Reverse engineering: Revive the old and inspire the new

Reverse engineering existing products offers a path to re-creating obsolete parts, adding value to popular items, and even sparking innovations.

Image by Scharfsinn86

a woman wearing eyeglasses works on an AutoCAD design on a large curved screen.

Software like Autodesk's AutoCAD can help the reverse engineering process

What is reverse engineering?

Reverse engineering, or backward engineering, is the process of disassembling and analyzing a finished product to find out how it works, re-create or improve upon outdated or rare products, or inspire innovation. Reverse engineering software helps make the process faster, more accurate, flexible, and insightful.

An auto engineer 3D scans an automobile component for reverse engineering

3D scanning an automotive component helps reverse engineer older parts for reproduction or improvement, image by Mihajlo Maricic

Reverse engineering for hardware

Reverse engineering hardware parts and larger assemblies involves capturing 3D images of the hardware and importing them into reverse engineering software like Autodesk ReCap Pro or as editable 3D CAD models.

This is a popular technique for re-creating or improving on older parts with outdated or unavailable design plans. Engineers can then reproduced or improve a product by making it lighter; updating features and usability; utilizing more efficient manufacturing techniques and end-of-life processing; increasing interoperability; and increasing performance metrics like strength, durability, cost efficiency, and so on.

Many industries benefit from legally and ethically sound reverse engineering. The aerospace and automotive design industries use it in many ways, including making older components more aerodynamic, creating replacements for out-of-production parts, and digitizing physical models. In biomedical engineering, reverse engineering has been essential for producing implants and prosthetics, surgical tools, and anatomical models. Consumer product design and engineering uses reverse engineering profusely. The furniture and jewelry design industries practice reverse engineering to make molds, replicas, and add-on items like ornamentation and trimmings.


Reverse engineering led Autodesk's Pier 9/DMG researcher Andreas Bastian to optimize a lightweight airplane cabine seat frame, saving costs and reducing CO2 emissions.

Reverse engineering helped an Autodesk researcher optimize a lightweight airplane cabin seat frame, saving costs and reducing CO2 emissions

How to reverse engineer in manufacturing

Modern reverse engineering for manufacturing hardware typically follows a four-step process.

First, the engineer acquires the geometry and other data for the product or its disassembled parts for reverse engineering, usually by 3D scans. 3D scanning generates point clouds, which reverse engineering software like Autodesk ReCap Pro can convert into mesh models for the engineer to modify and refine. ReCap Pro can also capture object data using photogrammetry, a technology that converts a series of photographs into 3D models. Reverse engineers may also gather additional product and part data through further tests and measurements.

During the second step, post-processing, engineers may need to manually edit or correct the software-generated mesh models before moving on to the third step, modeling. Again, reverse engineering software such as Autodesk Fusion can convert the mesh models into parametric models representing the parts’ solid surfaces. The engineers can easily improve the models and use Fusion’s tools for stress analysistopology optimization, and other simulation features.

For the final step, engineers review the models against the initial scans and begin iterating on the design and creating simulated or physical prototypes to test that the new part satisfies design goals for improving upon the original.   

Benefits of reverse engineering software

Resurrect and improve old designs

With reverse engineering, teams can rejuvenate outdated parts without the original design documents. The reverse engineering process also allows for tweaking and refining, resulting in parts and products that outperform the originals.


Save time with helpful features

Reverse engineering software like Fusion includes helpful workflow features such as the Mesh Workspace for modifying and repairing mesh bodies and Sketch tools for building sketch profiles from mesh cross-sections.


Gain insights faster

Reverse engineering parts and products can reduce the time and resources needed for R&D and help engineers make quicker design decisions for factors like material selection and manufacturing methods.


Autodesk software for reverse engineering

Cloud-based 3D CAD/CAM/CAE software for product design

Reality capture and 3D scanning software and services

Get Inventor + AutoCAD + Autodesk Fusion + more—Professional-grade tools for product development and manufacturing planning

Customers using reverse engineering

A design engineer reverse engineering a part on his screen.

Claudius Peters

New tech revises an old part

After using Fusion’s generative design to reimagine a crucial part for industrial cement coolers, Claudius Peters reverse-engineered the component back into Autodesk Inventor to validate a design that could be welded and cast.


Image courtesy of Claudius Peters

Video still of a CAD design for the "Soup Dragon," a human-powered vehicle designed for speed.

Soup Dragon

Two wheels and a cloud of dust

Engineers looking to break the human-powered land speed record reverse-engineered the Soup Dragon bicycle from analog designs into CAD data in Fusion, where they could refine the steering and other mechanical systems.


CAD screen capture of the bio-mimicry design of Filament Tower.

Marshall Prado

Reverse engineering nature

Biomimicry essentially reverse engineers the innate genius of natural structures, incorporating it into architecture and product design. Prado used Autodesk PowerMill to fabricate Filament Tower to mimic the high strength-to-weight ratio cellulose fiber structures of trees and other plants with carbon-and-glass fiber.


Image courtesy Marshall Prado/University of Tennessee Knoxville

Reverse engineering resources

Read more about how reverse engineering helps product design, helps re-create old printed circuit boards and other components, converts 2D drawings to 3D, and more.


A brief video demonstrates how to reverse engineer Autodesk Civil 3D project data from “legacy” drawings, particularly from DWG files.


This paper describes using a novel neural network for reverse engineering CAD shapes from other representations.


Frequently asked questions (FAQ) on reverse engineering

What is reverse manufacturing?

Reverse manufacturing is basically synonymous with reverse engineering, where someone deconstructs and analyzes a product or system to reveal how it was made or works. While software can be reverse-engineered, reverse manufacturing is more likely to refer to a hardware component or assembly.


The reverse manufacturing process includes disassembling the product into its parts and measuring the parts’ dimensions, for which 3D laser scanning can help. Next comes creating 3D CAD models of the parts, where the engineer can make modifications. Finally, engineers can manufacture the parts from their 3D models using 3D printing or other methods.

What are examples of reverse engineering?

Reverse engineering applies to many industries, for both software and hardware. Software written to work only with one microprocessor or operating system can be reverse-engineered and remade to work with a different processor or OS. Malware often uses reverse-engineered code as a disguise, and cybersecurity often reverse-engineers malware to fight it.


The biomedical field reverse engineers proteins, organs, DNA, and more to study their functions. Notably, the Human Genome Project used reverse engineering to sequence human DNA.


Design and manufacturing use reverse engineering for many things, including large-scale projects like appliances, computers, and even vehicles, such as the Soviet MiG-25 “Foxbat” fighter jet, which was reverse-engineered after a Russian pilot defected and landed in Japan.

Is it unethical to reverse engineer?

Reverse engineering as a practice is ethically neutral. People, however, can apply it ethically or unethically. Laws governing reverse engineering will vary by nation. In the US, reverse engineering is generally legal if the product was acquired legally and does not violate patent, copyright, or other laws and contracts.


Ethical applications of reverse engineering include those that bring back discontinued products, create interoperability with other products, and make significant improvements over the original. Besides violating laws and contracts, unethical uses of reverse engineering include creating knockoffs of existing products with shoddy quality and sometimes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the products’ origin to confuse potential customers.

What are the steps for reverse engineering?

The reverse engineering steps, particularly for hardware, usually follow this order.


An engineer acquires data, often by disassembling a product and 3D-scanning its parts, which generates digital point clouds of the parts. The engineer may also test the parts to learn more about their design intent. During post-processing, the engineer converts the point clouds into mesh models with reverse engineering software and then manually edits the meshes.


Next, the mesh is converted to a parametric model with solid surfaces, where the engineer can make improvements and dimensional changes. Finally, the engineer reviews the models against the initial scans and may begin the iterative prototyping process.

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