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Everything You Need to Know About Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering is a process that lets you take parts, existing models, and assemblies and use them to generate 3D data. The scanned data can then be manipulated and reproduced.

Reverse engineering drastically reduces the number of man hours needed to capture accurate data from existing geometry. It is also more accurate than standard calipers and measuring tapes.

Before you can decide if reverse engineering is going to be a worthwhile endeavor for your needs, you need to understand what all is involved and what the end result will be. In this article, I’m going to walk you through the ins-and-outs so that you can make an informed decision.

Reverse Engineering: What You Need to Know


The process of reverse engineering is used to duplicate existing components, subassemblies, or products when you don’t have the original drawings, models, or documentation. It can also be used when you need to create new components that seamlessly integrate with existing ones.

At Engineered Mechanical Systems, we have used reverse engineering to provide a wide variety of services to companies in the manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, and even nuclear industries. We can capture data from parts a small as golf balls to entire manufacturing facilities.

As you get started on your project, your first step is to decide if it’s a good fit for your project. Once you’ve decided that reverse engineering will work for you, you can go through the steps to reverse engineer a part.

  1. You start by deciding which equipment is the best fit to capture the data that you need to capture.

  2. After you have decided on the best equipment for the job, you can scan the original geometries.

  3. The outputted file will be delivered as either a point model or mesh. This data can be further refined into the final part using a combination of human manipulation and automated technologies.

  4. Finally, once the CAD model is complete, manufacturing or 3D printing can begin.


Because technology has evolved so rapidly, people think that reverse engineering can be as simple as waving a quick scan wand and receiving a completed 3D model immediately.

Unfortunately, it’s not that fast.

Scan technology has evolved. You are able to scan a wide variety of parts and materials. The final files will also be accurate to within fractions of a millimeter.

However, it’s not going to happen overnight. There are several steps along the way that take time.

  1. Scan Time. The complexity of your part or equipment will impact the amount of time that it takes to scan it. Additionally, different scanners will operate at different speeds. It will also take longer if your assembly needs to be taken apart and have each item scanned individually. This entire process can take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks.

  2. CAD Time. The amount of time it takes to refine the model also depends on the complexity and size of the item scanned. This means that it can take anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks depending on the amount of detail that is needed.


To effectively reverse engineer your part or assembly, there are a number of different pieces of specialized equipment that are utilized.

3D Scanners

The primary one is the equipment used to scan the items to be reverse engineered. The right choice depends on the price and accuracy that is wanted as well as the size and level of detail needed in the finished product.

3D scanners include things such as handheld or automatic laser scanners, coordinate measuring machines (CMM), CT scanners, long-range scanners, and many more.


Additionally, you need specialized software that can interpret the data collected by the scanners. This software can take a cloud of data points and connect them together with accuracy. The end result is a digital model of the original object that can then be loaded into a variety of different CAD programs.

Human Operators

You will also need a human trained in operating the technology. Software does its best job to try and perform error analysis and completely understand the part. However, a trained technician can interpret and identify areas where tracking and tweaking might be needed or useful.


Reverse engineering can be needed if:

  • The original manufacturer no longer creates it.

  • The original documentation is missing.

  • The original manufacturer no longer exists.

  • There is a part that is failing and needs to be redesigned.

  • To analyze competitors products for performance and benchmarking.

  • To defend a patent if a competitor knocks off your product.

  • To make modifications to your manufacturing when an original CAD model is missing data.

  • When the original supplier cannot provide replacements.

  • To update obsolete materials or antiquated manufacturing processes.

  • To reproduce handcrafted parts and assemblies.


The biggest thing to remember when scanning a part to create a 3D model is that you are scanning the exterior geometries. The majority of scanners used will create a cloud of thousands, or even millions, of data points in space. Upon initial viewing, these renderings may seem extremely abstract and may not look anything like the object that was just scanned.

When the data is processed through specific software, it is analyzed and connected to generate either a polygonal surface mesh or volume. This mesh is typically accurate within fractions of a millimeter to the original part that was scanned.

The software will also do an analysis of the error and variance at each point on the formed mesh. The final point model is loaded into a program to be manipulated so that corrections can be made using precise measurements in the areas where software has detected the highest possibility of error.


Just about any type of object can be turned into data to be fed into the computer using 3D scanners. We have scanned objects as small as golf balls up to entire manufacturing facilities.

You can also scan a number of different materials, including metals, plastics, wood, and clay.

Essentially, if the object can stay stationary during scanning, it can be digitized. This can include anything from a single part in a machine, a physical model, and even an individual bolt.

When deciding if reverse engineering will meet your needs, the biggest thing to consider is the complexity of the object. Scanners do have minor errors that have to be corrected through software or human intervention. Larger more complicated objects will be more time-consuming to correct.

The largest limitation would be patented or proprietary technologies. You have to ensure that you have the appropriate rights and permissions before reproducing parts.


File Types

3D data that comes from scanners is originally created as either point clouds or polygonal meshes. The scanning software can then convert the data into fully native models that are ready for SolidWorks, Pro Engineer, Inventor, and Siemens equipment. It can also produce non-proprietary file types like IGES, STP, X_T, DXF, DWG, and many others.

You can also use the point cloud data to create an accurate watertight mesh. The resulting mesh can be used in a 3D printer to create accurate prototypes.

Call the Professionals

If you’re still trying to determine if reverse engineering will be the right fit for your needs, talk to our professionals. Our team has worked on a variety of projects and has the training and experience needed to help you ensure that your needs are met.

Contact our team today and we can answer any questions that you may have.