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Making the most of modularity earns Victor Zavala a CAREER award

Written By: Sam Million-Weaver


Drawing inspiration from evolutionary biology, power networks, and Henry Ford’s assembly line, Victor Zavala plans to develop optimization frameworks to understand the impacts of modularity on the performance and resilience of complex systems.

With support from a prestigious CAREER award from the National Sciences Foundation, Zavala, the Richard H. Soit Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will attempt to study the impact of modular technologies on diverse systems such as the national power grid and agricultural supply chains. The concept has other far-reaching applications, though.

“Modularization is a general organizational principle that applies to a lot of things,” Zavala says, noting that he dipped his toes into such far-reaching fields as brain networks and corporate sociology to familiarize himself with how living systems and organizations use modularity to cope with complexity. “What I have found is that complex systems tend to naturally organize in a modular manner, but they exhibit very different degrees of modularity.”

Modular systems can benefit from economies of mass production, a perk made famous by Henry Ford. For instance, each portion of an automobile can be assembled separately (in a decentralized manner) so that workers can experiment over and over again in their subsystem to reach a high level of technical maturity.

An entirely decentralized system is not always desirable, however, because centralized systems benefit from economies of scale, or the higher efficiencies that larger systems achieve.

Striking the correct balance between economies of scale and economies of mass production can be tricky, especially because few tools exist to quantify how modular a system is compared to another.

Zavala intends to create optimization formulations and algorithms to do just that.

“This is the right time for the development of modular technologies, because 3D printing and automation have made it easier than ever to create such systems,” says Zavala.

In the context of power grids, Zavala notices that major advances in decentralized energy technologies like photovoltaic panels and batteries have been achieved, but centralized power plants still deliver electricity at a lower cost. Unfortunately, centralized systems are also susceptible to disruption—for example, heat waves or cold fronts can overtax large power facilities and cause widespread blackouts.

“There are complex trade-offs between how expensive you want the power to be and how resilient you want the power grid to be,” says Zavala.

The notion that modularity might make for more resilient systems has been well-studied in biological sciences. From ecosystems to developing flies, life scientists observe that innovation thrives among collections of connected but independent components—like the small communities of animals in a swamp or an insect’s body segments.

“Scientists have noted that modularity is a key property that enables evolution,” says Zavala.

Zavala also plans to use modularity to help undergraduate education evolve. In collaboration with Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Thatcher Root, he will seek to reengineer the semester-long undergraduate introductory statistics course into a series of three modules. By modularizing the class, Zavala hopes to create better coordination between the abstract statistical concepts being taught and their applications in students’ other engineering coursework.

The grant provides $500,000 of support over five years.