. This required the addition and subtraction of mathematical modules and it occurred first in the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations of Mesopotamia and in ancient Egypt; although there is some evidence to suggest that in parallel early Neolithic societies in western Europe also developed alternative rudimentary mathematical systems.

There is some dispute whether numbers preceded words, but certainly in parallel to the development of modular mathematical systems with interchangeable digits came languages with interchangeable words. Indeed, so universal and distinctive is the existence of language – a system of interchangeable units that can be used to construct a variety of more or less complex structures – that many philosophers believe that all languages derive from an innate language module in the brain of all humans. The universal grammar argument goes that it is impossible for a child to learn the complexity of language solely by external stimuli and therefore an innate language understanding must have evolved in all humans; all people are hard wired the same for language.

There are of course examples in nature where it would appear there exists some innate knowledge and understanding of the physical world. The honeycomb structure illustrates this and happens to be a material with minimal density and yet high compression and shear properties. Approximating a circle’s multi axis stiffness the hexagon is the most efficient structure requiring the least wax for bees to create the optimum modular multi-story larvae and honey storage system. It is no coincidence that honeycomb technology that layers a honeycomb between two thin outer layers also creates one of the most efficient weight to strength man-made materials commonly used in the aerospace industry.

The early excavated human settlements also display a disposition towards creating modular habitats from available materials exploiting their innate properties to create optimum geometric shapes and volumes. At Skara Brae for example the 5000-year-old circular stone houses are virtually identical in size and arrangement with a protected street entrance, central hearth and a stone dresser opposite the entrance for the display of important artifacts.

So, what have we done in the 5000 years since Skara Brae with our imaginations and this module making tendency? Putting aside the spectacular development of the natural sciences that flowed from ever more sophisticated mathematics, the most evident channel for our module making energies has been the creation of human habitats and the means of travelling between them.

In building terms, we have with our modular imagination created bricks, and quarried stones and monoliths, and floor joists, rafters and roof tiles of varying dimensions that have allowed us to construct houses, villas, temples, amphitheaters, aqueducts, castles, colosseums, hospitals, schools, silos and harbors and furnish these places with tables and chairs, kitchens, beds and bookcases. And with that same imagination we have assembled these buildings using streets, piazzas, agoras, vistas, and parks to create villages, towns, cities and neighborhoods of every complexion.

But it is probably transport where modular possibilities have most gripped the human imagination. The wheel is of course the original modular invention and while in the 19th century the idea of modularity transformed the possibilities of the train, it was the automotive industry that same idea transformed in the 20th  century and continues to do so to this day.  Since the early days of Henry Ford and his Model T, the world’s automakers considered the “global car” to be the Holy Grail. The idea being that a basic design can be built, in subtle variations, and sold in different markets across the world.

The automotive company who did most to turn this idea into reality was VW. Volkswagen’s Modularer Querbaukasten (MQB) which translates to Modular Transverse Matrix is a concept for sharing core components in a strategy for modular construction of all its transverse, front-engined, front-wheel drive cars. MQB is designed to stretch from the Polo to the Passat with a common engine mounting system or platform that allows both petrol and diesel motors mounted in the same way and at the same angle of inclination. VW factories around the world could become multi-brand factories with VW’s, Seats, Skodas and even Audis rolling off the same assembly line.

Potentially more remarkable has been the Italdesign and Airbus collaboration to produce Pop.Up the first modular, fully electric, zero emission concept vehicle system designed to relieve congestion in cities. Revealed this year at the Genève Motor Show the Pop.Up modular passenger capsule is designed to switch between four-wheeled ground transport and quadcopter flight. The idea being that you simply tell the vehicle’s AI where to go and it triggers either ground or air modules according to both your habits and available routes. There is even the possibility of shuttling your vehicle through hyperloop tubes when they become available.

Airbus have also their sights set on revolutionizing the commercial flying sector with Transpose a modular cabin concept they have mocked up at their Silicon Valley labs for the Airbus A330. A concept borrowed from cargo planes Transpose loads passenger modules with experiences through an enlarged cargo door at the end of the fuselage and shunts them into position. Modules would have different functions including coffee shops, co-working spaces, day care, spas and fitness studios.

A similar module based future has also been envisioned for the shipping industry. Rolls-Royce Marine has revealed its concept design for a future-proof container-carrying ship, featuring modular components that can be swapped out or renewed to adapt to changing needs. The ship, called Electric Blue, is based on an industry-standard 1,000 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) cargo vessel with a modular design able to change propulsion from diesel to electric according to specific routes and environmental requirements, now and in the future. The engines can also be replaced or upgraded and even the low-level control bridge is housed in a container, which could be relocated on shore for the fully autonomous future of container shipping.

At the very opposite end of the maritime scale the Swedish kayak manufacturer Point 65°N have designed a modular kayak that splits the hull of a one-man version into a front module with the cockpit and a rear module with storage. To turn this into a two-man version a seat module connects between the front and rear modules of the one-man version with what the manufacturers call the innovative snap tap connection. The purpose of this innovation is to make paddling your own canoe more convenient and accessible because the consequences of the concept is that your kayak modules can be easily transported in the boot of your car and snap tap assembled when you reach the rapids.

Not all adventures in modularity have got beyond the drawing board. Taking the internet by storm a few years ago Phonebloks promised a modular smartphone design concept, created by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, comprising Lego-like modular components individually upgradeable. According to Hakkens, such a system would decrease electronic waste and cost consumers less money on smartphone upgrades over time.

The idea was picked up by Google who named it Project Ara. The new concept was a smartphone that outlived its two-year contract by making it endlessly upgradeable. Batteries could be easily swapped, the latest cameras could be plugged in, memory modules added, a cracked screen could be replaced, in fact everything could be hot-swappable. To make this work Google invested in both creating the hard matrix or endoskeleton onto which individual modules attach and in defining the modules or ‘parceling’ itself.

Building modular devices with separate interconnects and magnetic locks introduced wear and tear that didn’t sit well with the laws of physics. Tight gold contacts between modules were needed functionally but multiple removals and replacements resulted in degraded surfaces and poor performance. And while it’s not clear how much power the different modules in Project Ara consumed, it would have been over and above that of current smartphones.

Paradoxically, that exact same concept of interchangeable modules that didn’t work for smartphones has worked well with desktop computers for many years. Motherboards with interchangeable CPUs, memory modules, graphics cards and cooling systems have continued to buck obsolescence in desktop computers and just recently Apple pre-announced a new modular Mac Pro. Nobody is entirely sure what Apple have in mind but the prospect of a Mac tower getting an Apple modular makeover with all sorts of clever swappable componentry is certainly raising expectations.

And even modular manufacturing systems are now being designed to manufacture complex modular products. One of the pioneers of modular manufacturing machinery EMAG has produced a modular platform through which different processes – including turning, gear cutting, chamfering, grinding, induction hardening and laser welding – can be configured in sequence and reconfigured to suit different components.

So, what started out as an 18th century term for a ‘small measure’ evolved to mean standardised and interchangeable and that has turned out to work least effectively for small modules. At some point in scale of things a pre-configured multi-functional single object seems to outperform a post-configured module assembly. But those problems that have gripped the modular imagination certainly do not want for either breadth or ambition.

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