Reverse engineering is the scientific method of taking something apart in order to figure out how it works. Reverse engineering has been used by innovators to determine a product’s structure in order to develop competing or interoperable products. Reverse engineering is also an invaluable teaching tool used by researchers, academics and students in many disciplines, who reverse engineer technology to discover, and learn from, its structure and design.
Although some reverse engineering techniques require making a copy of the software being investigated, an act that would otherwise be considered a copyright violation, copyright law has allowed these reverse engineering copies as a form of “fair use.” Increasingly, however, contract clauses forbidding reverse engineering are included in technology licenses. Sometimes sellers include these clauses in “shrink-wrap,” “click-wrap,” or “browse-wrap” licenses without enabling the user to negotiate the terms of such a license. In many instances, users are not even aware of the terms to which they are binding themselves.
Following are reasons for reverse engineering a part or product:
- The original manufacturer of a product no longer produces a product
- There is inadequate documentation of the original design
- The original manufacturer no longer exists, but a customer needs the product
- The original design documentation has been lost or never existed
- Some bad features of a product need to be designed out. For example, excessive wear might indicate where a product should be improved
- To strengthen the good features of a product based on long-term usage of the product
- To analyze the good and bad features of competitors’ product
- To explore new avenues to improve product performance and features
- To gain competitive benchmarking methods to understand competitor’s products and develop better products
- The original CAD model is not sufficient to support modifications or current manufacturing methods
- The original supplier is unable or unwilling to provide additional parts
- The original equipment manufacturers are either unwilling or unable to supply replacement parts, or demand inflated costs for sole-source parts
- To update obsolete materials or antiquated manufacturing processes with more current, less-expensive technologies
Reverse engineering enables the duplication of an existing part by capturing the component’s physical dimensions, features, and material properties. Before attempting reverse engineering, a well-planned life-cycle analysis and cost/benefit analysis should be conducted to justify the reverse engineering projects. It can be said that reverse engineering begins with the product and works through the design process in the opposite direction to arrive at a product definition statement. In doing so, it uncovers as much information as possible about the design ideas that were used to produce a particular product.
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