Whether it’s art or engineering or science, we tend to believe that originality underpins the most important and innovative work. On closer look, we’ll discover that every great design is inspired by another. Reverse engineering is a prime example of this practice.
The process involves using existing products to develop and manufacture new ones. Every time you take a physical part and use it to inform the digital design process of a new product, you are reverse engineering. In manufacturing, this occurs multiple times throughout each product lifecycle.
Reverse engineering is as old as engineering itself, but some of the tools involved are more modern than others, and they're proving immensely valuable for product development.
The difficulties involved with using traditional tools and CAD software for reverse engineering put off many manufacturers. However, today dedicated software for reverse engineering makes the process more streamlined, and accessible than before.
These software developments coupled with advances in 3D scanning technology have taken reverse engineering to a new level, where it is so fast, accurate, and effective that it’s now an integral part of product design.
In this article we dive into the most common challenges to using reverse engineering in product development, and how the right software removes them. Let’s first examine which stages of manufacturing benefit from reverse engineering.
Reverse engineering can be a valuable tool at various steps of a product’s lifecycle.
When developing a concept for a new product, manufacturers can reverse engineer an existing product to get a design that serves as a starting point. During the design phase, reverse engineering can help a manufacturer ensure the new designs will interface with existing products correctly.
In manufacturing, reverse engineering is being used to speed up tooling development, and to create replacement parts for existing mechanisms and digital archives for tooling.
This practice even allows manufacturers to leverage intellectual property locked up in physical parts by documenting existing, as-manufactured parts in a CAD file.
A 3D scanner in tandem with the right reverse engineering software can help us replicate worn parts
The case for adopting reverse engineering is clear, but implementing it can be painful. Designers and engineers are deterred from using it by a slew of challenges that make the process just too complicated.
Here are some of the common issues you may encounter when trying to reverse engineer a product without the right software.
The reverse engineering process starts by investigating an existing part. However, the vast majority of these will not have existing CAD files to use as a basis for reverse engineering.
If geometric data does exist, it’s often just 2D drawings or out-of-date 3D files that do not reflect the as-manufactured product.
Consequently, designers have to invest significant time and effort into recreating the designs from scratch.
Modern reverse engineering methods allow them to recreate CAD files for existing products in a fraction of the time it would take to design from scratch.
The most common approach is to use a 3D scanner to generate point cloud data of the existing part. Once the point cloud or mesh data is acquired, a designer or engineer will use bespoke engineering software to create a finalized mesh, surface, or parametric CAD model from the scanned data.
The model is ready for editing to suit new production needs or to send directly to 3D print.
Maybe you haven’t thought about it this way, but even measuring existing products with basic hand tools – micrometers, calipers, and rulers – to inform your new product design is a form of reverse engineering. However, the process with these tools will be slow, tedious, error-prone, and difficult to verify for accuracy.
Alternatively, you can measure more accurately with a Coordinate-measuring machine (CMMs) or portable arm. However, using them tends to be time-consuming as they only provide a few dimensions, don’t capture the full shape for indefinite storage and reference, and potentially miss important details.
With a 3D scanner, you get full data capture fast—at a speed and resolution that’s impossible with simpler measurement tools. For example, 3D scanning can be at least 2,500 times faster than probing.
Manufacturing a part and manufacturing a good, useable part can be vastly different things.
When you redesign an existing part, you need tools that enable you to make the same or similar design-intent decisions in the redesign process as the original designer. Just capturing its shape or components doesn’t really help.
Every mechanical part contains design intent—like the revolving axis of a wheel or gear, a specific dimension of a feature, or the constraint that a series of holes should be of the same radius and depth.
Extracting the design intent during the 3D scan-to-CAD conversion enables you to edit that data, and use it directly for new design and manufacture.
An accurate, useable part delivers significantly more value downstream. For this reason, most scan-based reverse engineering focuses on creating a CAD model with a history-based feature tree and editable dimensions and constraints that you can transfer to mainstream CAD applications.
Even if you have a high-quality 3D scanner and already use CAD software for design that can import mesh files, you may find that creating a 3D model is just too time-consuming.
There are several reasons. Most CAD software cannot handle 3D scans of even moderately-sized measured data sets, and are therefore slow and cumbersome. Even with optional reverse-engineering modules, CAD programs can be inefficient to use for real-world reverse-engineering tasks.
For real engineering challenges where quality and accuracy matter, you need dedicated, scan-based software.
Fortunately, there is a better way. Dedicated reverse-engineering software for 3D scan-based design is removing many of these issues and making it easy to adopt reverse engineering in product development.
A modern reverse-engineering approach, combining a 3D scanner and specialist software, accurately captures the complete geometry of virtually anything that you can scan and yields editable 3D CAD models that meet specific engineering and manufacturability requirements.
In addition, this process is faster, less expensive, and easier than ever before.
Here are some of the advantages that dedicated reverse engineering software offers.
With many CAD programs, you typically have to hand-select points to form sketches or rely on visual approximations to guess where the sketches should go. Dedicated reverse engineering software allows you to automatically fit sketch lines, arcs, and curves onto scanned parts, even more accurately.
CAD models have hundreds or thousands of features describing every aspect of a part. Saving just one minute when modeling each feature can add up to hundreds or thousands of minutes.
Scan-based reverse engineering software comes with tools that automate common feature modeling operations such as 2D and 3D sketch, revolve, extrude, fillet, shell/thicken, and pipe.
Some part regions such as rough, unmachined casting portions do not require design intent extraction. In this case, you should be able to capture as-built NURBS geometry automatically to blend automatic surfaces with solid-modelled features seamlessly.
CAD models created in standalone software sometimes have compatibility issues with other CAD programs. In an ideal world, we would connect directly to other CAD software, transfer each feature automatically, and get a parametric model with complete modeling history. And you can – with the right software.
With mainstream CAD programs, you often have to stop modeling and export the CAD file to another application to check deviation. Real-time feedback is the only way to analyze the accuracy of your CAD model on the fly during every step of the reverse-engineering process.
Most manufacturers are already engaging in reverse engineering every day, when they measure physical parts and use those dimensions to inform multiple aspects of product design. But dedicated reverse engineering software can reduce the inefficiencies that are part and parcel of traditional methods.
To learn more about how reverse engineering software can elevate your product development, read our comprehensive eBook.
If you’d like to try Oqton’s reverse engineering software, Design X, request a trial.