Part 4 : Inspiration of the 'Modular Methodology'
To highlight the gains to be obtained from the use of 'modularisation' – and its foundation of 'the rational method', the following consists of diverse examples that have transformed the productive capacity of society at large.
Best Practice Examples -
As previously described at the beginning of this web-log, “modular systems” have been in use for hundreds of years, indeed in simplistic form, for millennia.
However, there is obviously a world of difference in scale and complexity between the geometrical optimal factory packing of say chocolate Easter Eggs, to that of the pin-point 3D space identification and overtly automated utilisation in Amazon's massive warehouse facilities, to that of the 'box within a box within a box' mentality necessary of a global logistics company such as FedEx, DHL etc for maximum transport space utilisation.
Modularisation then, in its many forms, is in the world around us, and not just the obviously man-made, but also in nature as seen with the fractal, modularised replication of a complete tree echoed in the veins of its leaves.
However, it is modern built infrastructures, and where man-made vision has been made material into reality, that mankind's best practice should once again be recognised so as to inspire a better created future.
The following inspirational examplars from various fields:
3. Public Service
Given the sad history of human war-mongering over resources and riches, it should come as no surprise that innate logic was earliest applied to this arena, this discipline leading to the term 'logistics'.
The efficient transportation of men, supplies and machinery was always paramount, and so the importance of 'vessel' type devices was always much considered, from the humble food-box, to the back-pack to the water or fuel 'jerry-can' right up to the latch-down layouts of heavy transport, from off-road 12-wheel drive TATRA trucks to the floor systems of heavy-haul aircraft like the Lockheed C-130 Hercules or new Airbus A400 Atlas.
Unsurprisingly, the common theme across much military equipment is that of optimisation through standardisation. This well underway in logistics by the early 19th century, this tangibly recognised and popularised by the dimensional accuracy of inter-changable parts for 'deconstructable and reconstructable' Colt revolvers.
Such examples helped the cause of standardisation and so efficiency, especially for any logistics corp. Thus arguably, as advantageous as the standardised weaponry has been likewise in transportation and on the ground deployment.
Of specific interest to this web-log is the seemingly humble transport container has evolved enormously over the preceding decades, especially so in within military use.
Effectively gestated in its modern form during WW1 for train to truck loading by both sides, it evolved again through WW2, and dramatically so by the US immediately after WW2 with creation of the first recognisable modern steel, 'hand-clap' door container – the 'Transporter'.
Thereafter, especially through the Vietnam War, modularisation via the transport container has formed the backbone of the US and thereafter international military operations, which led to the CONtainer EXPress system, or CONEX, allowing for greater modular configurations, improved stacking and storage.
By the 1970s the maturation of commercial systems encouraged use of both 40' and 20' length containers. These set the two typical set sizes used and range from being stored wholly empty with thousands of others awaiting dispatch, to deployed 'dress-ready' into 'the field' whether a stand-alone generator-house, or a conjoined mass, specially kitted-out to become as a unified operations base (possibly including command post, stores, medic, mess, sleeping quarters etc)
The military container has then been developed through space and HVAC rationalisation, user ergonomics aswell as aspects of packaging engineering; from low-level flight drop tests with crushable 'cushion' bases to airtight or vacuum sealed units for highly sensitive equipment
The development of the US Dept of Defense Container System is a story unto itself, affecting NATO and others, a story and productivity phenomenon which the UK Emergency Services would do well to reacquaint itself with.
Obviously, containers in a myriad of forms have been central to the thousands of years of local, regional and worldwide trade.
The first identifiable development with relation to the transferring of specialised carry-boxes between water, rail and road vehicles were thanks to James Brindley and Benjamin Outram in the late 1700s; these morphed into the earilest form of recognised 'containerization, by way of 'loose boxes'. By 1917 Benjamin Frankin Fitch had created his own design of 'demountable bodies' soon used by US railroads. And other efforts were made in Poland and the UK, centred around rail.
But it was only after the devastating effects of the 1929 Great Depression, undermining, fragmenting and halting trade worldwide, that the idea of internationally collaborative containerization came to the fore. Fitch re-entered the scene with 2 dimensions of container (either open or closed) and the 'Fitch Hooking System', and upon this the first container terminal was created by the Pennsylvannia RailRoad Co in 1932.
The ability to move a unified load from one form of transport to another via a standard container is officially called the 'intermodal freight container', spanning sea, rail and road; the first example of this in Canada in1955 between North Vancouver and Skagway, Alaska, USA. Similar efforts were made in mainland USA a year later between Newark, New Jersey and Houstan, Texas.
Success of the general system led to a proliferation of container or “box” sizes, and it was over a decade until ISO standards and regulations were ratified (between 1968 and 1970).
The gains of containerization in terms of speed, efficiency and so cost were enormous, whilst the general operations of ports, rail-heads and haulage depots altered likewise with a reduction of manpower required to transfer loads between transport mediums.
And to befit the now powerfully convenient system, manufacturers changed shipment packaging sizes and methods to suit, with periodically even the dimensions of the innate product itself so as to maximise the utilisation space of the whole container.
Thus the very effect of modularisation had a consequential effect of whole or partial modularisation throughout the supply system.
The influence of the ISO standards latterly meant that (non-stackable) truck bodies – known as 'swap-bodies' – would come to match similar dimensions, and that freight pallets (wooden, plastic and metal) would likewise be sized to fit.
Critically the worldwide adoption of these container standards means that even though there may be regional differences in other transport standards (such as narrow, standard and broad gauge rail) transport of the standard container is largely assured.
The simple Lego brick (and its myriad of shaped successors) has become itself locked into the minds of adults and children all over the world regards educational play. Today the company is second only to the enormous Mattel Inc in terms of ranking, but has perhaps an unrivalled brand persona, given that the popularity of old favourites like Barbie, Cindy, Action Man have declined, overtaken by the impact of film, video and internet content related to character based toy merchandising (Disney Corp the obvious beneficiary).
The story of Lego itself has become the stuff of legend, from rustic roots in a carpenter's shed to multi-billion dollar empire, with its own ability to ride trends in popular culture franchises and business alliances.
A succinct article was published in the December 2013 edition of Octane Magazine (p142), which provides a pertinent perspective.
“Near bankruptcy in 1990, Lego fought back.
Founded in 1932 in Billund, Denmark by Ole Kirk Kristiansen a local master carpenter who added toys to his repetoire, the name 'Lego' derives from 'Leg Godt' meaning “play well”, it highlighted later by an external scholar that in Latin it means “I put together”.
The first injection moulding machine was imported in 1946 and Kristiansen decided to use this innovative device to create quicker and more cheaply produced plastic toys to accompany the hand and machine-made wooden ones. His primary plastic creation was “the Automatic Binding Brick” in 1949, which would be re-made as the 'stud and tube' brick in 1957, the coupling system patented in 1958.
[NB The idea itself sprang from the British toy 'Kiddicraft' of 1932, an original creation of the latter large Fishercraft company, slightly modified to include a 'peg' design].
A factory fire destroyed Kristiansen's wooden toy plant and so the company became reliant upon its plastic output.
In 1962 the Lego kits were made more versatile with the introduction of the Lego wheel, and thereafter the bricks adapted in shape, colour and texture to befit various themes, from housebuilding to automotive to characters to iconic architectures, and much else.
Construction with the modular brick(s) is nothing new (Egyptians to Romans to the efforts of a Victorian builder from Ware, Hertfordshire to produce a range of lightweight hollow kiln bricks, to reduce manual input and so costs, which when in situ concrete could poured to set.
But it is the devotion of Lego's founder, his familial successors and the raft of ever so typically Danish executives, until of late, that created the modular icon.
A prime aim of government procurement at national, regional and local levels is to ensure maximum utility/service advantage for minimum cost. As such 'tenders for contract' will seek to best balance the pros and cons of an array of product or service providers.
Thus increasingly procurement officials “go to the market” to evaluate what different firms promise to offer. But depending upon many variables - from the longevity of trading, level of internal efficiencies, ability to tailor standard service – means that in one way or another the product or service offering will rarely be truly optimal. This especially so since to gain best price and supplier flexibility any offered contract will be of a relatively short duration.
This negates the idea of long-term planning and with it the ideal of a long-horizon product / service solution. As such local, regional and even some aspects of national government are not permitted to view their forward requirements in the same manner as say the Armed Forces; these seen as a core requirement which befit long-term planning and related research, development, manufacturing and roll-out.
Increasingly the ideal of “fit for purpose” relates to “befitting the purse”, especially in a budget contrained age such as today. And as such even what should be big impact public projects tend to become watered down.
This the case with London's “New Routemaster” bus in 2012, a bus which whilst housing a hybrid engine, was in reality a basic adaption and trendy re-skin of conventional engineering, replacing the Mercedes 'bendy-bus'. Intended to add renewed identity and pride to Londoners and employment in Northern Ireland, the home of its manufacturer WrightBus.
But this was not always so.
There was a time when long-term planning of 'public good' products was innate to the ambitions and capabilities of Britain.
None more so than the original Routemaster, its own ideal, engineering brief and that of its infrastructure centred around the 'Modular System' for long-term service duration and so a macro-perspective on much reduced 'long-life-cycle' running costs.
Original Routemaster's launch year (as with original Mini) was 1959, the same year that the Conservatives won their 3rd term election.
This is mentioned because only because it appears that it was the expected stability of a single ruling political party – and so the stability of policy and funding – that allowed the lengthy planning and delivery time-frame for what would be a watershed vehicle and holistically integrated transport programme; both using the 'modular approach'.
Whilst the vehicle designers at what was then a very centralised London Transport looked to advanced engineering techniques to incorporate into the future-forward project, infrastructure planners and architects likewise sought to maximise the operations system that would underpin the expected 50 year maintenance and overhaul schedule to keep the buses running long into the future.
London Transport's bus facilities had been used during WW2 to build the Halifax bomber, a process which established the vital importance of standardisation of interchangeable parts via dimensional accuracy. Much had been learned which was utilised in the 1948 mass production of the RT bus (the Routemaster's predecessor). By the mid 1950s London had the world's biggest standardised bus fleet.
Ambitions regards the next generation bus grew commensurately bigger, buoyed by the new engineering age within car design – primarily: monocoque structure, lightweight aluminium, independent coil-sprung suspension, cabin heating, power-steering and automatic gearbox; the central aspects of the Routemaster, many of which were seen years ahead of mainstream cars.
The next bus would likewise use the large Aldenham overhaul centre, but with more designed-in modularity, to allow for even greater efficiencies and so even quicker service, maintainence or full refurbishment turnaround times.
The modular 'space-frame' or 'birdcage' body design mimicked that used on the best of aircraft, and was even more sophisticated than that deployed by the tailor-made Italian carrozzeria on specialist sports-cars. Whereas that type of strong tubular frame carried unstressed panels, the far more modularised Routemaster used its panels to re-enforce the strength of the basic frame. Attached to that frame are front and rear sub-frames to carry axles and engine.
It took 8 years from concept to production via an exhaustive design, engineering and testing programme, the first prototype in 1954 and put into test-service in 1956 to wean-out in-service problems, with SOP (start of full scale production) in 1959, with components made by AEC in Southall S.W. London and build at Park Royal in W. London.
As such a prolific 'public good' achievement, the name of Bill Durrant, Colin Curtis and Douglass Scott should be recognised.
They knew it would be the holistical understanding and application of 'The Modular Approach' that would balance the cost-quality-speed equation and so provide good long-term efficient service through deliberately designed-in cost constraint.
Television / Popular Culture :
Since the writings of HG Wells “going to moon”, Isaac Asimov's ideas about the “ROBOT” and Fritz Lang's cinematic presentation of a future 'Metropolis', the merging of science fact and conjecture has generated science fiction; this 'hyper-contextualisation' – ever since and latterly created at 'warp-speed' on our screens, considered the philosophical nebulous for heralding “the shape of things to come”.
The second-half century backdrop saw the corresponding rise of Sci-Fi hero vs villain comic books, and so as to better animate such figures, by the time the 1960s arrived a broad cast of 'save the day' puppet-based characters were adventuring by air, land and sea; from Captain Scarlet to Joe 90.
The largely Anglo-American televisual popular culture of the time used as an effective 'soft-power' exercise, first for domestic audiences, thereafter international recipients. Plots devised across the world - from the London Underground to Amazonian Rain Forest - to demonstrate a paternal influence regards globally relevant social issues; with of course much of that stemming from lookalikes of Cold War enemies.
None are better known than 'Thunderbirds', especially so in its original 1960s puppet format. (Though also known to younger generations in both live-action and computer generated depictions).
The Tracey sons took on the mantle of highly collaborative modern-day guardians, able to reach the farthest distances of the planet and even into space with a full suite of specialist aircraft and associated equipment; assisted by their 'London Agent' Lady Penelope in her (then ironically) “chinese wheeled” pink Rolls-Royce.
But of particular note to mission success was the big green cargo carrier: Thunderbird 2, its launch sequence the joy of the 1960s school-boy.
Arriving after Thunderbird 1 (the reconnaissance craft), TB2 operated as the multi-role strategic and tactical heavy hauler. It's basic form could be termed a “perimeter air-frame” or “void chassis frame”: an arrangement which allows for the swallowing carrying one of a range of modular cargo 'Pods'.
Each of the 6 pods dedicated to a specific task with suitable equipment inside.
So, unlike the fast response, 'TB1', Thunderbird 2 was the task-master, dedicated to the successful outcome of the specific challenge encountered. Critically it achieved this because of its ability to fundamentally reconfigure itself, in what is essentially a “bolted-on” format for the urgent need.
Thanks to its speedy reconfigurability the functional flexibility afforded meant that in this fictionalised (yet largely factually correct) world, that the right equipment was 'put on the ground' using a highly rational 'mix and match' approach of a separate transport vehicle accompanied by a specifically tailored functional box.
The functional inspiration for this vehicle was undoubtedly the Sikorsky S-61 'heavy-lift' helicopter of the period for its 'empty belly' airframe, whilst the Fairchild C-119 airplane, nicknamed the “Flying BoxCar”, was used for general aero-aesthetic.
Thunderbirds in Context -
The TV series producers, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, had come from affluent sociological academic backgrounds. Together with bright and informed script-writers, set designers, model-makers and puppeteers, they could see how the best-practices of the armed forces of the period could be adopted for the global social good; from 'Recon to Clean-Up'. This central idea of a worldwide 'International Rescue' task force was a knowing complimentary parallel to the then growing humanitarian remit of the United Nations, itself largely led by the US.
[NB Interestingly in this very vein, in 1981 a real volunteer organisation named the International Rescue Corps was established in Scotland. The work of the UN itself obviously much expanded during the past fifty years].
As states previously the auto-industry has long sought forms of modularisation where feasible, whether from complete vehicle architecture, down to specific fitments. This spanning the rationales of 'Common Components', 'Re-Positionable Items' and 'Changable Parts'
From 'common components' perspective, this the longest industry trend given the obvious cost gains, with application across various different model types of similar segments (eg door frames, door handles, door locks, door hinges, front lamp units, side-lamps, the industry norm right up the the 1990s. This often provided the advantage of an obvious brand style, but increased public design conscious and higher stylistic aspiration began to limit the obvious use of such as ploy hence the need to gain component commonality and cost savings 'under the skin'. This leading to much deployed 'module sets' of sub-systems (as pioneered by VW Group) and reduced aesthetic quality-enginering in “invisible areas” such as the unseen paint coatings behind the dashboard (led by Toyota-Lexus).
[NB Nonethless the drive for as much unseen commonality across as much of the model range as feasible has been, and continues to be, a prime engineering goal, both 'horizontally' across a specific model's variants, 'vertically' typically across two neighbouring segment classes, from city cars to large SUVs, and 'extended horizontally' in the form of JV programmes with other manufacturers].
Historically, vehicle styling trends fluctuated over the decades (in sine-wave pattern) from 'geometric' to 'organic' and back and forth in form, and 'clean' to 'ornamental' and back and forth in accoutrements. With specific broader socially related fashion trends also leading and periodically impacting the designer's mind, from 1930s Art Deco pseudo-intellectual 'Streamlining' to 1950s 'Pop-u-Lux' colour and Chrome' to 1970s New Modernism inspired by the dual impact on the public consciousness of both the Scandinavian-look and the Space-look adopted from futuristic films.
It was the latter which influenced many in the car world, and led to the 'modular' gaining ground where appropriate, best seen through to the use of specifically inter-changable items, such the trend for LHD-RHD 'switchable' instrument binnacles by many makers, the 'Basic-Beauty' idea taken further by others to enhance utility and reduce skin-panel and glazing tooling costs (best shown by the orginal FIAT Panda), with the 'switchable' ideology deployed for the intended mid 1990s revolution of the original SmartCar, offering the ability for owners to easily swap the car's outer panels.
However, whilst the tenets of modularity regards product commonality and re-congiurability / inter-changability is undoubtedly more amenable to utility orientated commercial user-buyer, since the Panda's 1980s heyday the increase in apparent wealth related 'status symbolism' in all things consumerist, over the idea and advantage of functional rationality, has become increasingly entrenched in private car ownership. Differentiation and (believed) uniqueness rates much higher, and so the need for greater stylistic freedom which in turns undermines the foundations for modularisation.
Even so, the idea of 'symbolic utility' remains – even if not used fully – in the premium badge SUV and Cross-Over, with even a noted return of the utilitarian by typically older people, with the popularity of car-based van derived MPVs (PSA's Berlingo/Partner, FIATs Doblo/Qubo, and of course Japan's 'Tall-Boy' kei and small cars still very popular domestically for their comparative 'TARDIS'-like functionality.
Yet carrozzeria and automakers have sought to explore and try to popularise the modular, three of the best illustrations being...
1982 - ItalDesign 'Capsula' Concept -
Further to the MegaGamma Taxi concept of extreme space utilisation, the 'Capsula' was what could be later considered as the first 'skateboard' platform for an ICE package, the term and basis later adopted by GM, Tesla and others regards EVs.
Given Italy's, Europe's, Japan's and South America's small urban roadways Guigario believed that FIAT (or another VM) could create something akin to an updated small 'everyman' Model T : the factory configurable 'task-body-built' car for a myriad of applications and users. It was shown as a full scale model as a private car with enhanced green-house visibility and wide 'gullwing' side-door, to heighten its social interactiveness with the city. But was illustrated with alternative body types on its double-belt-line: School-Bus / Ambulance (Van) / Drop-Side and Canvas-Top Pick Up / Tow-Truck and 'Jolly' (Beach Car).
[NB a short personal conversation with Fabrizio Guigario (Giorgetto's son) in 2001 at the Goodwood FoS (Style et Lux), led to the received understanding – by reading between the lines - that the car was destined as a design exercise to tempt FIAT into targeting 'Capsula' for Brazil so as to grow its local market share and create a true 'Brazilian Car' to surpass the VW Brasilia].
1995 - Mercedes Vario Concept -
At this point in time (before its ill-fated purchase of Chrysler to expand product range and market coverage) Daimler sought to explore the increasingly important issue of dealer-based customer contact as 'service depth' became as hot topic, and lateral thinking regards solutions provision for what was still a somewhat select, comfortably-off luxury audience that had broad lifestyles, and so possibly sought greater vehicle flexibility, depending upon 'mood and mode'.
The outcome was the original Vario concept (not related to the later passenger-taxi van). This mooted the possibility that the vehicle owner could swap body-styles depending upon need or desire, so spanning Coupe, Convertible and Wagon variants.
The base car itself was complete with doors, all except for the upper rear portion behind the A-pillar to mid-point on the rear quarter-panel and inner structure, wherein a descrete shut-line was used to merge a different upper-body style, and the use of a pillarless (ie non-existant B-post) architecture.
The concept itself was soon overtaken, and so still-born before true market testing, by the big picture strategy regards the merger-acquisition with Chrysler.
1994 - Renault 'Modus' Concept -
Though the name is now familiar as the small Modus MPV of 2004, this concept arrived a decade earlier..
The vehicle itself was akin to the new functionality trend being set-out by Japanese automakers, themselves seeking to maximise their own medium, small and kei car related urban and rural functionality, that would themselves range from yet more camping cars to the extremes of personal pods to micro semi-trailers.
The concept Modus drew its inspiration from Renault's other divisions and beyond, from its Van division in terms of innate utility and its Heavy Truck division in terms of a tall passenger cab with tall 'bubble' glazing.
Less technically sophisticated as 'Capsula' the intent was nevertheless to create an urban adaptable vehicle for many different uses.
The central idea was for the vehicle's low rear deck to accept various alternative rear body types, ranging from standard panel van, to glazed passenger unit (so akin to latter city MPVs), to Pick Up, to task specific 'pod' (camping, refrigeration, security, and much else).
In concept it appeared to evolve upon the same principles as the 'camper back' seen fitted to American full size and small pick-ups in the 1970s and 1980s, unlike those retro-fitted campers, with a specific technical solution to allow the pod to slot-into and lock-into the vehicle deck's lower frame and inner-sides.
In Summary -
Across many diverse fields, the central rational of proposed and implemented 'innovative modularisation' has both promised and delivered transformative gains across the realms of lifecycle costs and long-term continuation, overall operational quality and a reduced time-scale of ultimately very necessary repeat procurement..
To this end, those that directly lead and fund the UK's Emergency Services, could and indeed should “create the future” for both the nation itself and the myriad of opportunities for international export sales into tomorrow and far beyond.