Sandbox/Virtual Product Dissection

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The objective of this lab is to evaluate the functional design of a product and apply the discovered characteristics of that product to a new design. Product dissection is a type of reverse engineering that reveals how products work and can be used as a tool for design inspiration. The goal is to design an innovative water toy for use by kids aged 4-6. The toy must be safe and fun to use.


Product dissection is often done in industry and academia to uncover opportunities for re-design. Designers take apart and analyze all components of a product to understand its structure and properties. Through understanding the product, design opportunities can be uncovered and applied to the redesign of a product. Therefore, the goal of dissection is to improve the functionality, maintainability, and reliability of a product through the examination, study, capture, and modification of other existing products. [1]

Engineering Design Process

TThe engineering design process is used to systematically collect and analyze data on a product’s inner workings and make decisions to improve it or create a new product or service. There are a number of published engineering design processes, but the majority of them contain the same elements. As seen in Figure 1, the steps of the engineering design process include identifying the needs and assumptions, researching the problem, brainstorming, selecting a solution, prototyping, testing, and improving

Figure 1: Engineering Design Process.[2]

Product dissection is an important tool to inform decisions in the researching, imagining, and planning stages. In particular, the “imagination” step, also referred to as brainstorming or ideation, can benefit from taking the concepts of an alternative product and applying it to a new design. In this lab, it is essential to ask about and identify the needs and constraints of the design. Future labs will cover prototyping, testing, and redesigning.

Design Fixation

Design fixation is a problem that engineers and computer scientists experience when they have preconceived notions of or create an initial idea for a design and cannot conceive alternatives. Some methods to overcome design fixation include product dissection, design heuristics, SCAMPER, and brainstorming. Brainstorming is the idea generation that occurs during the conceptualization phase of the design process. Design heuristics and SCAMPER are methods that use modifying verbs to inspire alternative solutions. Product dissection uses the design characteristics of existing products and applies them in a new context.

Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering is the process of reproducing a product's specifications by the examination of the product's components and functionality. Hardware reverse engineering involves product dissection to see how a product works. For instance, if a processor manufacturer wants to see how a competitor's processor works, the company can purchase the processor, disassemble it, and then make a new processor similar to it. [3]

Software can also be reverse engineered. Reverse engineering software typically involves taking a program’s machine code (the compiled code) and converting it into a more human readable format. It can also be used to obtain the original source code or determine the file structures the program uses, when the source code is lost or unavailable. For example, when a project is reactivated, after being dormant for years, with the aim of adding new features to a product, the original design documentation may have been lost. The aim is to understand how a program functions in order to identify deeper issues, and thus find ways of fixing them. Reverse engineering software to copy it constitutes a copyright violation and is illegal.[3]

Design Considerations

  • Design an innovative water toy for use by kids aged 4-6 (the toy will only be hypothetically designed).
  • The toy must be safe to use and fun.
  • Incorporate the dissected product's design functional characteristics below where applicable:
    • Power supply/energy source
    • Primary motion (how does it move?)
    • Energy flow
    • Form and outer body

Materials and Equipment


Part 1: Creativity (10 minutes)

Creativity is an important part of the engineering design process as it is important to brainstorm in a creative mindset. A piece of paper and a pencil, or note app on a device of choice should be used to complete the paper clip ideation activity.

Paper Clip Ideation

  • Take out a piece of paper and a pencil, or a note app on a device of choice
  • Write down as many ways to use a paperclip as possible (2 minutes)
  • After the timer has gone off, count up the number of ideas generated as a group
  • Identify the greatest number of ideas generated and share
  • Share any ideas that were not mentioned, including new ideas after others have shared

Part 2: First Idea Generation Session (10 minutes)

List all ideas for the water toy down on paper. These ideas will be used to build upon after the dissection activity. This brainstorming session is performed individually and should follow the rules of brainstorming:

  • No (self) judgement
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Stay focused on the topic
  • Be visual
  • Go for quantity
  • Combine & improve ideas

Product Dissection Overview (5 minutes)

Product dissection is an idea generation method. Product dissection is often done in industry and academia to uncover opportunities for re-design and inspire new design ideas. The virtual products will be taken apart and analyzed to understand all components, its structure, and properties. This analysis will be used to find ways to improve the water toy ideas and/or be inspired for new design ideas. The goal is to improve the functionality, maintainability, and reliability of a product through the examination, study, capture, and modification of existing products. It can also inspire new design ideas by drawing inspiration from products in different design domains. It is ideal to dissect products outside of the area of design. For example, if the task is to design a new electric toothbrush, then it is best to dissect any product that is not a toothbrush. Watch the short tutorial video for SolidWorks eDrawings for instruction on how to use product dissection tools in the software.

Part 3: Product Dissection Activity (20 minutes)

Each team member should choose which product to dissect. A virtual product dissection handout is provided for documentation. Deciding which product to dissect should be done in project groups, and each member should dissect something different from their teammates. The available product models can be found below by clicking on the image or link to download. After the products have been chosen, the tutorial video for SolidWorks eDrawings can be viewed to review the product dissection process and how to use the software.

Part 4: Second Idea Generation Session (10 minutes)

A second idea generation session will be used to build on ideas for the water toy based on the outcomes from the product dissection. Draw out specific design ideas on the virtual product dissection handout. These ideas may stem from the application opportunity box from the previous activity or be completely new. Write out all new ideas. Perform this idea generation session individually and follow the rules of brainstorming:

  • No (self) judgement
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Stay focused on the topic
  • Be visual
  • Go for quantity
  • Combine & improve ideas

Reflection (5 minutes)

Share all ideas for design and redesign with other members of the team.


Individual Lab Report

The lab 1 report should only include content on Lab 1B Virtual Product Dissection. This means that Lab 1A Introduction to Microsoft Office and Lab 1C Introduction to 3D Printing should not appear in the lab report. For guidance on the first report, the assignment questions below have been organized into the sections in which they should appear in the report. On future lab reports, judgement must be used to determine which section of the report should address each question.

Follow the lab report guidelines laid out in the page Specifications for Writing Your Lab Reports in the Technical Communication section of this manual. The following discussion points should be addressed in the appropriate section of the lab report: Introduction

  • Define product dissection.
  • Define design fixation.
  • Explain the engineering design process.


  • Describe the steps taken for the initial ideation of the water toy.
  • Describe the product dissection process and the steps taken in Solidworks eDrawings.


  • Describe the product dissection and functional characteristics observed including:
    • Power supply/energy source
    • Primary motion
    • Energy flow
    • Form and outer body


  • Describe how the product design changed from the beginning of dissection to after.
  • During product ideation did design fixation impact any parts of the product? What negative impact did this have on the design?
  • Was it useful to dissect multiple products as a group?

Remember: Lab notes are required to be taken. Experimental details are easily forgotten unless written down. EG Standard Note Paper can be downloaded and printed from the EG Website. Use the lab notes to write the Procedure section of the lab report. At the end of each lab a TA will scan the lab notes and upload them to the Lab Documents section of the EG Website. One point of extra credit is awarded if the lab notes are attached at the end of the lab report (use the Pictures button in the Illustrations group under the Insert tab in MS Word after your Conclusion). Keeping careful notes is an essential component of all scientific practice.

Team PowerPoint Presentation

There is NO team presentation for Lab 1.


  1. ^ Starkey, E., Hunter, S., & Miller, S.Learning with Product Dissection. Retrieved 2019. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation through grant number 14630009.
  2. ^ TeachEngineering. The Engineering Design Process. Retrieved 2019. The source of this material is the TeachEngineering digital library collection at All rights reserved.
  3. ^ a b What Is website. TechTarget Network. Retrieved July 29th, 2003.