TitleAre modular and customizable smartphones the future, or doomed to fail? A case study on the introduction of sustainable consumer electronics
Publication Type03. Journal Papers
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsHankammer, S., Jiang R., Kleer R., & Schymanietz M.
JournalCIRP Journal of Manufacturing Science and Technology
IssueNovember 2018

Mass Customization (MC) has become a major trend in the consumer goods market in recent years. While the economic chances and threats are already described very well, the social and environmental impact of MC products remain unclear. Phonebloks, a design study of a modular smartphone launched in 2013, created a vision about fostering sustainability through MC. Teaming up with Google’s Project Ara, a modular and customizable smartphone approach seemed very likely to reach market maturity. In 2016, Google canceled Project Ara shortly before the awaited market introduction. Analyzing the rise and fall of the first large scale MC based business model that was initially designed to foster sustainability in the consumer electronics market, gives us the opportunity to revise the economic, social and ecologic potential of modular and customizable smartphones in general. Furthermore, with constantly growing consumer requirements for new product iterations in shorter time frames, traditional measures for success, such as time-to-market, could change inherently as we are moving closer towards iterative product development processes and much shorter product life-cycles. This, in turn, leads to major changes for ramp-up processes. Using a qualitative case study approach based on expert interviews at two different stages of the Project Ara development process (2015 and 2017), we shed light on the future of modular and customizable smartphones and their economic, social and ecologic sustainability potential. We show that while Project Ara failed in the end, it had the economic potential to outperform its competitors in the field of modular smartphones. We find that an MC approach could lead to longer smartphone or, at least, component life cycles. Finally, we affirm a positive potential for influencing sociocultural behavior in the long tail of the smartphone market.