Presented by Chima Ibeneche at the public lecture organised by the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Victoria Island Lagos branch on Saturday 27 July 2019.
Reverse engineering is the method of deconstructing a manufactured product to identify the components and their interrelationships that enable the product to fulfil its design function. The primary aim of reverse engineering is to figure out what a product is made of, how it is made and how its components interface to enable it meet its design objectives. This assumption that we can glean this information by deconstructing the product is tenable because manufacturing consists of three steps – choice or materials, shaping the materials into components and the assembly of components into products. So, by reverse engineering we can identify the materials used, the shape of components and how the components mesh to form the product. However, what is done with the knowledge so gained depends on the objectives of the reverse engineering effort.
For instance, copying or producinga replica of the product without license or guidance from the original manufacturer could be an objective. Alternatively, the information gained may be used as an input into the design of a new and different product. The knowledge may also be used to design an interface protocol that enables interoperability of the reverse engineered item with a totally different product.Lastly, a legacy equipment with lost documentation may be reversed engineered to enable creation of manualsand as-built documentation, enable maintenance of the equipment and the production of spares parts.
In military situations where every effort is made to keep the design and operation of weapons secret from enemies, reverse engineering is often the only way to uncover and understand the design and internal functioning of an enemy’s weapon. Again, the use of the insight gained depends on the objective of the effort. The knowledge can be used to design a superior weapon, or to design a defence against the weapon or simply to copy it.
Industrialisation on the other hand entails, in the main, the replacement of human labour with machines in the production system in order to improve the production efficiency or to produce something that would be impossible by manual efforts. This is often marked by the transformation of an economy from a mainly agricultural base to a manufacturing and assembly line structure. This transformation of the economy requires the use of a new energy source to replace human or animal energy.
Industrialisation usually requires the availability of raw materials that will be converted to more valued products; availability of energy source to drive machines, economic rational and justification for the investments in machines and factories and, in most cases, benign government policies that reduce the risks initially faced by industrialists to a manageable and acceptable level. Each of these four elements is necessary for successful industrialisation. For clarity I list again the critical conditions that enable industrialisation:
- Availability of raw materials
- Availability of energy for driving machines and for transforming materials
- Economic justification for investment; markets for products
- Fiscal and regulatory policies that mitigate the initial investment risks
Note that the conditions that I consider critical for industrialisation do not include reverse engineering. Engineering or reverse engineering is a problem-solving discipline utilising the understanding of the laws of nature via the application of the physical sciences. A good industrialist can often buy the required engineering competences by purchasing a process machine and paying the vendor to train her employees. In fact,investors in general focus onavailability of market for products, the availability of energy and raw materials and on securing a favourable regulatory regime. Once these are in place, the industrialist simply procures the machines and the associated engineering as a product or service. Alternatively, assurance that the raw material, energy, market and regulatory requirements are in place enables the investor to commission the engineering and manufacture of the factory. When the industrial process is commissioned, its operation can be leveraged to buildlocal engineering capability.
Engineers have a pivotal role to play in industrialisation. The invention of the steam engine – an engineering feat, and the availability of coal as a source of energy initiated the first industrial revolution. As engineers who desire to see Nigeria industrialised, we must first improve engineering education and apprenticeship so we can do proper engineering and effective reverse engineering. The extreme weakness we have in technician education in Nigeria is a major hinderance to turning engineering into industrialisation.
We must also go beyond the engineering discipline and seek solutions that ensure we have the ecosystem in which industrialisation can thrive. We must acquire the commercial capabilities that enable the right choices between industrial or project concepts. The foremost industrialists in Nigeria today are not engineers. The greatest of them all is a trader called Dangote. Other traders and bankers dominate the landscape. Why? Because they have focused on solving the challenges of the commercial and business processes and of the ecosystem. They, as traders have identified what the market wants and have proceeded to meet the identified needs using the industrial processes.
As engineers, we must solve problems that the market wants solved. Nigeria is in the humid tropics,which means that our ambient temperatures are around 30-40 degrees C. Here in the South, the relative humidity is usually greater than 70%. This information alone makes it clear that air conditioning will remain the greatest driver of consumer energy demand as the economy grows. It also implies that the sustainableand possibly cost effective, energy we can use for air conditioning is solar energy, because our built spaces are hottest when the sun is brightest. Should we wait for the problem of solar air conditioning tobe solved and then reverse engineer it? Should we not be the leaders in solar air conditioning because of our unique circumstances? The general air conditioning problem has been solved using AC motors to drive compressors and fans.Solar air conditioning only requires the replacement of AC motors with efficient DC equivalents, and the additional use of batterytechnology for powering night-time cooling. Solve this problem, and you are on your way to industrialising Nigeria, in addition to earning foreign exchange from all tropical and humid countries.
Waste management presents another opportunity for industrialisation. We have tons of spent tyres constituting a menace to the environment.These tyres can be turned into raw materials and energy products. Our cities are littered with wastes mountainsdemanding an engineering solution. We also know of the plastic menace; neither the land nor the sea is spared from the danger of one-time-use plastics. Is there a novel engineering or reverse engineering solution to the unsolved problems of waste management? Do we have a solution to the challenging of rendering and safely retiring human wastes? As our population and cities grow, our current solution for managing human waste, simply a hole in the ground, becomes unsustainable. When the wastes seep into the ground, they poison our ground water with pathogens and when trucked into our rivers and lagoons, they turn our water ways into yeasty pools of algae.
The personal mobility of the growing population of Nigeria also provides another opportunity for industrialisation. Our initial response was to adopt the European solution – the automobile powered by fossil fuel while ignoring the mass transport component provided by railways. We have not mastered the automobile – we do not manufacture it, nor can we effectively maintain it. Lately we have adopted the Indian solution for affordable mobility for the masses, what we call the Keke. We do not manufacture the Keke. I am not quite sure there is a factory in Nigeria that makes its components or spare parts. Maybe, the Keke is one product that is crying for reverse engineering, if only for the manufacture of spare parts. Then there is the future personal mobility solution involving the use of autonomous or driverless vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen or the sun. here again, there is a huge opportunity for industrialising Nigeria either by inventive engineering or by reverse engineering.
In conclusion, I do not think that reverse engineering is the optimal route for industrialising Nigeria. Surely, it can play an important role, but I ask, why focus on reverse engineering? Is it most efficient, most cost effective or just plain fun? Industrialisation is not an end; it is a servant of the economy and the market. I would say, use your engineering skills to solve the problems of the economy and the marketplace and you will be on your way to an industrialisingNigeria. Is it possible to use reverse engineering or engineering tools to solve the debilitating problem of electric power availability and distribution? Can engineering reverse the desertification of the landmass in the northern part of Nigeria? Can it solve the erosion problems of the south? Can it solve the problem of over 60% post-harvest loss in our agriculture sector? Can it make it unnecessary for cows to trek for hundreds of kilometres from farm to market? Let us identify the big problems in our economy. Let us design solutions to these problems using engineering skills. If we do, I believe industrialisation will be one of the collateral consequences.