My son Rob is a mechanical engineer and used to work in the aerospace industry, where he reverse-engineered parts for commercial jet aircraft. What is reverse engineering? For about five years, the original manufacturer of a plane—Boeing, Lockheed—enforces a service agreement with all purchasers, so that only the manufacturer can sell replacement parts. Eventually, however, other companies can sell these parts, but only after precisely analyzing the originals and creating a product equal to or better than the original—as determined by the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA). This analysis and production is reverse engineering.
One day Rob and I were in the garage, and as I was looking for some kind of fastener I briefly picked up a steel pin, a straight cylindrical rod about one-eighth inch in diameter and 1.5 inches in length—whose purpose I had long since forgotten. I held it up so he could see it and said that it probably cost me thirty cents at the local hardware store. “How much would this cost if I purchased it from Boeing?”
“Oh, about two-hundred forty dollars,” he said. “You know why?”
“No.” I had heard such stories relative to military equipment, but I had never heard a satisfactory answer.
“Paperwork,” he said.
I asked him what he meant, and it turned out that “paperwork” meant a mountain of research, metallurgy, department meetings, trained professionals, engineering, and testing, along with piles of letters, certifying documents, and test results required to satisfy FAA requirements. The cumulative cost of all that time and work is enormous—for every single one of the parts, as many as six million in a jumbo jet—and then the manufacturer charges for replacement parts at a pro-rated figure that will yield a reasonable profit over the life of the plane. Hence the expense.
By contrast, the manufacturers of pins for the hardware store simply roll out a piece of steel the right shape and cut off the lengths they desire, each piece taking shape faster than you can see it with your eye.
Reverse engineering allows companies to create near duplicates of the original parts at a lesser cost. Creating a plane from ideas requires a lot more research and work than to duplicate an existing plane. But considerable analysis is still required, so that the duplicates are ensured to be almost exactly like the originals. Reverse engineers don’t get creative. They don’t try to create parts that are significantly different from the originals, even if they might be better. Why? Because the original parts have already been proven to work effectively through thousands—sometimes millions—of uses, rotations, and oscillations.
As we pursue happiness in our lives, we don’t have to do original research. Each of us doesn’t have to invent the wheel. Instead, we can find people who are already happy and reverse engineer what we find. We can find people, for example, with a noticeable lack of anger, who don’t easily become impatient, and who appear to care genuinely about others. And then we can ask them what they believe, what they know, and how they live. We can’t duplicate anyone exactly—nor would we want to—but we can learn the general principles and feelings that make them who they are, and we can aspire to find or create those in ourselves.