Open Source Modular Design for the Circular Economy: The Business Benefits

When we talk about the circular economy, we often talk about encouraging materials cycles, similar to those in nature. This analogy works great for materials recycling but, breaks down if we think about modular design. We can’t remove the branches of a tree, and rearrange them to make two smaller trees. But with modular design of technology, facilitated by an open source approach, we could do the equivalent – and it could lead to a new way of doing business.

In product design, practitioners aim for design for manufacturability. In high value products, we may design for serviceability. When it comes to the circular economy, we need to design for reusability. That is, the ability at the end of the service life of a product, to disassemble it into useful parts that can be directly reused in another product.

A simple example from today’s products would be screws, nuts and bolts. If a part is labelled ‘M5’, you know what you’re getting – no one would design a product to use M4.8 parts. Similarly, in the open source hardware community and the custom industrial machine space, it has become common to use aluminium extrusions. Examples include 20×20, 20×40 T-slot, openbeam and makerbeam profiles for smaller machines, and more recently, V-slot profiles, which help centre a wheel to make low-cost moving machines.

These aluminium profiles are a great start, and these design decisions mean that many open source 3D printers can be dismantled and the components directly reused in other machines. Similarly the Nema 17, 23, and 34 stepper motors used can be directly used in either new types of 3D printers, or laser cutters, PCB Mills, small CNC machines, 3D scanners and many other types of machinery that needs predictable motion.

Open source control electronics also come with flexible open source software that allow for the direct reuse of these boards in different products. It’s an early, accidental example of modular design for reusability. And it’s only happened in the open source world. The practical effect is that virtually all open source 3D printers can be disassembled and the modular parts actually reused at the module level instead of down cycled or reduced to their raw materials. It’s not perfect – this currently involves a great number of components and is time consuming, so not ideal for a really high volume product – but it strongly suggests that an open source approach could unlock the higher value areas of the circular economy.

What if we took conscious control of this process? What if we started deliberately to design mechanical, electrical, electronic – even biotech modules to fit together, work together and be reusable. There will always be some new parts in any technological product but do we really need to redesign the way parts fit together or snap apart again for every single product? Is that really the unique selling point?

Open source hardware, as defined by the Open source Hardware Association, lowers the barriers to innovation by making reuse and redesign explicitly allowed from day one, without needing to involve a lawyer. You are explicitly allowed to make money from it. That’s expected and encouraged. Open source hardware has one very interesting difference from software. Nobody seriously expects hardware to be free, so the business model for open source hardware is the same as proprietary. People pay for objects.

What’s great about open source hardware is that it seems to encourage design ecosystems to form. It harnesses the natural tendency of engineers and designers to tinker, and makes those additions, improvements and refinements available to the community as a whole. The Arduino example is fantastic: from one low-cost single board computer aimed at educational use, we now have an ecosystem of hundreds of different designs, with different specialisations, all using a common open source development systems and capable of running thousands of open source programs.

In addition to this, the use of parametric design, where we can design an object specifically to be modified within limited parameters, provides an entry point for non-designers to be able to “design” their own objects, giving them a higher perceived value and making them much less likely to be thrown away.

Where we need to be heading is a physical analogy of the open source libraries used in software. A set of open source hardware library of functionalities that not only make it easy and inexpensive to build ecologically sound products, but use modules that can be directly reused by disassembling the product.

Just as the human race ended up setting standards for screws since the early 19th century (although if you look at the sizes available you will see perhaps more complexity than feels sensible) a set of standards for interconnecting modules could be a game changer for the circular economy. On the physical side, we should be aiming for clip together parts as seen in Wikihouse, rather than the flexible – but hard to fasten directly – aluminium profiles. On the electronics side, the spring-loaded modules of the Fairphone provide a great example. On the electrical side, an efficient set of motors, with a clear labelling scheme.

How would we do this? We’d need to create a set of circular economy standards that describe these “libraries” and make them available to the world. Traditional standardisation processes take 5-10 years, but we could move faster than that. Perhaps we could adopt the smart label “Spime” concept from Bruce Sterling, and have a circular economy database for circular economy objects that characterises the material makeup and functional characteristics of these self-describing modules.

But for a moment, let’s imagine that we’ve already done this. What would the benefits to business be?

First of all, we’d enable product design to proceed at the speed of software. Having hardware libraries and frameworks shared across industries means that solved problems become very cheap and rapid to implement in a new design. Your engineering teams can focus on the USP. Maybe even marketing and engineering can finally talk to each other? So your engineering and product design becomes more efficient.

Having all the improvement around assembly, repairability and disassembly fed back into the design loop across the world means the products become cheaper to assemble, repair and tear-down at the end of their life. If you don’t use the open source modular assemblies, your competitors will. Best circular economy practices on non-differentiating features spread rapidly across the industry. So your servicing and repairs become cheaper and much easier to outsource.

But that’s not all. If your products are modular and reusable, they are also modifiable. Just as today, modifying a product would cause your two year warranty to expire, but if we’re using known assemblies, the modifying company could offer a new warranty. So we end up with an entire new after sales modification industry, using local artisans.

This leads us directly to the next steps in mass customisation. Imagine being the first car manufacturer that not only allowed you to customise your car when ordering it, but also to go back to the dealer and change your mind about that customisation years later. Now that’s a USP.

In the 21st century, no one would design an M4.1 screw, just so they could patent it. With the ecological problems that we need to tackle, we don’t have time to go through the old fashioned 30 year “Design, Patent, Land-grab, Accept you won’t rule the world, Standardise” cycle again. Through collaboration we can create the 21st century equivalent building blocks, embrace open source modularity, and drive the transition to a circular economy.

This article was first published in Circulate News in June 2016 at

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