What Is Reverse Engineering? (Steps, Examples and Purposes)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 12 October 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Reverse engineering refers to the systematic process of breaking down a product to deduce how it works. Some things engineers dismantle include machines and software. Learning about this procedure may help you gain knowledge to boost your job performance in engineering or technology. In this article, we define what reverse engineering is, list the steps to perform this process and provide some examples.

What is reverse engineering?

Reverse engineering or backwards engineering involves dismantling a product to unveil its internal mechanisms so engineers and other professionals can understand how it works. Separating an object into its components may help businesses learn how to reproduce or improve their products. For instance, engineers may use this method to analyse the construction and design of software to extract useful information for improvements.

This technique is also useful for copying items without the original blueprints or recreating products that are no longer in production. By obtaining a working model of an old product and applying this method, engineers can determine the design steps and use the information to create a new model, repair a part or refine future products.

Related: What Does an Engineer Do? With Steps for Getting Started

5 steps of reverse engineering

Businesses use backwards engineering to study their products and processes to gain important information to help them make business decisions. For example, knowing how a device or system works may help companies duplicate or enhance it. The following outlines the steps you can take to reverse engineer a product:

1. Gather information

Gathering information about the product is critical before you start the dismantling process. This process involves measuring product dimensions, identifying source designs and deducing the original coding of the device. This first step is important so you understand the product or system before taking it apart.

2. Produce a model

Based on the information collected in the previous step, you can produce a sketch or a model of the product or part. This model is usually three-dimensional and provides an accurate representation using computer-aided design (CAD). Examining the model may help you gain information about the product's design purpose.

Related: 38 CAD Engineer Interview Questions (With Sample Answers)

3. Dissect the object

The next step is to conduct a systematic disassembly of the product. Typically, you dissect the object layer by layer, following a predetermined process. You can organise the parts as you remove them to make it easier to reassemble them at a later stage. Dismantling the object sequentially may also assist you to inspect, measure and assess the individual parts to evaluate their functionalities.

4. Evaluate the product

After separating the components, you can evaluate each part to diagnose specific issues and resolve errors. The information generated from these product evaluations may help you achieve your design goals. You can record your observations and document your findings to recommend improvements. You can also scan the product sketch to a computer to help when rebuilding.

5. Reconstruct the item

During the rebuilding stage, you may make changes and test if they improve the product. This process may enable you to generate an improved version of the original. If the goal of the process is to reconstruct the object, you can combine the components to recreate the product.

Related: 6 Common Engineering Interview Questions (With Tips)

Examples of reverse engineering

Companies may use this technique to achieve different business objectives depending on the industry. For example, they may use this method to enhance their products or services, replicate existing products or gain information to help them design new offerings. The following outlines some examples where professionals may apply backwards engineering:

Construction

Architects and engineers working in the construction industry may use this method to resolve design issues in their projects. They may use large scanners to compose three-dimensional models of buildings. By analysing the information provided by the models, these professionals can pinpoint potential design faults and resolve them.

Computer parts and systems

Computer engineers may dismantle a computer to study the functionalities of its various parts. By taking apart the hardware, these professionals may replace existing parts with new ones or perform diagnostic tests on faulty components. This may be beneficial for individuals who are learning how to build computer systems.

Software

Programmers may perform back engineering on software to determine how to maintain or improve their applications. While computer programs are intangible, the same principles of backwards engineering apply. The process involves extracting data and code to make inferences about the program's functionalities and uses.

Mechanical projects

Mechanics may apply this technique to different products, such as air conditioners, vehicles or washing machines to discover various issues. They can troubleshoot problems and discover viable solutions by disassembling the product and inspecting each part. They may also rebuild it according to custom specifications.

Network security assessment

Organisations aiming to strengthen their network security may use this method to perform assessments. Two security teams work together during this process. While one team simulates attacks on the company's software, the other team monitors the network and reverse engineers the attack. The insights gained from these simulation exercises may boost the security of the organisation's networks.

Related: 9 Essential Engineering Skills to Include in Your Resume

Industries using this process

Here are some industries that often apply this investigative process:

Aerospace

This industry typically applies backwards engineering to aircraft to discover issues and deduce solutions. This technique also helps aerospace engineers develop maintenance parts, enhance existing components and conduct aerodynamic analysis. Deconstructing an aircraft can also help technical professionals develop suitable tools to ensure the optimal performance of these carriers.

Automobile

Professionals in the automobile industry may perform back engineering to identify areas of improvement for existing vehicles. They may use this method to replace legacy parts of older vehicles and develop viable substitutions. The findings they gain from this process may also inspire businesses to innovate new models with improved performance.

Consumer goods

The consumer goods industry may adopt this technique to develop prototypes for new products. Industry professionals may use this process to test and validate their conceptual product designs. They may also study their competitors' products to discover traits that make them successful.

Related: What Does a Product Engineer Do? Role, Skills and Salary

Purposes of this engineering type

The following outlines some purposes of this scientific technique:

Analysing failure

Failure analysis means understanding why a product works in an unexpected way. Assessing a product using back engineering can help professionals uncover damaged parts or faulty designs. For example, machine error may require engineers to examine the device's parts to understand the reasons for the issue. This knowledge may then help engineers take steps to restore the proper functioning of the device.

Repairing current products or parts

Engineers may learn how to repair current products by taking them apart and examining their elements. This is especially true if the component lacks design documents that provide instructions on how to repair it. Through backwards engineering, professionals can determine the effective ways to access, remove or replace faulty components for a device. This may help to increase the utility of existing machinery or systems.

Replacing legacy parts

Legacy parts are components manufacturers use in current products that are no longer in production. For instance, a manufacturer may use a conveyor system in its factories. The system may comprise parts that are no longer available on the market. Using back engineering, the manufacturer may replicate the design of the faulty component and create a copy of the desired part. Installing this additional part into existing machinery may help save costs.

Improving and recreating products

The information gained from backwards engineering may encourage businesses to increase their innovation by generating new product prototypes. For instance, engineers assessing the flaws of a faulty machine may discover the need for weld reinforcements. They may achieve results by using stronger metals or increasing the thickness of the joints. Back engineering may enable professionals to decide on the aspects of a current design that require change. This may help businesses create more sustainable and effective products.

Diagnosing problems

When a complex machinery system comprises multiple components, it may be challenging for engineers to pinpoint the causes of issues. These professionals may determine the source and diagnose problems through backwards engineering. By identifying errors, engineers can apply the knowledge they gained to future projects to minimise vulnerabilities.

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