An integrated circuit obtained through product teardown. Photo courtesy iSuppli Corp.

How deep can one dive when disassembling (i.e., tearing down) a product? It will vary depending on the product and amount of information desired by the manufacturer. Regardless of depth, most product teardowns follow a basic procedure.

“Very systematically we photograph a product it as it comes apart,” says David Meeker, a lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of Neoteric Product Development a product teardown consulting firm. “Many times when you’re taking something apart, you’ll pull out a couple screws and a giant subassembly will drop in your hand. We set that aside and keep going all the way until nothing’s left to take apart and you’re left with a bare chassis. And then you go back to the subassemblies and, in some cases, you can look at it and say it’s an OEM subassembly they bought somewhere.”

David Carey, president of Portelligent, a company that provides teardown services, says teardown “can be as simple as using a screwdriver and a camera or as complex as requiring deep lab capabilities to go in and analyze process nodes on a chip.”

The physical teardown of a product can be done either by a team or individual, although the team approach appears to be more common begin with setup.

Step one is to define the investigation scope. Do you need to tear down a complete car, or just its powertrain or interior? Next you must select the products you want to compare. Teardowns of just one product do occur but are rare.

Step three is to determine what you want to find out, such as technical solutions, costs or materials used, and the appropriate methodologies for obtaining this information. “It’s a very structured approach, like with a forensic crime scene investigation,” says Christian Heiss of Oliver Wyman, a company that helps companies do product teardowns. “You must be sure to analyze things in the correct order, because one wrong analysis can impact the results of the following analyses.”

The last part of setup is determining how to document your teardown. Setup of the teardown should take no more than a week or two, Heiss says, including the purchasing (or leasing) of all competitors’ products. “If you have significant experience, the setup happens quickly,” says Heiss. At this point the physical teardown is done.

Each product component is disassembled, weighed, photographed and categorized, and its properties documented. The duration of the teardown will vary depending on the product’s technical complexity, although it usually takes no more than one month to go from a “boxed functional product to a pile of parts and finished report,” says Carey.

“If I do teardowns with my clients, a teardown investigation takes about 6-8 weeks,” adds Heiss, who’s been doing product teardown for 17 years.