Journal article

The role of modularity in sustainable design: a systematic review

01 Mar 2018

Modularity is a strategy recognized by the academia and the industry, and modular architecture is argued to play an important role in the development of sustainable products. The objective of this article is to explore the intersection between modularity and sustainable design from the perspective of the product life cycle. To achieve this objective, a systematic review was conducted and a total of 81 articles were selected and distributed in seven different categories of subjects: Life Cycle Assessment, Design for X, Green Modularization, Manufacture, Modularization Reviews, Supply Chain, and Usage. We identified in the literature that: (i) benefits are claimed in every life cycle phase (production, use, and disposal); (ii) academic research is mainly focused in the production phase and in projecting product disposal scenarios, offering a wide variety of methods and methodologies to modularize products with environmental concerns. However, modularity could also present limitations, and the realization of its benefits is partially influenced by user's decisions. Our conclusion points that, in spite of the association of modularity with environmental benefits, a better understanding of the entire life cycle of modular products and their environmental impact is needed to decide whether modularization is a suitable sustainable strategy or not.
Synthesis method: Qualitative. Manual coding
Conclusions: We conducted a systematic review of the literature to explore the intersection between modularity and sustainable design, and analyzed the content from a life cycle perspective. As presented in our results, modularity is associated with sustainable design through a variety of benefits. Table 2 shows that the benefits of modularity are asserted by literature throughout the entire product life cycle, but the predominance of methods papers shows that research is concentrated in the production phase. A less significant effort was made to verify if the benefits and objectives planned in the design phase (e.g. upgrade, recycling, etc.) are being achieved after production.
In 2003, Gershenson et al. discussed the lack of experiments to prove and quantify the benefits claimed by modular design; despite all the work and research since, this lack of evidence seems to stand. In future work, it is paramount that researchers and designers develop improved understanding of the entire life cycle to better conceive modular products, and to be able to decide whether and which modularization strategies can help achieving sustainable results. In this new era of consumption, consumers are more aware of the product characteristics and its negative impacts on the environment. Without understanding the consumers and making them part of the process, the environmental benefits may be minimal.
Screening criteria: TerMine software was used to define terms. Papers about modularity that were not related to sustainability were discarded. 81 papers were included.
Search source: Web of Science
Search keywords: (“modul* product*” OR “product* modul*” OR “modular design” OR modularity OR modularization) AND (“sustainable design” OR “sustainable product” OR “sustainable products” OR “eco-design” OR ecodesign OR “design for environment” OR “green design” OR “green product” OR “environmental design” OR “life cycle design” OR “product life cycle”)
Funding source: CNPq (Brazilian National Council for Research)