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Modularity (also the building block or building block principle ) is the division of a whole into parts, which are called modules, components, elements, assemblies or building blocks. With a suitable form and function, they can be put together or interact via appropriate interfaces.

In a modularized structure , systems are put together from components along defined points ( interfaces for programs ). The opposite construction is called an integral structure , or monolithic ( Greek monólithos , "the Einstein"). This can refer to real objects as well as to immaterial objects such as an education.

The following application paradigms for modularity can be differentiated, among others: modularity in development (e.g. in plant construction, software architecture or company organization), modularity in production ( mass customization , e.g. in automobile construction, computer manufacturing and architecture) and modularity in Use (“ Plug and Play ”).

Scientific background

Some researchers give a definition of the architecture of general systems while others refer to the architecture of products . However, the various definitions are based on the same idea that architecture describes the structural design of a system and is therefore to be viewed as a design that defines the components of a system, their respective functions and the interfaces between them:

  • Crawley et al. (2004) identify architecture as a key element in the planning , operation and behavior of complex systems . The architecture is an abstract description of a system, its elements and the relationships between them. The architecture is able to influence the functions and properties of systems.
  • Sanchez and Mahoney (1996) describe the architecture of a complex system, be it a product or an organizational structure, as a construct made up of several interacting parts that are to a certain extent dependent on one another. In a further definition of the architecture of products, Sanchez and Mahoney explain that a component within a product design has a function within a system, of interacting components, and their common functions represent the product. The product architecture forms the relationships between the components and the interfaces that connect them.
  • Architecture is the pattern according to which functions are assigned to physical objects and how they interact with one another. Based on this definition, Ulrich (1995) further explains the architecture of a product as an arrangement of functional elements, the assignment of these to physical components and the definition of the interfaces between them. Ulrich describes functional elements as individual functions that are fulfilled by the product. The arrangement of these thus represents a functional structure. A physical product consists of one or more components that exercise the functional elements of the product. Here, one or more of these components can also be assigned to one or more functional elements and exercise them. The mutually interacting components are connected to interfaces that coordinate the interactions between them.

If a functional element is assigned to exactly one component of the system, one speaks of a more modular structure. If a functional element is carried out by several components, one speaks of a more integral structure. For this reason, systems that perform the same tasks can differ fundamentally in their architecture.

The states of completely modular or integral products are not clearly defined states and rather represent cases that cannot be found in reality. Nevertheless, system architectures can be differentiated by the degree of the two states, are on a scale between the two that is not clearly defined within their limits Extreme cases and can approach or move away from a state. Systems that can be broken down into their components, redesigned and reassembled again without losing functionality are said to have a high degree of modularity.

The smallest change that can be made to a system is a change to one of the components. The system architecture determines which functional elements are affected by a change and which other components are affected. That is why the type of architecture of a system is directly related to the degree of its complexity and the possibility of making changes in it.

George Stigler observed that, because of their small size, many industries began with a vertically integrated structure and as they grew the number of specialized companies increased. This observation that knowledge-intensive processes lead to a cross-industry change to increasingly specialized companies and thus also to an increase in distributed or cross-company developments of new complex systems, was later confirmed by other researchers.

So this change in which it was hard drives , - computer - microprocessor - High Fidelity -, bicycle - and automotive industry proven. The efficient implementation of this trend is only made possible by modular product architectures.

Operating principles

Sketch of a small neighborhood network with three relatively independent components (or modules). The few connections between the modules represent their interfaces.

The concept of modularity has been treated in research with different underlying definitions. These definitions are generally based on the understanding that modularity describes the state of a system in which the dependencies between the individual components are kept low and their interactions are coordinated via standardized interfaces. Individual or all components of the system can be replaced by other components without endangering the functionality of the whole.

As a result of such a system state, the individual modules can operate largely independently of one another or, in the case of a product, can be developed and manufactured from one another.

Individual components can be differently combined into a whole, if, like toy bricks are made - describing the linguistic image, the opposite would be a puzzle comparable, in which each component has exactly one possible place, and the system only as a whole block ( monolithic) works.

A big advantage is that old modules can easily be exchanged for new modules or new modules can be added to the whole. For this, modules need clear interfaces - standardized as far as possible in order to keep problems of compatibility (“matching”) to a minimum.

Changes within modules should not affect other modules. This principle is called local continuity in the event of changes . In order to be able to make changes as easily as possible, the number of interfaces should be as small as possible. If errors occur in modules, these errors must not affect other modules ("local protection in the event of exceptional errors"). These principles apply to the modularity of software projects, for example, but can also be applied to other areas. This also makes it possible to decouple the statistical service life of modules from one another and, for B. Bringing innovations into existing systems in a targeted and trouble-free manner.

Modules implement the black box model . Information is only accessible via explicit interfaces.


More and more companies are structuring their products in kits in order to be able to produce individually configurable end products without having to forego cross-series economies of scale. Due to the decisive differences between the modular system and the classic product development, companies are faced with the challenge of increased development efforts when designing the modular system, since modules no longer relate to individual products and their production processes, but enable a much greater variety of products. The different customer requirements must be able to be flexibly implemented using the modular system using standardized modules and individual adapting elements. Organizationally, companies are faced with the challenge of establishing the comprehensive use of assemblies and modules within the construction kit with the necessary acceptance and understanding among employees.

Requirements of the modular design

The creation of acceptance and understanding for the cross-industry applicability and all areas of the modular development process involved in value creation are of great importance. The focus is not only on the product, but also on production, assembly, the market and other areas of the value chain that are to be integrated into the development process, so that everyone involved can keep track of the development status at all times and can contribute .

Advantages and benefits

Unimog 405 with hedge trimmer from MULAG as a modular attachment . The vehicle system can be adapted to different conditions through various compatible modules that are available and can be attached, removed, changed or grouped differently

The modularity of complex systems increases their comprehensibility for humans. For the manufacturer or the company, for the service as well as for the consumer or customer, a modular principle can bring advantages, especially when different companies compete on the market as providers of largely standardized individual components or business processes. Possible benefits are:

  • Lower development and business process costs: modularization reduces coordination and communication costs and enables outsourcing and benchmarking .
  • Flexibility in product or organizational development: faster product cycles and greater adaptability when different compatible modules are available that can be attached, removed, changed or grouped differently in order to adapt the system to new conditions. A monolithic system, on the other hand, can only make such adjustments in the form of a structural change if the parameterization of its functions does not allow a suitable setting.
  • Flexibility in the offer: larger product variety
  • Cheaper production through identical series and simpler assembly processes
  • Maintenance: inexpensive repairs by replacing the defective component

Limits and risks of modularization

Processing speed and adaptability: Modularization has its limits where a system has to meet very specific requirements, especially with regard to processing speed (performance) or problem-specific adaptability. The cause is usually the high cost

  • for a change or expansion of the interfaces between the modules if no further improvement can be achieved by simply replacing a module;
  • for an adaptation of the overall system (if at all possible) to customer-specific or problem-specific requirements.

In information technology, for example, there are companies that have specialized, customer-customized software solutions ( custom software ) to develop. Such components are used by their customers (despite possibly higher costs) in addition to or as an alternative to standard software if it does not meet the requirements .

Inhibiting effect of trend-setting innovations: As Fleming and Sorenson, who evaluated data from the US patent office over a period of 200 years, determine that the trend towards high-grade modularity can have a negative impact on a system's ability to innovate. While on the one hand a modular design can make product development predictable and accelerate the innovation rates of the individual modules, on the other hand a point can be reached where modularization undermines the chances for a trend-setting, cross-module breakthrough in product development. According to the investigation of your model, the interdependency between the modules has the greatest influence on the probability of cross-module and thus potentially trend-setting innovations. Your model shows that good innovations in situations of high dependency between the modules can have more significant effects than the best innovations in situations of low dependency. In order to optimize the benefits of innovations, they therefore recommend finding a balance between the degree of dependencies and independence within a system.

Imitability: Precisely the predictability that is typical of a modular approach can lead to a competing company developing similar products.

Ability to cooperate and strategic control: Among the organizational units that are responsible for individual modules in product development or individual processes in the company, there may be a reduced exchange of (implicit) knowledge and a reduced ability to cooperate. This can obscure the view of the performance of the entire system.

Application examples

See also


  • Margit Osterloh: The management of structures and processes. IOU - Institute for Organization and Business Theories , University of Zurich, May 2, 2006 ( PDF at
  • KB Clark, CY Baldwin: Design Rules. Volume 1: The Power of Modularity. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2000, ISBN 0-262-02466-7 (English).
  • Interview with Ron Sanchez: Modularity: upgrading to the next generation design architecture. In: Connected Magazine Dossiers. May 12, 2000 (English; Professor of Strategy and Technology Management at IMD - International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne).
  • Stefano Brusoni, Andrea Prencipe: Unpacking the black box of modularity: Technologies, products and organizations. In: Industrial and Corporate Change. Volume 10. 2001, pp. 179-205 (English; PDF: 1.3 MB on
  • Günther Schuh: Managing product complexity: strategies - methods - tools. Hanser, Munich, August 2017, ISBN 978-3-446-45225-1 .
  • Günther Schuh: Guide to modular design. VDMA, Frankfurt / M. 2015, ISBN 978-3-8163-0674-0 .

Web links

Wiktionary: modularity  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b Margit Osterloh: The management of structures and processes ( Memento of the original from March 4, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . IOU - Institute for Organization and Business Theories, University of Zurich, May 2, 2006.
  2. a b Edward Crawley, Olivier de Weck, Steven Eppinger, Christopher Magee, Joel Moses, Warren Seering, Joel Schindall, David Wallace, Daniel Whitney: THE INFLUENCE OF ARCHITECTURE IN ENGINEERING SYSTEMS. (PDF) Monograph of the MIT ESD Architecture Committee. In: Engineering Systems Symposium Proceedings. March 2004, accessed April 29, 2016 .
  3. a b c d Ron Sanchez, Joseph T. Mahoney: Modularity, flexibility, and knowledge management in product and organization design . In: Strategic Management Journal . tape 17 , no. 2 , 1996, p. 63-76 , doi : 10.1002 / smj.4250171107 .
  4. ^ A b c d e Karl Ulrich: The role of product architecture in the manufacturing firm . In: Research Policy . tape 24 , no. 3 , 1995, p. 419-440 , doi : 10.1016 / 0048-7333 (94) 00775-3 .
  5. ^ CY Baldwin, KB Clark: Managing in an Age of Modularity . In: Harvard Business Review . tape 75 , no. 5 , 1997, pp. 84-93 .
  6. ^ Alan MacCormack, John Rusnak, Carliss Y. Baldwin: Exploring the Structure of Complex Software Designs: An Empirical Study of Open Source and Proprietary Code . In: Management Science . tape 52 , no. 7 , 2006, p. 1015-1030 , doi : 10.1287 / mnsc.1060.0552 .
  7. Carliss Y. Baldwin, Kim B. Clark: The Architecture of Participation: Does Code Architecture Mitigate freeriding in the Open Source Development Model? In: Management Science . tape 52 , no. 7 , 2006, p. 1116-1127 , doi : 10.1287 / mnsc.1060.0546 .
  8. ^ Anna Cabigiosu, Arnaldo Camuffo: Beyond the “Mirroring” Hypothesis: Product Modularity and Interorganizational Relations in the Air Conditioning Industry . In: Organization Science . tape 23 , no. 3 , 2012, p. 686-703 , doi : 10.1287 / orsc.1110.0655 .
  9. Sendil K. Ethiraj, Daniel Levinthal: Modularity and Innovation in Complex Systems . In: Management Science . tape 50 , no. 2 , 2004, p. 159-173 , doi : 10.1287 / mnsc.1030.0145 .
  10. Manuel E. Sosa, Steven D. Eppinger, Craig M. Rowles: The Misalignment of Product Architecture and Organizational Structure in Complex Product Development . In: Management Science . tape 50 , no. 12 , 2004, p. 1674-1689 , doi : 10.1287 / mnsc.1040.0289 .
  11. Glenn Hötker: Do Modular Products Lead to Modular Organizations? In: Strategic Management Journal . tape 27 , no. 6 , 2006, p. 501-518 , doi : 10.1002 / smj.528 .
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  14. ^ A b c Clayton M. Christensen, Matt Verlinden, George Westerman: Disruption, disintegration and the dissipation of differentiability . In: Industrial and Corporate Change . tape 11 , no. 5 , 2002, p. 955-993 , doi : 10.1093 / icc / 11.5.955 .
  15. ^ Ron Adner, Daniel Levinthal: Demand Heterogeneity and Technology Evolution: Implications for Product and Process Innovation . In: Management Science . tape 47 , no. 5 , 2001, p. 611-628 , doi : 10.1287 / mnsc.47.5.611.10482 .
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  17. Allan Afuah: Dynamic Boundaries of the Firm: Are Firms Better Off Being Vertically Integrated in the Face of a Technological Change? In: The Academy of Management Journal . tape 44 , no. 6 , 2001, p. 1211-1228 , doi : 10.2307 / 3069397 .
  18. ^ Peter Galvin, Andre Morkel: The effect of product modularity on industry structure: The case of the world bicycle industry . In: Industry and Innovation . tape 8 , no. 1 , 2001, p. 31-47 , doi : 10.1080 / 13662710120034392 .
  19. Nicholas Argyres, Lyda Bigelow: Innovation, Modularity, and Vertical Deintegration: Evidence from the Early US Auto Industry . In: Organization Science . tape 21 , no. 4 , 2010, p. 842-853 , doi : 10.1287 / orsc.1090.0493 .
  20. ^ Melissa A. Schilling: Toward a General Modular Systems Theory and Its Application to Interfirm Product Modularity . In: The Academy of Management Review . tape 25 , no. 2 , 2000, pp. 312-334 , doi : 10.5465 / AMR.2000.3312918 .
  21. ^ Herbert A. Simon: The Architecture of Complexity . In: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society . tape 106 , no. 6 , 1962, pp. 467-482 .
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  23. ^ Christian Terwiesch, Christoph H. Loch, Arnoud De Meyer: Exchanging Preliminary Information in Concurrent Engineering: Alternative Coordination Strategies . In: Organization Science . tape 13 , no. 4 , 2002, p. 402-419 , doi : 10.1287 / orsc.13.4.402.2948 .
  24. Jump up Fabrizio Salvador, Cipriano Forza, Manus Rungtusanatham: Modularity, product variety, production volume, and component sourcing: theorizing beyond generic prescriptions . In: Journal of Operations Management . tape 20 , no. 5 , 2002, p. 549-575 , doi : 10.1016 / S0272-6963 (02) 00027-X .
  25. Lee Fleming, Olav Sorenson: Technology as a complex adaptive system: evidence from patent data . In: Research Policy . tape 30 , no. 7 , 2001, p. 1019-1039 , doi : 10.1016 / S0048-7333 (00) 00135-9 .
  26. ^ L. Fleming, O. Sorenson: The dangers of modularity. In: Harvard Business Review. 79 (8), 2001, pp. 20-21.
  27. Modularis.