Modular design in automation: What we’ve learned playing with LEGO bricks


Modular design, whether natural or created by humans, is all around us. Modularity builds functionality into separate elements that can be scaled or re-used in different ways. When modular design works well, it merges the advantages of standardization and customization. And well-functioning modular design comes in many forms.

Consider biology and how bees build complex honeycombs with simple but modular hexagonal cells. Or take language, where we start with a limited number of sounds and signs, add some rules (grammar), and end up with an unlimited number of words, sentences and even blogs. Computers are modular, too, of course. Desktop towers can be opened to add new RAM or change hard drives. Modular software employs separate, interchangeable modules that can be combined in different ways to achieve different sets of functionalities.

Many production processes, including factory automation, use modular design as well. But if you want to understand why engineers at Qubiqa like playing around with modular automation solutions so much, then you must look at the toys which for most of us were our first hands-on experience with modular design and engineering: LEGO bricks.

A fixed number of bricks with many, many possibilities

Although they come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, LEGO bricks are all very simple things: independent elements that fit together with a snap so the parts form a bigger, more complex whole. LEGO toys are all about system. Over the years, the Danish company (which is located in the same part of Denmark as Qubiqa) has created many elements that all work together thanks to LEGO’s system-wide stud-and-tube coupling technique. Some elements are designed with no purpose but to build together to form something else. Others are designed with a specific purpose in mind—hats should go on top of a mini-figure’s head, for example – but just look at what children also do with them.

Even something as impressive as the LEGO Taj Mahal is nothing but a collection of small bricks combined in a specific way. If a clever engineer or a curious child wanted to use those elements to create an entirely different building, they could. In fact, they wouldn’t have to make a building at all. They can make whatever they can imagine. And if they needed more bricks to build something even more spectacular they could order them, knowing that as part of the system, they’d fit.

For children, the fun of playing with LEGO bricks has to do with combining all of these elements in new ways to do new things as their play needs change. If a child needs a rocket ship as part of the play, he or she builds it. If the play later requires an even bigger rocket ship, more bricks are added. The next day, maybe rocket ships are boring but cars are not. No problem. Just tear down the rocket ship, bring in a few more elements like wheels, and recombine all the parts to make a car that no one has ever seen before – on Earth or in outer space.

Serious play

Without articulating it as such, millions of LEGO-happy children around the world are engaging in the essence of engineering and design every day. Faced with a challenge (or problem, play need, opportunity or whatever you want to call it), they’re developing solutions (plastic rocket ships with wheels, bridges, automated material handling systems) that improve our lives. To do so, they’re using intuition, creativity, logic and systemic reasoning.

 Working within a modular system like LEGO makes it all easier, faster and more fun. You don’t need to design the bricks themselves. They’re already there. The creativity comes not from shaping the individual elements; some other creative people have already done that for you. Rather, ingenuity comes into the game when you combine the pre-existing parts, re-combine them, scale them big or small as the needs of your solution require. Modularity can give creativity a better starting point, and focus creativity on problem solving rather than reinventing the wheel.

Modular systems create value for our clients

What we as automation engineers do with modular systems isn’t about reinventing the wheel, either. Rather, we want to put together different kinds of better, more efficient wheel systems according to what the client specifically needs.

The elements that comprise modular automated material handling systems are designed to work together. Complex manufacturing challenges don’t need more raw power thrown at them; they need custom-built solutions to solve those challenges as intelligently as possible. Once the fat from a non-modular system has been trimmed, what’s left is an elegant solution that’s lean and efficient.

Does your palletizing unit need to be integrated with something new, or will it operate by itself? How do handling robots play a role? What about conveyor belts? Because modular machines aren’t one-size-fits-all, they also allow for greater flexibility.

Modularity’s value add is also visible whenever a client’s production flow needs to change. Change no longer means replacing entire processes—a task which can be costly, time-consuming, and a source of endless headaches. Modularity means swaps, add-ins, and minor alterations —scalability and nimble solutions on demand. Issues such as maintenance don’t have to bring the entire production to a screeching halt, but can be compartmentalized so that only parts of the process are paused for a while.

And let’s not forget that this kind of flexibility also means the ability to quickly adapt to changing market conditions, allowing corporations to keep—or gain—a competitive edge.

Yes, gain a competitive edge. Because ultimately, modular automation leaves plenty of room for human creativity. Intelligent design and standard, interchangeable parts mean engineers and designers don’t have to worry about compatibility or waste time asking themselves “will this work?”

Rather, the questions become “How do we want this to work?” and “What is the best way to make it work?” Novel—and in some cases, breakthrough—approaches to problem-solving are no longer hindered by old restrictions. We’ve seen such breakthroughs happen with automobiles, computers, and even LEGO—and we know it’s happening in factory automation too.


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