What is reverse engineering?

I don’t quite get the concept of reverse engineering. What is it exactly or what projects can count as it?

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Two slightly different uses I’ve seen of “reverse engineering”

a) Starting with a mechanism or system including software and determining how it works by examination and/or experimentation.

b) Starting with a mechanism or system and creating a drawings, digital model and/or specifications which allow copies to be made.


It basically means that you start with a finished product and analyzes how and why it is made the way it was. Sometimes to be recreated, other times to be improved or to gain knowledge for another product. We can also need to do this because the original files and/or production method was lost. (Or it is done to make illegal copies or just study competing products to learn what they know but don’t want to share)

“Reverse engineering, sometimes called back engineering, is a process in which software, machines, aircraft, architectural structures and other products are deconstructed to extract design information from them. Often, reverse engineering involves deconstructing individual components of larger products. The reverse engineering process enables you to determine how a part was designed so that you can recreate it. Companies often use this approach when purchasing a replacement part from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is not an option.”



The design intent when reverse engineering a part can be difficult to determine at times.

I’ve had vintage motorcycle parts designed in metric countries that had one or two obviously inch dimensions on a part, which can make you second-guess other “this looks very close to what should be metric, but not too far from an inch dimension, which is it?” items. Did the original drafter work in fractions or decimals, and did they prefer to use .1, .2, .3 etc or .25, .5, .75 spacings? Where is the base datum point located? Are objects spaced from it on Cartesian XY dimensions, or are they instead on a line rotated N degrees from an axis and laid out radially? You also have to allow for machining tolerances on the part you are measuring and that can have two different but very close possible dimensions looking equally good.

Sometimes it can get very confusing/maddening!

I’ve got some factory blueprints for a BSA motorcycle engine from the late 60s/early 70s, and they are hugely complicated. How the drafter had any semblance of sanity by the time they were done is beyond me.

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