Reverse engineering has its origins in the analysis of hardware for commercial or military advantage. However, the reverse engineering process in itself is not concerned with creating a copy or changing the artifact in some way; it is only an analysis in order to deduce design features from products with little or no additional knowledge about the procedures involved in their original production. In some cases, the goal of the reverse engineering process can simply be a redocumentation of legacy systems. Even when the product reverse engineered is that of a competitor, the goal may not be to copy them, but to perform competitor analysis. Reverse engineering may also be used to create interoperable products; despite some narrowly tailored US and EU legislation, the legality of using specific reverse engineering techniques for this purpose has been hotly contested in courts worldwide for more than two decades.
As computer-aided design (CAD) has become more popular, reverse engineering has become a viable method to create a 3D virtual model of an existing physical part for use in 3D CAD, CAM, CAE or other software. The reverse-engineering process involves measuring an object and then reconstructing it as a 3D model. The physical object can be measured using 3D scanning technologies like CMMs, laser scanners, structured light digitizers, or Industrial CT Scanning (computed tomography). The measured data alone, usually represented as a point cloud, lacks topological information and is therefore often processed and modeled into a more usable format such as a triangular-faced mesh, or a CAD model.
Reverse engineering is also used by businesses to bring existing physical geometry into digital product development environments, to make a digital 3D record of their own products, or to assess competitors’ products. It is used to analyze, for instance, how a product works, what it does, and what components it consists of, estimate costs, and identify potential patent infringement, etc.
Value engineering is a related activity also used by businesses. It involves de-constructing and analyzing products, but the objective is to find opportunities for cost cutting.