Reverse Engineering Products

The exercise of reverse engineering products involves taking things apart. Shown here is a simple Phillips Norelco Shaver (courtesy of Tristan Rose), displayed in a similar way to the mounted disassembled bike from Todd McLellan’s “Things come apart” image exhibition and now a book also showcased on the BBC website. I love this abstract method of visual display of a product. It’s amazing when you see the object in this form – there are so many parts, so many materials, so much design! Sometimes this can be done elegantly with a screwdriver, other times it needs prizing with a screwdriver, other times it’s an act of destruction by cutting things in half (or quarter) with a blade or saw, other times things can be unpicked, unlocked, unsnapped, or even thrown to the ground to be smashed (although only as a last resort!). You can take apart pretty much anything, but really good products to reverse engineer are those whose insides we’re not used to…those products we may be familiar with on the outside but whose insides are a mystery. Examples include remote controllers, cameras, shoes, phones, gearboxes, game consoles, joysticks, toys, other electrical goods like printers, irons, toasters, speakers, computers, VCRs (do they still exist?) etc. Ideally use something that’s defunct, that doesn’t work anymore, so if you break it (or can’t reassemble it!!) then you’re not too bothered. Freecycle is great, Ebay can be good too, so can charity shops, skips, or ask family and friends for broken things.

Figure 1: Philips Norelco Shaver (courtesy of Tristan Rose)

Figure 1: Philips Norelco Shaver (courtesy of Tristan Rose)

When reverse-engineering a product (and I recommend doing this often! – it’s a great way to learn), you should consider two things:

Firstly, consider what your objectives are. There’s lots to learn by taking something apart, but what are you specifically after? Try to refer this to Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) principles by Boothroyd et al(2010) where possible. Below are a list of things SOME that you might want to consider.

Secondly, consider what you’ll need to disassemble the product. Will you need specialist tools? will you require personal protective equipment (PPE) in the form of gloves, goggles, lab coat? will you need a cutting mat? will it be messy? will you need lots of space? how will you lay out the object to the best effect? will you need to re-assemble the object, in which case how will you layout and/or label the objects? when you record the process, how will you do this? pen/paper? photographs? if so, how will you stage this to get the best effect using a tripod? or how will you keep your camera/phone still? and with good lighting? with a suitable clean backdrop? will you be able to capture it all in one go or will you need to piece images together in photoshop? (for the big products – like the tractor – Todd McLellan (2013) did just this).

A sample list of things to take to a reverse engineering party:

  • pen and paper
  • a decent camera (or camera phone) and something to mount it on (ideally tripod) – also consider how you’ll take pics to maximise the visual effect (a nice matt white background is always good!)
  • white sheets of paper taped together to lay things out on
  • steel and plastic rulers
  • screwdrivers (normal size and small terminal size), both phillips and flat head
  • other flat tools for prizing open troublesome products
  • allen keys (and other specialist tools for unfastening?)
  • sharp stanley knives and cutting mats
  • blue tak or superglue (to hold small parts on the table)
  • sticky tape and masking tape
  • digital callipers
  • scissors
  • possibly board (painted white) and pins/screws/wire/fishing line to mount things permanently!

For the super keen, mount all the parts neatly onto a piece of painted board (possibly with a small label) and we’ll put it up in the studio!

General assembly/disassembly considerations (related to Design for Assembly – DFA guidelines):

  • how many parts does the product have? often products have individual part numbers actually shaped into an internal surface.
  • how many of the parts are standard? how many are “designed”?
  • how many different materials are actually used?
  • what is the assembly process?
  • to what extent is the product able to be disassembled at end of life?
  • what type of fit is there for the product? is it possible to measure the tolerances for any mating components to understand how much clearance or overlap is there?

Plastic specific considerations:

  • how was the part made? is there any evidence on the part to give you a hint? this could be a parting line (showing where the mould cavities meet), or an ejector pin mark.
  • what material is it? often it’s labelled.
  • what draft angles are used? you’ll need to measure this!
  • has the product been glued, ultrasonically welded, riveted, screwed, snap fit, other? look for clues before you take it apart.
  • what features are included internally and why? consider tabs, ribs to stiffen, bosses to screw into, slots to guide, other mounting features, strain relief etc.
  • what are the material wall thicknesses? these vary from main walls to ribs, bosses, other features. There are recommended wall thickness for different plastics. It’s always good to check that the material you’re looking at fits with these guidelines!
  • what are the thick to thin wall transitions like? are they suitable? are there voids or sink marks present on the part?
  • what are the surface finishes like on the surfaces of the part? these should give you a hint about the quality of the mould, or the requirements of the part itself. They can also help to show or hide any manufacturing problems (e.g. masking sink marks).
  • is there a mix of flat or curved surfaces? does the quality of their surface finish differ?
  • for any living hinges what’s the material thickness? and how have they designed this into the part bearing in mind moulding processes? this is clever indeed!
  • for any snap fits, what is the shape of the cantilever that “bends”? does it taper or is it straight? how does this fit with the design guidelines for snap fit? (or not!) are there signs of strain at the join?
  • if it’s a moulded part, is it a straight pull mould (ie where the mould can be pulled straight from one side to leave the part – with no undercuts), or would inserts be required to allow for undercuts to be produced? often there is evidence in the sign of parting lines to indicate various inserts for the mould.

Electronic specific considerations:

  • try to identify what electronic components are present?
  • try to identify which are sensors and which are actuators?
  • how are things mounted to a) each other, b) the case?
  • for any circuit boards, are the components surface mounted or through hole mounted?
  • are the technical specifications of the components obvious? what are they?
  • what does the main circuit look like? can you draw this? for battery driven products, are the batteries in series or parallel? and if so what’s the voltage?
Figure 2: Nikko radio controlled ford fiesta RS (courtesy of Chloe Fong)

Figure 2: Nikko radio controlled ford fiesta RS (courtesy of Chloe Fong)

Electrical specific considerations:

  • how has strain relief used for mains cables?
  • is there an earth? what colours are used for the wires? do they conform to relevant BS safety standards?
  • how is the wiring connected to terminals/pins?
  • is the casing suitably insulative?
  • is it waterproof? it’s worth looking into IP (ingress protection) requirements for electrical products.

Sheet metal considerations:

  • what processes were required to make the part? these could be cutting, bending, punching, rolling, stamping, etc…
  • in what order were these processes done? is there a way to tell?
  • what kind of fastening was used? welding, rivets, screws, glues, etc.
  • what kind of tools or punches were used to make certain features?
  • what are the bend radii for any bends?
  • are there any notable design features, e.g. reliefs in the corners?
  • are there any surface treatments used to finish, coat or debur the part?

Machining specific considerations:

  • what processes were required to make the part? drilling, milling, turning?
  • in what order were these processes done? is there a way to tell?
  • were any tertiary processes required to finish the part to give a particular surface finish or detail?
  • how was the object held while it was made?
  • are there any key datums, e.g. surfaces on the part?

Others? there are plenty more things to consider and to learn from these exercises!


Boothroyd, G., Dewhurst, P., and Knight, W. 2010, Product Design for Manufacture and Assembly, Third Edition, CRC press.

McLellan, T. 2013, Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living. Thames & Hudson.


Read the original article on the ProductDes blog HERE


The end is nigh . . .


Sorry that we haven’t been talking much lately, it’s been very, very busy. Des, Eddy, Cathy, Steven and a sprinkling of students are currently all down in Southampton presenting at the Ergonomics & Human Factors Cconference (, Mark is working on some interesting developments for his PhD, and I’m just back from reviewing product design courses at two other Universities for the IED.

Our own course changes seem to be working well although we’ll have a full review at the end of the year. It’s easy though to see that our 4 new maker bots have been particularly helpful, and good to have our Designer in Residence Hamish on hand to help out as well.

After the Easter break we have a few more teaching weeks then will start our exhibition series. First year work is viewable by the public on Wed 14th, 2nd years on Wed 21st, and final years on 30th and 31st May in the Basement rooms (Friday 16.00 to 22.00 and Saturday 10.00 to 18.00, Some final years will be then up at New Designers as usual from 2nd to 5th July.

Thanks to all of those who have been keeping in touch with us – some really great stuff going on out there. I hope that we’ll be able to catch up with some of you at these events.


Institution of Engineering Designers

iED talk 1

This afternoon we welcomed Laurie Rowe BSC (Hons) IEng MIED, a Design Ambassador from the Institution of Engineering Designers, in to the design studio to talk about the benefits of joining the iED as a student, a graduate and a practicing engineer and how gaining membership with the iED can lead to registration with the Engineering Council.

Laurie’s own engineering design career journey has seen her work on everything from Sheffield steel to Estée Lauder and from orthopaedic hip implants to Xbox.

iED talk 2

Membership to the iED provides professional and international recognition for engineers and designers and is a great way to further your engineering career.

Find out more about the iED and registration HERE | Find out more about the Engineering Council HERE

Digital Citizenship: Feedback and Brainstorm Session

Digital Citizenship: 21st Feb 10:00 am DigitalPosterImage

What is it and how can it be encouraged in younger people?

Nick Gant, Kelly Duggan and Cathy Grundy will be presenting the results of a NOMINET funded research project.

Nick Gant is co-director of the Inheritable Futures Laboratory (IF:Lab)with Jonathan Chapman

We need your help and feedback!

Creative Product Designers, join Grand Parade Design and Craft Students for a feedback and brainstorm session in The Creativity Zone. Good CV material?

You will also learn more about APP’s and different communication tools.

Meaningful Stuff – Professor Jonathan Chapman

In case you missed it, last month Jonathan Chapman gave an insightful and thought provoking presentation entitled ‘Meaningful Stuff: Designing Longer-Lasting Material Experiences’. Fortunately the University of Brighton filmed the Professor’s inaugural presentation and you can view it in full view Youtube below.

Jonathan Chapman is a Professor of Sustainable Design in the School of Art, Design & Media, and Course Leader of the MA Sustainable Design – a ‘transdisciplinary’ postgraduate course, which he co-wrote and launched (2009). Chapman is also the author of Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences & Empathy (Earthscan, 2005). The books main focus of ’emotional durability’ has been adopted by designers, students and educators around the world, providing valuable shorthand for the complex and manifold factors that determine the endurance of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ in a given object.

Trip To Brighton Sheet Metal

Students of the BSc Product Design course were given the opportunity to visit Brighton Sheet Metal last week and Dr Derek Covill, who arranged the trip, has kindly offered words about the day…


brighton sheet metal 1

I’d met one of the engineers from Brighton Sheet Metal a few years ago at Southern Manufacturing and had a good old chat, but until we visited last week I never realised how expansive and impressive their facilities actually were. I took a group of 10 students out to visit and we were greeted by Bill Taylor, the company director who gave us a short overview of the company, it’s history, customers and facilities. We were learning from the outset, Bill was talking about how they work with clients, and more importantly for us, he outlined some of the design for manufacture requirements that help to make their lives easier (and ultimately how to make the products they manufacture for their customers quicker and more cost effective). We then split into two groups and were given the royal treatment.

brighton sheet metal 2

My group, led by Bob Jones one of the engineering managers, talked us through the process of getting a job through the system, how they deal with it, how they interact with designers from outside the business, and then how this gets fed into the various machines that are available on the shop floor. It really is astounding when you meet a guy like Bob, how frustrating it must be sometimes when dealing with designers. The experiences of engineers like Bob really are worth reflecting on and learning from as much as possible…and many of the issues that crop up day to day are standard DFMA (design for manufacturing principles), and others are a little more specific to sheet metal work. For instance, the use of standard components and stock material, is something that sometimes gets overlooked. Using 1mm sheet steel (as opposed to 1.1mm) may not influence the performance of the product at all, but will make the manufacturing process much simpler (in fact generating non-standard measurements may add HUGE costs to the process, may add additional processes, or may not be possible at all!).

brighton sheet metal 3

Other, simple things, like which catalogue or suppliers different manufacturers work with can make a huge difference to improving turn around times, ordering efficiency and clarity of communication. The choice of fasteners, to be consistent or VERY different can save the sanity of many shop floor workers. Having to insert 15x4mm allen bolts and 20x5mm allen bolts into 150 parts can often be made much simpler by simply specifying 35x5mm allen bolts. Sometimes not, of course, but in many cases it can make life simpler for all involved. And then there’s software, and file types. Knowing the software (and version!!) used by the manufacturers can make their lives easier. Do they use Solidworks? or Catia? or Pro/Engineer? and what file type would they like it in? Software specific like .sldprt, or generic like .iges, or .step? and would they like the part made as a solid component, or made as a specialist sheet metal component, with a sheet metal net easily spewed out of the software? and what machines do they have? what sizes can the machines cope with? what are the available settings, jigs or tools that the manufacture uses? what method of calculation do they use? in the case of Brighton Sheet metal, they use a certain calculation for determining the bend radii of parts. Others prefer k-factor. It’s always worth asking, or even better, before you start designing visit the company (whoever it is you’re working with!), and ask these questions: get to know them… it will save everyone time and money in the long run! And before you visit, read some of the seminal work by Boothroyd and Dewhurst (e.g. Boothroyd et al, 2010), who pioneered the DFMA process and have made the lives of many manufacturers easier, and the products of many designers better!

Reference: Boothroyd, G., Dewhurst, P., and Knight, W. 2010, Product Design for Manufacture and Assembly, Third Edition, CRC press.

All images courtesy of Martyna Konopka

Read the original article on the ProductDes blog HERE

PhD study opportunities


dstar_0Anyone interested in further PhD study should look at the studentships being offered by Design Star, a consortium of top UK Design Research departments with AHRC funding for up to 12 studentships a year.  Design Star covers areas of history, theory, and practice in looking at contemporary social concerns and engaging with external partners.  The deadline for applications is 28th February and further details can be found through the links below: The main website: This is the Brighton page for Design Star:

Design Digest

A weekly roundup of this weeks design news and hottest topics.


Custom Life-Sized 3D Printed Dolls

3D printing may well be the future of design and, in particular, the future of customisable design. But perhaps there needs to be a line drawn already. Californian based company 3D Babies have released images this week of how you might be able to hold your soon-to-be child in your hands before he or she is born. The Indiegogo crowd source funded company uses 4D ultrasound scans to create life-size, 8-inch replicas of 23-24 week foetuses and print them using 3D printing technology. All shipped to you in a handy satin-lined wooden box for the price of $600 (£360).

3d babies

What do you think?


Bar Stalls and Benches Built Using Discarded Roof Tiles

Eindhoven based designer Tsuyoshi Hayashi looks to partly solve the challenge of recycling ceramic waste products. Taking Japanese roof tiles that would be otherwise discarded, Hayashi mounts the tiles on simple wooden frames to great attractive, functional furniture.

tile chairs


Separating Eggs

Not the first, but certainly unique and playful. Peleg design have designed the ‘Yolkfish’ a gulping goldfish capable of the age-old challenge of separating the white from the yellow. Watch the video below to see it in action.


Musical Symphony made with Bicycle Parts

Bike and music lovers rejoice. JohnnyRandom has created ‘bespoken’ an exploration of sounds generated by bicycles and their components. Take a listen below.


Barber Osgerby: In The Making

The Design Museum’s latest exhibition In The Making opened Wednesday this week, curated by award winning and well celebrated designers Barber & Osgerby. In The Making captures over 20 objects mid-manufacture showing them off at the ‘centre-stage’ of their design process. Read our full article HERE.

in the making 3


A New Look For The Sunday Times

This weekend The Sunday Times will reveal a brand new look and redesign. The in-house created work aims to bring a ‘brighter’ feel to the newspaper. Described as ‘evolution rather than revolution’ the most noticeable change will be that of the Sunday Times Magazine becoming taller and thinner.

times redesign

Barber Osgerby: In the Making

The Design Museum’s latest exhibition In The Making opened yesterday, curated by award winning and well celebrated designers Barber & Osgerby.

Open from now until May 4th, In The Making captures over 20 objects mid-manufacture showing them off at the ‘centre-stage’ of their design process. An interesting range of products have been chosen by the British design duo, from everyday objects such as a cricket bat, £2 coin and coke can to Barber Osgerby’s very own London 2012 Olympic Torch, which won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year in 2012.

in the making 2

Cricket Bat / Barber & Osgerby / Derwent Pencils

The objects have been selected because they each have an unexpected  quality about them in those moments, hours or days before they assume  their final, recognisable form. These points in the making process capture a  peculiar and unconventional slice of time in the production of everyday  objects such as tennis balls, banknotes and even diamonds.The Design Museum

in the making

Optic Lens / Exhibition Graphics / Aluminium Can

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby comment ‘We have always been  fascinated by the making process as it is an integral part of our work. We have curated an exhibition that will provide a platform to capture and reveal  a frozen moment in the manufacturing process and unveils an everyday
object in its unfinished state. Often the object is as beautiful, if not more so,  than the finished product!’

What: In The Making
Where: Design Museum, SE1 2YD
When: 22 January – 4 May
Price: Adult £12.40 / Student £9.30

Visit for more information

Also currently showing at the Design Museum:

Extraordinary Storiesends 9 March

Designing for the Future


“Last week saw the launch of “Designing for the Future”, a student design competition sponsored by The Future Perfect Company which encourages students to consider the challenges affecting our ageing population – and to create innovative and attractive designs which allow older people to continue to live meaningful, enjoyable and independent lives.

The winner will receive a package of mentoring and support to help them to develop their products and ideas further and emulate the success of previous award winning “Designing for the Future” alumni. For more information, visit