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Feature: Some Disassembly Required

TEACHING: SOME DISASSEMBLY REQUIREDReverse engineering – taking products apart to learn how they work – can be a valuable design training exercise.

An article from the October 2008 issue of ASEE’s Prism magazine by Corinna Wu.

When Apple’s iPhone first came out in June 2007, eager customers lined up for days to get their hands on one. But not everyone shelled out $599 so they could call friends and surf the Web on the portable device: Some people bought one just so they could take it apart. They immediately started blogging about the components and how the devices were assembled, the design choices Apple made and what the parts cost.

These curious gadget freaks were engaging in reverse engineering, a common practice in industry wherein companies tear down competitors’ products in order to figure out their secrets.

Over the past two decades, engineering professors have been bringing the practice into the classroom. Currently, about 30 universities have integrated the method into their teaching, says Sheri Sheppard, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Center for Design Research at Stanford University. By disassembling simple machines like bicycles, kitchen appliances, power tools and toys, students get hands-on experience with various parts that helps them when they begin designing products of their own.

Sheppard’s first experience with reverse engineering came during her graduate school days at the University of Michigan. She had a job at Chrysler, and the company sent its new hires to mechanics school for three months. There, she learned how to take apart and rebuild engines, transmissions, and brake systems, something she had not done as an undergraduate. “It made me realize how much you learn through the kinesthetics of touching stuff,” she says. “Your ability to reason about those things in the abstract is so much more powerful if you’ve actually touched the systems on which you’re going to do engineering.”

Read the entire article in Prism online

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