Modular products: All you need-to know

TG0 is helping businesses create innovative user-centric modular products

Building Better with Modular Designs

TG0 is helping businesses create innovative user-centric modular products, with smarter electronic connections and an emphasis on sustainability at end-of-life.

We all love Lego, don’t we? It lets our imagination run wild. It gives us the power to create anything we want. It’s simple. It’s intuitive. And whenever we’re bored of what we’ve built, we can reinvent it or customise it, simply by adding or removing a new block or two.

The Lego-like ability to add-on, interchange and improve is the hallmark of modular products. But why are modular products so popular, and how are they designed? Our lead hardware engineer Cori explains more

Cori, what are modular products?

Put simply, they’re products made up of interchangeable components. They let you add on new pieces, or swap existing parts for something different. Think of a camera with a set of lenses you can plug-in or screw on to the main device to get the perfect shot. The lens is a ‘module’ and therefore, the camera-plus-lens is a modular product.

Can you give us some other examples?

Modular products are everywhere. Consumer modular products include electric toothbrushes or electric screwdrivers with interchangeable heads. Some tower PCs are modular, because you can replace every element within them, such as the hard drive. Your Macbook or laptop has a power cable module that you can unplug or plug in to charge. Cars are another example, because you might remove a car stereo and replace it with a touchscreen connected by a common DIN slot. At TG0 we specialise in modular products that require sophisticated electronic connections between modules.

Why are modular products popular?

They are great for consumers because they give them more flexibility and choice in how they use the product. Consumers can ‘upgrade’ modular products without having to buy a replacement because it’s possible to add functionality via an accessory. For example the Parrot Mambo mini drone* has camera and mini-grip arm modules that can be added on, while the Nanoleaf LED** system allows you to add extra tiles to customise your display.

Product designers love modular products because they like the ability to build extra components that allow their product to do more. And some designers enjoy the whole philosophy of allowing the buyer or brand community to add their own cool modifications and customisations.

Lastly, businesses love modular products because they allow them to sell extra accessories: creating another revenue stream that elongates the shelf-life of the original product.

What are the key considerations in designing modular products?

The main one is ensuring the product remains future-proof. You need to plan in advance for new modules that might not exist yet. But there are many more considerations. Are the modules robust? Are they safe to use? Can they be produced at scale at a cost which means consumers can afford them and companies can make a profit on them? Does the design fit the use case? And of course all of the usual design considerations like sustainability, material choices, look, feel, etc.

Tell us about the electronics considerations?

Smart electrical design is integral to the success of modular products. It helps that electrical experts have that modular mindset – even educational electronics like Arduino shields*** have stackable elements to add functionality.

Because our team are familiar with modules, we can choose the right type of electrical connections for the type of product. For example, one modular product might require a USB-C Connector, which is universal, allows for multiple communication protocols and power levels, and is reversible (WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THIS?). While another might need something more bespoke.

Typically any electronic communication protocol requires a ‘master’ and a ‘slave’ in order to exchange data. So you have to think about what is the master – IE the toothbrush head or the handle. Speed and size of likely data transfer is really important here, as it can influence the choice of connector. Power also has to flow seamlessly across both modules. This can require special design to make sure both modules’ batteries deplete simultaneously, and that they can turn themselves off to save power.

And of course it must be easy for the user to attach modules correctly, which means electronic connectors have to only have one possible fit, and fulfil the obvious design needs such as safety, simplicity and speed of attachment.

What’s the difference between modular products and modular product design?

A very good question, as this is often a point of confusion. Modular products are as I’ve already described. Modular product design means breaking up elements of the design process into modules – so for example you can have two elements being designed and built concurrently as opposed to consecutively.

What experience does TG0 have in creating modular products?

Our expertise is in creating simple, intuitive electrical connections between devices and modules. This includes integration between hardware and firmware to create flawless data communication: slave-master logistics are a specialism of ours.

But we’re also experts at re-imagining physical connections between devices to enhance performance, improve sustainability or both. For example etee, our buttonless Virtual Reality controller is modular, as the VR tracker is an added module that enhances the overall gaming experience.

We build on our knowledge of all things conductive, so can interface traditional electronic components or use our patented technology for the use of recyclable polymer-based conductive materials, which really open up new possibilities in Human Machine Interfaces (HMI).

Our flexibility works well for either a specific product brief, or to create opportunities for clients to enhance existing products or imagine whole new product ecosystems.

What trade-offs are involved in modular products?

A big one is miniaturisation. Globally, we’re moving towards smaller, thinner, more lightweight devices, but because modular products often require physical connections, it’s sometimes difficult to incorporate these in a smaller ‘base’ unit.

Another trend emerging is the demand for more environmentally-conscious consumer electronics. At TG0 we are designing physical and electronic connections that have fewer components and elements that can be more easily disassembled and recycled at end of life. Traditionally, metallic electrical components are attached to plastics and can be difficult to separate and recycle. We’re choosing another route that keeps effective integration, but uses new sensors and electronics that can be recycled more easily while still keeping production costs low for our clients.

How can TG0 help with designing products?

Our cross-disciplinary nature sets us apart. Our team includes specialists in materials technology, plastics engineering, UI, advanced algorithm and machine learning software, and production processes, and we can rapidly prototype in-house. We’ve shown with etee that we can combine modules in new and innovative ways, while creating truly human-centric devices using unique sensor technology, and we continue to ‘push the envelope’ on designing new more sustainable types of electronic connections.

We bring a completely open mind to the design process, and have a ‘one team’ ethic with our clients. And we always deliver what and when we say we will. For product innovation teams, that’s priceless.

To find out more about TG0’s design and technology capabilities, use the contact form below to get in touch.

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