Generally speaking, reverse engineering is learning how something works for the purpose of recreating it. There are several different uses of this process, including basic understanding, interfacing with existing products, reproduction, and determining patent infringement.
Since the rice of additive manufacturing (and subtractive manufacturing before it), reverse engineering has taken on a whole new meaning. Now, almost anyone can reimagine existing products to get longer life out of them using 3D printing.
In this article, we’ll take a look at common reverse engineering applications, especially from a maker-centric point of view, as well as the basics behind the process. We’ll then check out a couple specific examples before ending with a point on commercial use cases.
For an individual maker, common reasons for reverse engineering a product or software fall into one of three categories:
A common goal in reverse engineering is to recreate the physical dimensions of an object.
For simple geometries or objects that require tight clearances or tolerances, a common approach is to physically measure an object, using simple measuring tools like calipers and rulers, and model it, using a CAD tool. Say, for example, one wanted to replace a broken foot on the bottom of a sofa. Using one of the intact pieces, assuming a simple geometry, one could model the part. Simple CAD tools, like Tinkercad, allow even novices to produce basic objects.
Naturally, the more complex the object, the more modeling experience one needs to use this method.
The next best option for recreating an object is to scan it. A 3D scanner is a device that uses either a camera or laser light to photograph an object from different angles in order to reconstruct a 3D model of the device.
There are several factors to pay attention to when it comes to 3D scanning for reverse engineering:
One thing to note about 3D scanning is that scanners generally only scan the surface of a part and therefore miss internal geometries and features that are not easily visible from the outside.
For commercial reverse engineering, often the internal structure of a device is also important to the final functionality. So to scan the internals of an object, a different type of 3D imaging called computed tomography is used. This generally uses X-rays or other forms of penetrative radiation to see through an object, recording internal geometries as well as external surfaces. This type of scanning can be particularly useful if the disassembly of an object would destroy it.
Lego bricks have not only been reverse-engineered and posted to 3D websites, but there are even legal issues surrounding the reverse engineering of Lego using 3D printing. This covers not only the concept of recreating a product but also the improvement of a product through the successful interfacing of Lego bricks with other types of construction sets.
Oftentimes, to prevent a digital object from being reverse engineered, the file format is released in a format that isn’t easily convertible. For example, a 3D printer can print a G-code file, but G-code files are not particularly known for their ability to be loaded and edited in 3D modeling software. Yet, a couple methods of reverse engineering G-code back into an STL file do exist, bringing about the recreation of an editable digital object.
You might think reverse engineering is just making small changes or replicating an existing object, but it has profound implications for our world far beyond making cool new Lego bricks. There are many companies dedicated to the process of reverse engineering an existing product to understand how it works.
Commercial reverse engineering services go far deeper than simply 3D scanning an item to recreate it. As the company Arrival3D puts it, “reverse engineering requires some understanding of the original designer’s thought process.” What they’re talking about is the concept of tolerancing and figuring out how parts fit and move together when they are intended to be used rather than how a particular part may look or function.
An individual part may have flaws or artifacts that do not affect the design in any noticeable way that would be expensive or difficult to replicate. Their business provides reverse engineering services for things like patent drawings, machining, and molding parts.
For military applications specifically, companies like PHT Aerospace provide reverse engineering services for things like motors, radar systems, and power supplies for obsolete military equipment. This type of reverse engineering is crucial for national security purposes, as it allows extremely expensive defense systems to be updated to modern electronic and software specifications without the costs and time associated with building new systems.
Overall, reverse engineering is crucial to our world from the mundane home use cases to things like national security. As the old adage goes, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Hence reverse engineering will continue to be useful far into the future.
(Lead image source: pinshape.com)
License: The text of "What Is Reverse Engineering? Meaning and Definition" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.