The Brainstorm: Reverse Engineering
Product Design & Development | March 2009

Michael Raphael
President & Chief Engineer
Direct Dimensions

Todd Grimm
Founder & President
T.A. Grimm & Associates

Is reverse engineering an act of simply copying another design or is it a tool to be used as a cost-cutting means to document legacy designs?

"Reverse engineering" is not really a bad word; it's been a part of design and manufacturing for centuries. Certainly, there are those that have used 3-D scanning to “pilfer” someone else’s product design.

Fortunately this dark side of the technology isn’t common. Because of that negative context though, the term “reverse engineering’ is becoming less used for these applications and technologies and is being replaced by the umbrella term: "3-D Imaging."

Regardless, reverse engineering or 3-D imaging, is a legitimate process that allows a company to benchmark its competitor’s designs, convert legacy parts to digital formats, and capture hand-sculpted shapes for use within a CAD model.

In the true sense of the term, there is some form of design, analysis or interrogation performed on this new digital 3-D CAD model that is generated from a 3-D scanner. In other words, an engineer is still required to finalize the design.

In direct reply to the question, reverse engineering is a 3-D imaging application that can assist in cutting manufacturing costs for a legacy item that lacks proper design documentation. With an “as-exists” definition in 3-D CAD, the part can be redesigned to drive out costs.

But it would be best to focus on product improvements of any kind, not just costs. For example, a legacy part may be scanned and reverse engineered for weight reductions, performance gains, material substitutions, design for manufacturability (DFM) improvements and better aesthetic appeal.

Some also consider reverse engineering for the practical matter of replicating tools and dies for their legacy parts. In this case, the design is being copied but for legitimate purposes.

Michael and Todd are both members of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) 3-D Imaging Technical Group. For more information on SME visit

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