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D.I.Y. Reverse Engineering. Part One

01Nov10 by Matt Sinclair


The next few posts deal with a project which is making up a significant part of my PhD research, which is to reverse engineer a product, in this case a Microsoft branded mouse, and then to design and fit custom parts to it. I’ll start by explaining why I’m doing it, then go through the process of reverse engineering a product using only some basic tools, and finally talk about the redesigned products. At least one of the posts will talk about some of the software I’ve been using, and I might touch on a fairly academic subject which is the problem of incorporating design projects into a PhD, something I’ve had to pay a lot of attention to in the last few months.

Before I start, I should draw attention to Brian Ling’s Un-p3 project over at Design Sojourn. I actually included this project as part of my PhD application to explain the kind of thing I was interested in researching – the act of appropriating and redesigning existing products. Even though his reasons were somewhat different to mine, the Un-p3 project has continued to be an inspiration (and a help – when people ask what I’m doing I can point them there!).


Microsoft Comfort Optical Mouse 1000

What I’m Doing, and Why

This part of the PhD started from a need to define what time period my research is focussed on. I developed three scenarios, a short term scenario (0-5 years), a medium term (5-10 years) and a long term one (10-20 years); and wrote about the possible state of consumer design and manufacturing at those time scales. The problem, even with the medium term scenario (and especially with the long term) is that they quickly and easily became ‘science fiction’. Either you agreed with the scenario and the directions the technology might take, or you didn’t. I would have been able to present research to back up my assertions, but it wouldn’t have proven anything, only made my assertions a bit more credible. And it seemed to me that the research direction would inevitably have been more about testing and proving the technology, rather than doing actual design. There have been a number of assertions from different directions that rapid manufacturing technologies will allow consumers (ie people who aren’t trained as designers) to design and manufacture their own products, but there’s not much in terms of ‘facts on the ground’ to show how this might actually happen. Basing the research on a future scenario side steps the issue somewhat, by relying on some magic technology that solves all the problems. By basing the research on the current day situation, it introduces problems that might otherwise be avoided, but if they can be solved then it makes those assertions more credible.

A good example of this is the way I’ve chosen to reverse engineer the product, which is to use only the kinds of tools that a non-specialist might have, or at least be able to get easily if they were interested. This introduces a whole number of problems which I’ll talk about later, but are primarily to do with accuracy. These problems could have been avoided if I had argued that in future everyone will have access to 3D scanning technology. But if I’d done so I would have been drawn into arguments about when 3D scanners will be accessible, after which there would be questions about how easy they are to use and how useful the cloud-point data they produce would be to an untrained consumer. And to satisfy the PhD I would have needed to test various scanners and software with consumers and decide which ones have the most potential for use by non-specialists and even then not convince everyone (including, probably, myself). That’s not the route I wanted to go down at all, so by sticking to some basic, existing tools I’ve hopefully avoided the argument and can concentrate on the design aspects instead.


The tools that I used: vernier caliper, ruler, mini screwdriver set, torx screwdrivers, scalpel and anti-static bag

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here, first I need to describe the scenario I’m working in… The timescale is from the present day to five years in the future. The computer hardware that a consumer might have access to is essentially the same as today (obviously there will be improvements in performance, but I’m not relying on them to make the scenario work). Digital manufacturing technologies are accessed through services such as Ponoko or Shapeways (again,  in five years time there may be other services which are cheaper or easier to use or whatever, but the scenario is still credible even if nothing changes). Given those assumptions, what I’m proposing is that the opportunity exists for an ‘expert amateur’ to take an existing product, reverse engineer it using some basic tools, and reconstruct it in CAD. If that’s possible, then those CAD files could be made available for anyone to download and manufacture a copy. So this part of the project is about proof of concept that reverse engineering a product, a computer mouse, is possible.

There are a few questions which inevitably get asked at this point. Firstly, hasn’t this already been proven by models on Google’s 3D Warehouse or Turbosquid? Well, yes and no. Those models show that a degree of reverse engineering is possible, but not to the extent that I’m talking about. Because the models are mainly intended to be used visually, either on-screen or as printed renderings, they don’t have anything like the mechanical integrity needed to make a functioning 3D part. There is no guarantee of dimensional accuracy beyond what’s needed to look realistic, and certainly no consideration of how to assembly a ‘real’ product. 3D Warehouse and Turbosquid show the feasibility of a repository for models, and hint, perhaps, at a market, but unfortunately nothing more.

The next question is why would someone want to manufacture a copy, given the expense and (poor) quality of rapid manufactured parts. This is a difficult one, and so I avoid it by saying that’s not what I’m researching! Actually that’s not strictly true, I am assuming in my PhD that rapid manufacturing technologies will improve in quality as well as becoming cheaper, simply as an inevitable progression. I’m not about to put a date on when it will be possible to produce high quality, affordable parts. But if reverse engineering (and as a consequence, consumer design or customisation) are possible now, they will still be possible when the technology ‘catches up’. For now I just want to show that the scenario is feasible.


Rear of the packaging

Finally there is the question of legality, and all I can say here is that it’s a grey area that I’m only beginning to touch on. Inside the box that the mouse came in there was an EULA which prohibits reverse engineering Microsoft’s software drivers, but nothing covering the hardware. That probably indicates nothing more than the likelihood of it happening though, which is obviously pretty small. Adrian Bowyer of RepRap has co-written a paper looking at the intellectual property implications of 3D printing (free download, and definitely worth reading if this kind of thing interests you), which suggests that, in the UK at least, personal use of 3D printing technologies doesn’t infringe the majority of IP restrictions:

“Registered design and patent explicitly exempt personal use, trade mark law has been interpreted as doing so, and UDR [unregistered design right] is only applicable to commercial use.”

This non-infringement is especially clear if the parts can be considered as spares needed for “the repair of a complex product so as to restore its original appearance”. What Bowyer’s paper is less certain about is the legality of making 3D files available for others, stating that “Judicial or legislative clarification may be required to settle the question of whether a patent is infringed by providing instructions allowing a 3D printer to make it.” As I said, it’s a grey area…

POSTED IN: 04 New Design Processes, 05 Enabling End User Design, 4 Comments

4 Responses

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