Thomas L. Read, Ph.D. Read Consulting
Before expending the effort necessary to reverse engineer a device or object, it
must be definite that the object under study is not covered by one or more
patents. This avoids a dispute over patent violations. Once it has been
established that no patent coverage exists, one can use multiple techniques to
reverse engineer a product. These are summarized below:
Simple Parts: For simple parts a micrometer and/or calipers can be used to
determine specific dimensions.
Complex Parts: Either a tool makerís microscope or coordinate measuring machine
(CMM) are valuable. The CMM is a digital device that uses a probe to very
accurately determine dimensions. It can present these dimensions in a format
that is compatible with Auto CAD (a popular drawing program).
Internal Geometry: This might require accurate X-ray examination and/or
cross-sectioning along with accurate measurement of the exposed elements.
Caution: Although dimensions of existing parts are measurable, one cannot
measure the tolerances for these parts. These must be determined by other
Multiple Parts: One could measure a statistically significant number of
representative parts and from these calculate probable part tolerances.
Understand the Parts Function: One can also determine the tolerances from the
function of the part. For example, how it interacts with other parts in an
assembly. In another case, its function can be used to determine its tolerances;
this would includea consideration such as use temperature.
Introduction: After the dimensions have been determined, it is important to
determine the material from which the device has been made. There are various
categories of materials, and each requires a different analytical technique.
Plastics (i.e. organic or polymer materials): The general type of material can
be determined using Fourier Transform Infra Red analysis (FTIR). For more detail
one can use several thermal analysis techniques. The two most widely used are
Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA) and Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC).
These can be used to narrow down the composition.
Metals: In general, metals are normally identified with spectrographic analysis
in combination with wet chemistry; however, some of the exotic alloys require
more sophisticated analytical methods such as atomic absorption and alternate
Glass and Ceramics: These are best analyzed with X-ray fluorescence analysis.
Legitimate reverse engineering is best demonstrated by the process procedure and
data collected during the effort, and this information must be kept intact to
prove the legitimacy of the reverse engineering claim. In addition, it is
helpful to have personnel that can demonstrate their knowledge of the part, its
function and its limitations.