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Evolution of Modular SystemsEdit

Modularity has long been used at the manufacturing level to facilitate increased production efficiency or to accommodate various logistics situations by allowing the production of a specific product to be compartmentalized and distributed over many facilities while later or final stages of production could be simplified and reduced in skill. Though often characterized as a modern production concept, it was a routine characteristic of weapon, clock, and machine tool manufacture even in the 18th century and even in that time was exploited as a tool of colonial control; allowing higher-tech elements of things like weapons, clocks, and production machinery to be consolidated and produced independently of their lower-tech elements so as to facilitate export and maintain propriety. The lower-tech elements based on simpler skills like woodworking could be produced locally while the higher-tech, more interchangeable, elements would be imported from more industrially advanced nations and their more advanced production techniques kept, if not entirely secret, otherwise out of the hands of colonial dependents, helping to maintain that dependency.

By the 20th century modular design had become ubiquitous and a key companion to the linear production paradigm exemplified by automobile production, facilitating a hierarchical branching of production schemes that fanned-into a main continuous production line allowing more geographically distributed sub-production and establishing secondary industries for ‘stock’ components of standardized design and multiple application. But one of the most significant developments in modular design theory came with the emergence of electronics and its employ of iconographic languages as a tool of design and engineering.

Generally, modularity has been confined to the design of very specific end-products, impacting primarily their specialized production process. Only a small amount of a product could be based on ’stock’ components of standardized design and application across many products. But with the advent of the schematic system of electronics there emerged a standardization across a very broad spectrum of components, resulting in the world’s single largest modular building system. The visual language of electrical/electronic schematics allowed for the design and mathematical ‘proofing’ of complex systems on an abstract level. With schematics you could work out the behavior of a circuit long before you ever got around to building it from real parts. Today, this has facilitated the computer-based simulation of circuit designs allowing for a high degree of engineering automation with electronics. Yet as an iconographic system its pictograms could relate directly to very specific components. As long as those components could be standardized in their functional parameters, a schematic design could translate to the assembly of a physical circuit very quickly and easily. This powerful virtue compelled a progressive standardization in the design and engineering of circuit components as a key utility feature, making them ‘stock’ components where any number of manufacturers could effectively product the same components to the same standards, competing chiefly in cost, quality, and performance characteristics. And thus, by virtue of the impact of this visual language on the nature of its engineering methodology, electronics evolved the first comprehensive ‘industrial ecology’ where end-products were not primarily produced in one or a few locations but could employ modular stock components made anywhere on the globe by any number of potential manufactures.

Within the ecology of stock component producers there developed an architecture of ‘horizontal’ competition within the confines of common component standards simultaneously with a cross-industry ‘vertical’ cooperation on definition of standards themselves and the interoperability of components. Unlike end-products, the market value of ‘stock’ components depends on their interoperability. And so, unless you have a totally unique component product, it makes no economic sense to design that product to not be interoperable with others, because it’s only as valuable as it is interoperable. This is something that engineers understand quite readily but which executives even in the computer industry still struggle to comprehend to their companies’ detriment. Despite that, as the evolution of digital computers progressed their systems architectures evolved to merge with the vertical integration compelled in their stock or ‘OEM’ (original equipment manufacturer) component ecologies and thus the faction of the electronics industrial ecology for computers became organized around the ‘platforms’ of a number of key dominant computer hardware architectures. We know these architectures today as the common ‘families’ of personal computers dominated by certain key brands; the PC, the Macintosh, and some lesser-known platforms more common to special applications.

The nature of this industrial ecology would prove key to the rapid evolution of the extremely complex technology of the digital computer. It is the primary reason for Moore’s Law. It is how we went, in a single human generation, from computers as big as a house to computers you could carry in a pocket. From computers that cost so much only governments could afford them to computers so cheap that even people who cannot afford a home can commonly have more computing power than put men on the Moon. From computers that required years and hundreds of engineers to build to computers that even a child can assemble in under an hour, from parts made all over the globe, and which will boot-up and run the first time you switch it on. The industrial ecology of the computer represents one of—if not the—greatest feats of 20th century industry, yet remains largely unrecognized. Evolving in a rather ad-hoc manner, most people in the electronics and computer industries have little considered the overall nature of their global industry and have no name for this. You will not see the term ‘industrial ecology’ in any of their industry literature or discussions of their business theory. People in the computer industry well understand that their industry is unlike any other in human history. Its pace of evolution—so far beyond that of any other industry—is a plain demonstration of this fact. Yet, ironically, they often cannot explain why this is.

Perhaps it is because of this inability to perceive the forest for the trees that the miraculous nature of the computer industry’s industrial ecology was never replicated in any other industry in the 20th Century. The computer industry represents one of our first forays into a very different post-industrial paradigm that may only see a definitive characterization in this 21st Century.

The evolution of modularity did, however make other such forays whose nature was much easier to comprehend. While most of its impact has been in the production sphere, some more far-sighted designers have seen its potential as a means to other ends. One of the most important of such concepts has come to be known as Flat-Pak. The concept of ready-to-assemble furniture is said to have been the invention of Gillis Lundgren, an employee of the Swedish furniture company IKEA which, in the 1950s, adopted and structured its whole business around the concept. Though not entirely a new concept—modular component furniture actually dating back quite far—the important difference here was the use of modularity as a feature for the benefit of the customer/end-user. The basic idea was that by designing furniture to be produced as a simple kit of pre-finished parts rather than a completely assembled and finished item they could be more easily packaged and transported in a flat form factor, which was of particular convenience to the urban consumer. As a bonus, the manufacturer could pass the costs of the last assembly stages of products to the consumer who would perform the actual final assembly in their home while also saving greatly on the costs of long distance shipping.

Quickly picking up on this idea, many designers and furniture manufacturers began exploring the possibilities of this concept, and thus the concept of Flat-Pak (or Flat-Pack) design was born and applied to an ever larger array of applications. Today, we can find whole houses designed around this concept and, though losing some of its popularity in the late 1970s and ‘80s due to an association with cheap and low quality furnishings, has seen a great resurgence in this new century as a result of computer-assisted design and growing interest in desktop manufacturing where Flat-Pak designs can be easily communicated widely by internet, freely customized, and produced with nearly the same ease of digital printing using a growing variety of sheet materials.

Though the modularity with ready-to-assemble furniture has generally been confined to a specialized kit of parts for a single design, as the concept was explored many designers hit upon kits of parts whose components had more multi-function capability and thus standardization across a variety of designs. Strongly inspired by the popularity of toys such as Lego and Meccano, designers realized that more multi-functional ‘systems’ of parts could be used to accommodate a variety of functional designs and empower the end-user with a great degree of customization. This was particularly useful for furnishings such as shelving which could assume large areas and need adaptation to a very large variety of room sizes and shapes.

Around this same time in the mid-20th century architects also began thinking about the application of modularity to the goal of the industrialization of housing production as a means to combat homelessness and sub-standard shelter. Being some of our largest artifacts, homes and buildings do not well suit conventional models of factory production. Through modularization and parts standardization, it becomes possible to fit the fabrication of structures of any size into modest scale mass production facilities while facilitating a greater ease and speed of end-assembly on site. Though virtually all attempts to date at the industrialization of housing have been failures, designers hit upon a large variety of high performance ‘universal’ modular building systems that could be applied to large diversities of structures—in a few cases systems intended specifically to facilitate and empower the owner-builder. Though the concept did not originate with him, one of the key explorers and advocates of the idea of universal building systems was Buckminster Fuller who inspired a vast community of later designers pursuing the development of such systems. Sadly, while a modest industry in space frame structures was realized and persists to the present day, none of them were able to devise systems compelling enough to convince industrialists to establish significant industries in their production and general use. This was, to a large extent, due to a common ignorance among businesspeople of the new industrial paradigms emerging in electronics and computing and also because the aesthetically radical designs for homes commonly devised by these designers had little mass appeal among middle-class home buyers and—more importantly—the bankers supplying their mortgages.

Relating to the counter-cultural undercurrent in design of the late 20th century and the growing concern among intellectuals about the inherent environmental and social un-sustainability of Industrial Age and Capitalist paradigms, some designers began thinking about the re-application of design and technology as a means of social empowerment. This, of course, was a prominent feature of early personal computer development with many early participants driven by a desire to empower society through this new technology—an aspiration most of them abandoned once the money began to flood in… But this sentiment also saw its counterpart in architecture and industrial design. Many designers began to see a need for designs that empowered the end-user in various ways, allowing them more freedom of customization, more participation in design, or an option for production by alternative, independent, means. Some of these designers realized that, through modularization, engineering could be encoded into component design, serving as a means of reducing the skill and complexity of creating things. This was, in fact, well demonstrated in electronics and computers where the compartmentalization of engineering in sub-components and standardized interfaces enabled people to easily build and customize these most complex of machines with very little knowledge of their underlying technology.

Such thinking seems to have most profoundly coalesced in the work of designer Ken Isaacs who, in the 1960s, developed a kind of ‘furnitecture’ concept called Living Structures along with a simple modular building system to accommodate it called Matrix. Based on the use of a standardized system of geometry with 2x2 wooden or metal posts and beams bolted together using a ‘tri-lap’ joint, Matrix allowed an endless variety of simple functional furniture and shelter structures to be quickly devised, designed, and built by their end-users. Isaacs toured the globe, demonstrating this system and admonishing people to actively participate in creating their own things. He may have been the first among those we today refer to as Makers.

As popular interest in Isaac’s work seemed to wane in the late ‘70s, Matrix enjoyed a resurgence with its re-working into a building system called Box Beam that, for a time, became the building system of choice among a generation of eco-technology developers and tinkerers inspired by the Energy Crisis. With some improvements on the geometry of the system, the addition of an integrating series of scaled components, the production of pre-drilled post and beam elements, and the addition of more off-the-shelf materials choices, Box Beam proved extremely versatile. However, it too succumbed to a waning popular interest in environmental and energy issues over the more self-absorbed ‘80s and ‘90s. Though re-emerging in this century with the new name Grid-Beam, thanks to the Maker Movement’s resurgent interest in all things DIY, it was ultimately superseded by yet another building system that emerged from the field of industrial automation; aluminum T-slot profiles.

T-slot profiles are extruded aluminum beams which feature a series of integral T-shaped channels that allow for the quick attachment of joining connectors, fixtures, and accessories. Produced in a variety of standardized scales for beams and accessory parts, they have good strength to weight performance and, as a universal building system, proven extremely versatile. T-slot is probably the most significant modular building system in existence today by virtue of its vast diversity and scale of uses. Originating for use in industrial automation, it is now ubiquitous in that application with most manufactured goods in the world having passed, at some point, through machines built with T-slot framing. But it’s applications have spread far beyond that to include laboratory equipment, industrial control system enclosures, prototype machine tools and robotics, computer room installations, office and home furniture, hydroponics systems, and most recently entire homes. T-slot beams can be found in sizes ranging from 10-100mm supporting tiny to quite large structures and machines. Though made predominately with aluminum, steel, wood, thermoplastic, and fiber reinforced plastic versions have also been produced. The Utilihab modular building system featured in TMP2 is itself based on T-slot framing.

The exact origins of T-slot is something of a mystery as none of its producers seem to tout any specific history for it. T-slot attachment schemes can be found on machine tools going back into the 19th century so it may be very old indeed. But it seemed to emerge as a building system only in the 1980s, curiously almost simultaneously among many manufacturers in different parts of the world. Originally intended to afford the design of automated production systems some of the virtues afforded by the modularity of computers, it quickly gained the attention of scientists and engineers as a useful means to making custom equipment and spread rapidly from there. It is now used and made in every developed country in the world—yet, strangely—it is often not known by name as ’T-slot framing’ by most of its users. Typically, the engineers who work with it know it only by the one of two brand names they are familiar with. In many ways, T-slot looks like a technology in the same place electronics was before the emergence of its industrial ecology and may be one of our most likely avenues for a repeat of the Computer Miracle in another industrial area, and potentially for housing with its architectural applications.

With the emergence of the Maker Movement at the turn of the century, we are seeing a great resurgence of interest in modular building systems at the new level of the DIY enthusiast and this is largely because of the ability of modular systems to overcome the limitations in scale of small tools and facilities. Today’s desktop manufacturing systems have very severe limits in production scale and, while a lot of the hobbyist activity with these focuses on products one could characterize as ‘blobjects’, one is increasingly seeing the use of modular schemes to overcome the limits in size of what these small machines can produce. This is a critical aspect in the context of the future of modular building technology.

Modularity in the 21st CenturyEdit

Where do we see modular building technology going in the future? To answer that question we must consider the fate of manufacturing in general and most futurists are of the opinion that we are, today, at the end of the Industrial Age and the beginning of a new era. This new era has been given various names but the general term is known as the Post-Industrial Age. How is this new era different from the old? The key differences are being defined by the trends in our production technology which has been progressively smartening with the advance of computer technology, increasing in flexibility, while shrinking in physical scale. In the year 2000 our civilization hit a generally overlooked by very important milestone when, in that year, a larger volume of goods were produced in so-called ‘job shops’ than were produced in traditional mass production factories. Job shops are smaller light-industrial that produce goods in batches under contract as opposed to being owned by a manufacturer and dedicated to the production of one or a few specific products. Job shops specialize in classes of products, able to switch from one to another on-demand at a steadily decreasing tooling cost. This is a direct result of the trend in the ‘smartening’ of our manufacturing systems. Most of these job shops have been created in Asia and relate to the renewed dominance of consumer goods production in China and India.

Despite the aberration of Globalization and trade/economic Neo-Liberalism that has seen manufacturing driven out of many western nations, the anticipated general trend is one of increasing localization of goods production with trade increasingly shifting to commodity materials and small standardized components like those of electronics and computers. Not only does the near future promise a likely repatriation of manufacturing (albeit increasingly automated), it promises to bring it so local that most goods may be made within tens of miles of where one lives, if not within one’s own home. We are very likely to soon see things like automobiles and other ‘durable goods’ produced at the dealerships where we buy them, offering astounding new degrees of personalization and customization in their on-demand assembly. Meanwhile, those container ships that once carried 10,000 different goods will increasingly be transporting bulk materials and stock components.

But there is a key bottleneck on the path to this future. Smaller items—things one can hold in one hand—will likely trend toward increasingly ‘blobject’-like design. We will soon be ‘printing’ many small appliances whole like we now print simple objects with current desktop fabbers. Such localization has an important factor compelling it; Global Warming. Reducing carbon overhead in production will demand localization as a means to reduce energy overhead and carbon footprint. End-products tend to be bulky and oddly shaped and are inefficient to transport. The materials and parts from which they are made are much more efficiently transported. Thus the more locally you can produce something, the less carbon and energy overhead. But the larger goods—cars, furniture, large appliances like refrigerators, large medical equipment, machine tools, and so on—will find it more difficult to adapt to production localization with facilities of smaller scale. This is where modular building systems will become important. It will become increasingly necessary to reduce larger heavier goods to sets of smaller interchangeable stock commodity components that facilitate smaller scales of production facilities while shifting end-assembly progressively closer to the point of purchase/use.

Modularity is also very important in an environmental sustainability context, and that will be an increasingly important design and engineering factor in the future. Not only does the localization of production and the reduction to commodity components reduce the carbon footprint and energy overhead of production, so too does it facilitate the reuse, recycling, and upcycling of products while also fighting against the compulsion to planned obsolescence. A car built in a dealership from largely stock components is a car likely to have a radically longer duty life than any automobile today because of its inherent modularity and component standardization translates to perpetual repairability and upgradeability. We may come to think about the automobile as more like a house than a disposable appliance. And the house, for that matter, built out of predominately modular components is likewise perpetually repairable and adaptable without waste. Contemporary suburban housing is extremely wasteful in many ways and a poor value overall. Based on modular components, renovation becomes quick and easy and the components that once would have become landfill become reusable, refurbish-able, and repurpose-able. People will no longer have a compulsion to buy more house than they ever need in the present when it can be cheaply and easily adapted to the future instead of trying to anticipate it all with unnecessary space and material.

Thus we anticipate that modular design—and along with it the paradigms of the industrial ecology— becoming increasingly significant in the general way we, as a civilization, go about making the stuff of our built habitat. The era of the big distant centralized mass production facility is passing and in the future a steadily increasing amount of our habitat will be computer-like in both nature of design and manufacture.

In TMP particularly we see modular building systems as crucial to our development plans. Utilihab may be the key basis of our founding communities and industries, carrying over in use to the full scale Aquarian settlements and uses in space. In the space environment we face a very critical logistical problem. In order to truly settle in space we need to be able to fabricate all structures we might need right there, using materials we ultimately source in space. But there’s a basic logistical problem in that precision manufacturing must be done in enclosed spaces with controlled environments and so one cannot precision manufacture in space anything that cannot be fit through some kind of airlock or have some portable shelter temporarily built around it. Our only way around that to the creation of large systems and structures is modularity, hence the concepts of the EvoHab as we’ve discussed in the Asgard phase. We will see design like that in most every habitat created in TMP, up until the era of comprehensive nanotechnology. Modular building systems are likely to be a key hallmark of the culture of TMP, if not the Post-Industrial culture in general.

With the advent nanotechnology we may see much of our habitat apparently shift away from the use of modular systems toward organic, ‘blobject’-like, design. But in fact, what will be happening in this is the transition of the trend of the shrinking and smartening of the means of production to the point where it infiltrates modularity itself, reducing the interchangeable and reusable/recyclable modular component to the scale of the molecule itself, imparting on the seemingly monolithic and solid-state the mutability of the modular. To facilitate the emergence of nanotechnology we may very likely need to develop new languages of engineering and design like those with which electronics and computer technology evolved, creating an industrial ecology that races vertically to the bottom in scale while ballooning horizontally in application to encompass the entire fabric of our civilization. While we will long see a horse-race between modular and monolithic design, in the end they will merge at the molecular level.

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