A device tear down analysis can provide crucial market intelligence.
Note: This is the fourth in a six-part series that explores the legality, methodology, and application of reverse engineering as it pertains to the IP life cycle. The goal is to help companies moving into the market for consumer-grade medical devices understand how and why they must protect their intellectual property right (IPR).
When Apple released its much-hyped iPad over the Easter weekend, there was ample interest from consumers and other electronics makers to get inside the device and probe its secrets. Specialists in device tear down wasted no time cracking open the iPad to reveal to the world the origins and the innovations inherent in its flash memory, display, battery, circuit boards, and chips.
While this feverish interest in what lies under the hood of the latest gadget from Apple has achieved the status of a professional sport, device tear down analysis such as this has a much more important role to play than simply satisfying the curiosity of technophiles and tinkerers. It’s a process fundamental to garnering the competitive intelligence an electronics maker needs to successfully bring a new product to market and protect its intellectual property rights (IPR).
Through the previous articles in the series, we introduced the five stages of the IP life cycle, how they relate to reverse engineering and how reverse engineering itself is a legal and accepted process when it doesn’t violate copyright law (a distinction pertinent to software/firmware) and doesn’t have market-destructive consequences for the manufacturer whose technology is being reverse engineered.
Device tear down analysis lies at the core of the reverse-engineering process. From an ergonomically designed enclosure, down to the individual capacitor and diode, every element of a device is created through a process of manufacturing that turns raw materials into useful components. By taking a device apart and analyzing each of these components in detail to indentify the materials and manufacturing processes used, and also to identify components licensed from third-party suppliers, it’s possible to develop a bill of materials (BOM), which is an essential reference to guide for new product development.
Stage 1: Technology and market IP life cycle
Device tear down provides a clear and intimate view of what competitors are doing. It’s key in determining what combination of features, functionality, and pricing are necessary to distinguish a product from existing competitors and afford it a reasonable chance of commercial success. The costing intelligence that comes from the tear down shows where and how costs can be cut—a vital consideration in a market as price sensitive as consumer electronics. By the same token, tear down analysis may reveal that a particular market segment is already too crowded to support another entrant.
Stages 2 and 3: Formulating an IP strategy and establishing an IP position
With the BOM in hand, an electronics maker can position its existing patent portfolio against the market to understand how its IP can be leveraged to launch a disruptive new product. It also reveals where an existing patent portfolio is weak. This will help an electronics maker understand what IP it will have to acquire or license from third parties, and what other external expertise it may have to retain, such as designers, integrated suppliers and offshore manufacturers. Again, these are all factors that will impact the cost competitiveness of the final product.
Tear down also allows for a close look at device efficacy and accuracy and the quality of the components that have been used. For example, what flaws or shortcomings have been documented with existing devices? How can these issues be overcome and how much will it cost to develop a more reliable product?
Stages 4 and 5: Leverage IP to defend business and IP monetization
As discussed in previous articles, reverse engineering is particularly effective to gather evidence of prior art to invalidate assertions of infringement against your company, as well as strengthen an assertion against a third-party that is posing a threat to your market share. Using reverse engineering to generate evidence of unlicensed use of patented technology is a key to demonstrating the value of the patent assets and therefore maximizing the potential return.
Device tear down analysis is fundamental to these final two phases of the IP life cycle. It provides a first look at what IP is being used in a device and how it’s being used. Thorough and well-documented tear down also creates an historical record that will outlast physical examples of a device in our disposable culture. This is important evidence to invalidate patent claims on the grounds of prior art.
More than a keen eye and a screwdriver
It bears noting that it’s legal to publish the results of a device tear-down analysis. The act of purchasing a product on the open market does confer personal property rights to the buyer, including the right to take the product apart, study its makeup and disclose the findings. The exception to this, again, is found with the application of copyright law to software/firmware.
However, effective and complete tear down to produce an accurate and complete BOM requires specialized analytical equipment, deep technical expertise, and extensive knowledge of the component supply market. It’s a specialized discipline that is the forte of an experienced reverse engineering firm.
In the next article, we will explore semiconductor reverse engineering for bioelectrical components.
Mike McLean is the vice-president of intellectual property rights and professional services at UBM TechInsights. He holds a Bachelor of Science, Engineering with First Class Honours from Queens University and is a licensed member of the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario.