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One Page Guide: Does reverse engineering electronics make sense?


What’s the issue?

Many electronics product developers find themselves with an electronic product (PCBA – assembled printed circuit board) for which they have limited or no support documentation, and they wish to manufacture and/or evolve its design somewhere other than where it was originally developed. This unfortunate predicament usually comes about because of a  previous design relationship that has become problematic (all too often a Chinese one). More often that not it isn’t worth the effort to reverse engineer and a better course is to re-develop and take the opportunity to enhance the product. Nevertheless, there may be ways to limit the damage – read on if interested.

This article is really about damage limitation and how best to manage it. 

If I only have the PCBA and nothing else where do I stand?

Unfortunately, the EM’s advice will probably be to redevelop the product. Unless the PCBA is 2 layer, firmware free, and extremely simple, the cost of copying exceeds that of re-developing. The problem is that a copying process can’t take place with any guarantees the resulting copy will function. If it doesn’t, and losses aren’t cut, it is necessary for very skilled and expensive human resources to find the problems and then remake the copy again in the hope it will work. 

If you have no documentation for the electronics in question, cut your losses and redevelop. 

 What documentation should I have in order support the product fully?

 To fully support the electronics in a product, i.e., PCBAs, it is necessary to have the following:

  • Full design project files that allow design modification. These files will be have been generated with CAD software like Altium, OR CAD cadence, pads, Easy PC, Design Spark, etc. This first 3 in this list are expensive professional packages, the latter are lower or cost or even free on the web. The vendors of these packages often claim compatibility between the packages, but the EM’s experience is that this claim doesn’t stand test. To read the files you will need to have the package with which development took place. If unsure about this, don’t hesitate to CONTACT US at the EM – we’ll help you clear it up. If you have files but not the software, and don’t want it, you can contact a professional CAD bureau and it will be able to read and modify files for you – the highest quality such CAD bureau is ALS. Note that if a full set of project files have been thoroughly compiled are in existence, it is usually possible to generate all the documents below from them. If you don’t have these files, you will not be able to modify the design.
  • A BoM (bill of materials). This will contain a full and detailed list of all the components that are fitted to the PCB to make a PCBA. More often than not it is an Excel file. The BoM will usually have been generated by the CAD software in bullet one. If you don’t have this file, you will not be able to manufacture the product.
  • A PCB board specification. If the design files in bullet one are available it will, providing the design has been done thoroughly, be possible to work this out. If not, it may be a simple text or other small document that describes the basic make up of the PCB (number of layers, weight of copper, number of sides, single or double sided, the base material for the PCB – usually FR4 – but grade may be of importance, colour, finish, e.g. gold immersion, etc. If you don’t have this file or its equivalent, you will not be able to manufacture the product, or you might be dependent on a guess at it that may or may not work.
  • Computer CAD files that allow a manufacturer to make a PCB and build the components on to it. These files come directly from the design software in bullet one. The can be described as ODB files or may split into drilling files, gerbers and pick and place data. If you don’t have these files, you will not be able to manufacture the PCB or assemble the PCBA.
  • Firmware. These days, it is rare to find PCBAs that don’t need firmware – software for chips on the PCB. If you don’t have firmware it will need to be redeveloped with the hardware. The EM can help re-generate firmware if necessary – CONTACT US.
The above are a minimum. If you have everything except the design files in bullet one, you will be able  to manufacture the product but not change it.

If I have manufacturing files and firmware only, where do I stand?

The answer to this is simple. Assuming the files are good, you can make the product but you can’t modify it. 

 If I have no firmware, where do I stand?

If the product needs firmware, it will be useless without it. Like the hardware design, there are two levels. If you  have what’s called object files (HEX files that are meaningless and unreadable to a human), you can put it on the product and it will operate. The down side is that you will not be able to modify it. If you also have what’s known as source files (written programs that skilled humans can understand), you will be able to modify and use the firmware fully. CONTACT US if you are unsure. 

How do I test/confirm that the documentation I have is up to date and accurate?

It is possible to have all these documents but they are either corrupted or simply out of date, which makes them largely useless. In order to re-build confidence the following actions are recommended in order – corrective action taking place after each one.

  • Establish that project files and the necessary software are available – it will not be possible to correct much without them. If it is not possible to get them, re-design should be considered. 
  • A manufacturing run should be undertaken with the files exactly as is – don’t allow any existing engineering resource to be involved – may not flush out gaps if you do. Also, don’t use the contract manufacturer that has been used in the past. Only manufacturer has no history with product is valid for this test. 
  • Test the production run that results from the previous bullet. If good you know that you can trust your manufacturing files and transfer manufacture anywhere you like, if not take remedial action until the manufacture is good.
  • Verification of the project design files in bullet one will take skilled resource. CONTACT US.

Is there an opportunity to evolve from no design/manufacture documentation?

The simple answer is – yes, but it is necessary to be brave. If there is no supporting documentation recovery is very costly and riddled with risk, so the opportunity is to take all the accumulated market knowledge about the product and evolve it through a new design. 

The EM would be delighted to give you further guidance if you need it – please click CONTACT US and we’ll take it from there.