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Reverse Engineer a Product to Create Innovations

By Claudia Hentschel

Reverse engineering takes a product function or effect and tries to find new applications for it. The 6-C method leads a product development team to both incremental and breakthrough innovations:

  1. Capture: Systematically keep or strengthen an eye for observing customers’ habits, including instances of unorthodox, accidental use whenever possible [9]. Here, the actual outcome of the product use is important, not what it was supposed to come out by the designers’ imagination.
  2. Concede: Acknowledge and take advantage of a product’s knowledge and develop a new style of product analysis by exploiting physical and mechanical effects and features. See the product as a bundle of effects, features and functions, enabling new applications rather than a bundle of intended functions by abstracting from the latter.
  3. Co-opt: Make use of the effects present in a given product design and transfer these effects and features into other contexts, scenarios, places and/or categories to meet a new objective. For example, try to convert given effects into a category that is different from the originally intended one: furniture, transportation, scientific instrument, personal basic commodity and clothing, toys and games, devices, tools or pieces of equipment.
  4. Conceive: Try to interpret a product’s effects or one of its selected features as a new practical function or a practical contribution to a new category. Create new mixtures of effects and features from a professional point of view. Transfer them to original surroundings and contexts and alter product features and effects that contribute to a certain need or create a new customer need within a given context.
  5. Chart: Organize and rate the results of the relative attractiveness of each product diversion opportunity. The diversion attractiveness refers to the relative usefulness for the customers and how satisfied they are by existing products. Originality and practical orientation could also help in evaluating the outcomes.
  6. Choose: Select the most promising results to jump-start innovation by generating new product concepts in detail.

Tracing the Unorthodox Use of Cellular Phones

Considerthe 6-C method related tocellular phones.

  1. Capture: In certain circumstances some people display sort of an affectionate attitude toward the cellular phone device itself – likely dependent on the person who has called.
  2. Concede: Take the form and outer appearance of the product as a status symbol, moving more into the personal sphere of the consumer. All kinds of accessories like leather bags and casings, headsets and even diamond-like decorations are extolled, expressing more individuality. The mobile phone has long become a personal belonging like pieces of jewelery or purses, slowly taking the place of adults’ wallets and keys, or even the place of a cuddle toy to a child. The step toward becoming a personalized product thus is small.
  3. Co-opt: An extensive analysis would consider transferring findings into all other possible categories of application. Personal basic commodity and clothing can be further investigated here.
  4. Conceive: In a world where mobility counts, the next step is probably to send moods and feelings along with speech and pictures – more than simply sending emoticons. The personalization goes further when seeing the cell phone moving physically closer to the customer with wearable mobiles that challenge the textile and mobile industry alike. The mobile integrates into personal outfits by making it more tactile at the sender’s and receiver’s side, e.g., by an arm sling or a vest. Such a tactile-sensitive mobile could send emotions by multimedia messaging service, resulting in a slight squeeze of the receiver’s arm.
  5. Chart: Consider diversion attractiveness with the following equation:
    a = u + (u – s)
    where a = diversion attractiveness, u = usefulness and s = satisfaction
    Within this equation, usefulness and customer satisfaction are rated by numbers from one to ten. A high rating of usefulness refers to a highly considered contribution to a customer. Customer satisfaction can be highly rated when alternative products are available and/or affordable. The result of the equation can never be less than zero and highlights a relative attractiveness of unorthodox use as it considers only the difference between usefulness and satisfaction.
    • Originality and practical orientation also should be considered. At the moment, the main problem remains with the design of conductive fibers and fabrics, and in applying sensor properties to threads and textiles. Power generation, supply and signal processing in/with clothes is a vast but recognized field at the moment, with strong potential for the communications industry.
  6. Choose: How much sense does it makes for a mobile communication company to enter the textile industry and vice versa? Denying this question is not an option. When a new application, say a pressure sensitive arm sling, is selected, the company has to go into the subject more deeply, by addressing questions like context awareness of such personalized wearable phones – or who wants to be remotely embraced in the middle of an inconvenient situation?

Tracing the Unorthodox Use of Effervescent Tablets

Another product example is normal dental cleansing tablets for false teeth. Assume that the unorthodox use of the product at the customer’s side is not familiar to the developing company. In this case, the company should start to trace back such information or start with step 2, concede.

Seeing the product as a bundle of effects, they would include frothing up, bubbling, de-calcifying, sterilizing, enlarging volume, smelling, coloring liquids, and so on. (Refrain from mentally connecting these effects to the intended functions they have in the original application.) Next, a company could consider using the effects of de-calcification and sterilizing, and attempt to apply them to the fields of science, medical or household equipment. Can the tablets be adapted to the problem of the hardening of human arteries (probably this is not new a knowledge, but serves here for demonstration purposes). The same question can be asked when transferring the product effects to normal household problems, such as lime scale in bathrooms or dirt in drinking-bottles.

The diversion attractiveness equation can analyze the alternative products with the estimated usefulness. Say, the satisfaction with such alternative household products against lime scale is very low due to high price and/or interference with health requirements. Then, the term in brackets could therefore reach a high score, and adding to the estimated high usefulness of such a product, the diversion attractiveness sums up to a high score. List the scores to all possible product application ideas and “choose” the most appropriate one to then develop a new product concept based on a context variation.


The innovation process ends with the creation of items customers want to achieve. It begins with tracing and identifying new situations in which they will have to solve problems. The 6-C method traces unorthodox use and leads to new, sometimes wild ideas for product innovation, breaking with the original purpose assigned to a product and revealing new purposes based on functions and effects.

About the Author:

Claudia Hentschel studied industrial engineering, focusing mechanical engineering and production technology, at TU Berlin and at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Her professional background features five years of research, teaching and industry consulting at the Department of Assembly Technology of the TU Berlin/Fraunhofer Gesellschaft within the Production Technology Center Berlin. In 1996, Dr. Hentschel changed to Siemens AG Information and Communication Mobile (ICM), working as a product manager in projects aimed at the turn-key installation of mobile communication networks and managing the supply of OEM products for the radio subsystem of mobile GSM networks. Since 2000 she has been a professor at the University of Applied Sciences FHTW Berlin, lecturing on innovation, technology management and project management. Contact Claudia Hentschel at c.hentschel (at)