IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Modularity, interfaces definition and the integration of external sources of innovation in the automotive industry


  • Cabigiosu, Anna
  • Zirpoli, Francesco
  • Camuffo, Arnaldo


In the last two decades, the auto industry has shown a steady increase of vehicle development outsourcing and a shift of both product development tasks and knowledge from carmakers to suppliers. This trend has increased the interest toward product modularity as a tool to ease the integration of external sources of innovation but there is contradictory evidence concerning the benefits of modularity in inter-firm coordination in the automotive industry. Moreover, although modularity literature considers standard interfaces one of the constitutive elements of modularity and a means for easing design outsourcing, very few studies have analyzed the genesis and the micro-dynamics of the interfaces definition process. In order to fill this research gap, this paper focuses on how assemblers and suppliers define the component-vehicle interfaces in component co-development projects. This study adopts a “quasi-experimental design approach” comparing two similar vehicle component co-development projects carried out by the same first-tier supplier with two different automakers. Under the ceteris paribus conditions defined by the research design, the empirical evidence derived from the analysis of the two projects shows that, differently from what modularity theory claims: the interface definition process is neither technologically determined nor the mere result of product architectural choices; the OEMs and the supplier's capabilities, degree of vertical integration, knowledge and strategic focus drive the partitioning of the design and engineering tasks, the interfaces definition process, and the choice of the inter-firm coordination mechanisms. Furthermore, while component modularity and design outsourcing are considered as complements in modularity literature, our findings suggest that they may work as substitutes and are rather difficult to combine.

Suggested Citation

  • Cabigiosu, Anna & Zirpoli, Francesco & Camuffo, Arnaldo, 2013. "Modularity, interfaces definition and the integration of external sources of innovation in the automotive industry," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 42(3), pages 662-675.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:respol:v:42:y:2013:i:3:p:662-675
    DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2012.09.002

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: Full text for ScienceDirect subscribers only

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to search for a different version of it.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Pimmler, Thomas U. (Thomas Udo) & Eppinger, Steven D., 1994. "Integration analysis of product decompositions," Working papers 3690-94., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
    2. Prencipe, Andrea, 2000. "Breadth and depth of technological capabilities in CoPS: the case of the aircraft engine control system," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 29(7-8), pages 895-911, August.
    3. Manuel E. Sosa & Steven D. Eppinger & Craig M. Rowles, 2004. "The Misalignment of Product Architecture and Organizational Structure in Complex Product Development," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 50(12), pages 1674-1689, December.
    4. Timothy J. Sturgeon, 2002. "Modular production networks: a new American model of industrial organization," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(3), pages 451-496, June.
    5. Lau Antonio, K.W. & Yam, Richard C.M. & Tang, Esther, 2007. "The impacts of product modularity on competitive capabilities and performance: An empirical study," International Journal of Production Economics, Elsevier, vol. 105(1), pages 1-20, January.
    6. Fixson, Sebastian K., 2007. "What exactly is Product Modularity? The answer depends on who you ask," Working papers 37285, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
    7. Peter Galvin & Andre Morkel, 2001. "Modularity On Industry Structure: The Case Of The World The Effect Of Product Bicycle Industry," Industry and Innovation, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 8(1), pages 31-47.
    8. Clayton M. Christensen & Matt Verlinden & George Westerman, 2002. "Disruption, disintegration and the dissipation of differentiability," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(5), pages 955-993, November.
    9. Fixson, Sebastian K. & Park, Jin-Kyu, 2008. "The power of integrality: Linkages between product architecture, innovation, and industry structure," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 37(8), pages 1296-1316, September.
    10. Takeishi, Akira & Fujimoto, Takahiro, 2001. "Modularization in the Auto Industry: Interlinked Multiple Hierarchies of Product, Production, and Supplier Systems," IIR Working Paper 01-02, Institute of Innovation Research, Hitotsubashi University.
    11. Lyra J. Colfer & Carliss Y. Baldwin, 2010. "The Mirroring Hypothesis: Theory, Evidence and Exceptions," Harvard Business School Working Papers 10-058, Harvard Business School, revised Jun 2010.
    12. Fujimoto Takahiro & Ge Dongsheng, 2006. "The architectural attributes of auto parts and transaction patterns on design drawings," International Journal of Automotive Technology and Management, Inderscience Enterprises Ltd, vol. 6(4), pages 370-386.
    13. MacCormack, Alan & Baldwin, Carliss & Rusnak, John, 2012. "Exploring the duality between product and organizational architectures: A test of the “mirroring” hypothesis," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 41(8), pages 1309-1324.
    14. Langlois, Richard N. & Robertson, Paul L., 1992. "Networks and innovation in a modular system: Lessons from the microcomputer and stereo component industries," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 21(4), pages 297-313, August.
    15. Whitford, Josh, 2005. "The New Old Economy: Networks, Institutions, and the Organizational Transformation of American Manufacturing," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199286010.
    16. Vincent Frigant & Jean-Bernard Layan, 2009. "Modular production and the new division of labour within Europe: the perspective of French automotive parts suppliers," Post-Print hal-00381341, HAL.
    17. Elaine Romanelli & Michael L. Tushman, 1986. "Inertia, Environments, and Strategic Choice: A Quasi-Experimental Design for Comparative-Longitudinal Research," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 32(5), pages 608-621, May.
    18. Ulrich, Karl, 1995. "The role of product architecture in the manufacturing firm," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 24(3), pages 419-440, May.
    19. Vincent Frigant & Damien Talbot, 2005. "Technological Determinism and Modularity: Lessons from a Comparison between Aircraft and Auto Industries in Europe," Industry and Innovation, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 12(3), pages 337-355.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. repec:eee:techno:v:70-71:y:2018:i::p:33-45 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Vincent FRIGANT & Martin ZUMPE, 2014. "The persistent heterogeneity of trade patterns: A comparison of four European Automotive Global Production Networks," Cahiers du GREThA 2014-24, Groupe de Recherche en Economie Théorique et Appliquée (GREThA).
    3. repec:spr:gjofsm:v:19:y:2018:i:2:d:10.1007_s40171-017-0177-1 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Arash Najmaei, 2016. "Revisiting The Modularity-Performance Nexus: Business Model Innovation As A Missing Mechanism," International Journal of Innovation Management (ijim), World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., vol. 20(07), pages 1-41, October.
    5. Anna Cabigiosu, 2018. "When do modular dominant designs emerge? A theoretical framework," Working Papers 05, Department of Management, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia.
    6. Battke, Benedikt & Schmidt, Tobias S. & Stollenwerk, Stephan & Hoffmann, Volker H., 2016. "Internal or external spillovers—Which kind of knowledge is more likely to flow within or across technologies," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 45(1), pages 27-41.
    7. repec:eee:iburev:v:27:y:2018:i:4:p:852-866 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Frigant, Vincent & Zumpe, Martin, 2014. "Are automotive global production networks becoming more global? Comparison of regional and global integration processes based on auto parts trade data," MPRA Paper 55727, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Stefano Elia & Rajneesh Narula & Silvia Massini, 2015. "Disentangling the Role of Modularity and Bandwidth in Entry Mode Choice: The Case of Business Services Offshoring," John H Dunning Centre for International Business Discussion Papers jhd-dp2015-06, Henley Business School, Reading University.
    10. Dechezleprêtre, Antoine & Neumayer, Eric & Perkins, Richard, 2015. "Environmental regulation and the cross-border diffusion of new technology: Evidence from automobile patents," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 44(1), pages 244-257.
    11. repec:ibn:ibrjnl:v:11:y:2018:i:7:p:142-151 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. repec:eee:respol:v:48:y:2019:i:7:p:1738-1757 is not listed on IDEAS
    13. repec:eee:proeco:v:193:y:2017:i:c:p:677-690 is not listed on IDEAS
    14. Morita, Hodaka & Nakajima, Kentaro & Tsuru, Tsuyoshi, 2017. "Product Architecture and Intra-Firm Coordination: Theory and Evidence," Discussion Paper Series 659, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University.
    15. Claussen, Jörg & Essling, Christian & Kretschmer, Tobias, 2015. "When less can be more – Setting technology levels in complementary goods markets," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 44(2), pages 328-339.
    16. repec:eee:respol:v:48:y:2019:i:1:p:51-61 is not listed on IDEAS
    17. Josh Whitford & Francesco Zirpoli, 2014. "Pragmatism, Practice, and the Boundaries of Organization," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 25(6), pages 1823-1839, December.


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:eee:respol:v:42:y:2013:i:3:p:662-675. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Dana Niculescu). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.