A product teardown is the disassembly of a product in order to understand what its parts are and how it was assembled. The product will be taken apart and each component and function, as well as the assembly methods, forensically examined.

What can you expect to find out in such a teardown?

It reveals what parts are standard and which were custom fabricated. For electrical (and especially electronic) products, it reveals the sources and models of some key components such as chips and in-built systems.

Overall, an experienced product engineering team can provide an estimate of the development (non-recurring engineering) costs and of the production unit cost, and what’s in the product’s bill of materials.

Why perform a product teardown?

Certain manufacturers teardown competitors’ products in order to understand how the unique features work, where the components are sourced from (such as a battery from Samsung), and potentially reverse engineer the product for their own use. This is not ethical, but it can happen.

The use of this information for ‘learning’ falls under a greyer area if no copying takes place. Every major car manufacturer purchases and disassembles their competitors’ vehicles, and it doesn’t mean General Motors is stealing from Ford, for instance. Smart engineering approaches can be detected and re-used, and it participates in general exchange of information in the industry. A warehouse full of torn-down cars is a great resource for training designers.

Is tearing down products common practice?

Yes. All major electronic brands buy a few units of their direct competitors’ products and study them closely. That’s a way to ensure they are aware of the design choices, the good and bad results, what is possible, etc.

Consumer teardowns

Consumer technology publications sometimes tear down the latest devices for their consumers to read about how they are made, put together, and can be repaired (or not). Here’s an example of a teardown article for the Apple iPhone X using information from famous teardown brand, iFixit, from 2017. In it, the components are forensically listed for the reader. Electronics right to repair is often stated as giving legitimacy to their activities, despite the annoyance this causes for electronics manufacturers.

What can you do to keep confidential IP secure from teardowns?

This is a difficult thing to do once products are on the market. Some brands, such as Apple, have repackaged certain components to hide the brand that makes them, using their own logo instead. So if a product is torn down it may not be immediately obvious who manufactured, say, a chipset.

Many companies manually erase the markings on the components and work on obfuscating the firmware code. Some components pot the PCBA in epoxy, but there are ways to separate the plastic out.

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