Reverse engineering plays a role in many industries and is especially popular for those who utilize printed circuit boards (PCBs) in their work. When using PCB reverse engineering, you can gain crucial information about their function and design, helping you make repairs, upgrade older circuit boards or produce a less-costly alternative to a competitor. By knowing how to reverse engineer PCBs, you can gain a complete understanding of how your PCBs work and reap the many benefits of this process.
Find out more about what reverse engineering means and what the benefits of doing so for your PCBs are by exploring the information below. You’ll also learn about how you can reverse engineer a PCB.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO REVERSE ENGINEER A PCB?
PCB reverse engineering is a multilayered process that includes targeted PCB research, reverse analysis and PCB design technology reproduction. The process is also used to identify and obtain the design of a product’s functional and structural characteristics, as well as the processing flow. With this information, a company can produce products with similar functions and abilities — though businesses will make sure they’re not reproducing an exact replica of a reverse-engineered PCB.
Reverse engineering is primarily utilized to determine and analyze the design principles behind a product. It’s especially useful when a company can’t easily find design information on a specific product.
The most common method of reverse engineering a PCB involves disassembling a sample PCB and then analyzing it. From this analysis, a company will create documentation about the sample PCB, which various team members can review. This documentation will often include information about how the product is designed and how it operates.
A company can then use the information they gather from a sample PCB to manufacture similar PCBs that may function better than their competitors’ offerings. Alongside reverse engineering’s ability to help companies analyze and outdo competitors’ products, it can also help businesses improve their own PCB offerings. For example, reverse engineering can help them enhance their boards’ functionality by spotting obsolete parts, security issues or poor designs.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS TO REVERSE ENGINEERING A PCB?
There are several advantages of reverse engineering PCBs — many companies use these devices for various purposes. For example, you may want to reverse engineer a PCB that doesn’t have any documentation or one that’s outdated but still crucial to your processes. Reverse engineering can also help you produce more effective or less costly versions of a competitor’s PCBs.
Learn more about the advantages of reverse engineering PCBs below:
- Maintain crucial PCBs: At times, you may have an outdated PCB that performs a necessary function, such as powering a piece of machinery or an electronic component. If the PCB fails or needs to be replaced, you may not be able to find a replacement or know how to repair it. Reverse engineering the outdated PCB can help you in both these situations, allowing you to maintain crucial PCBs for a long time and potentially clone them to serve as replacements when repairs aren’t possible.
- Get information on PCBs without documentation: Most contemporary PCBs come with documentation or computer-aided design (CAD) data for people to review. Sometimes, PCBs don’t have any information available for them. In this case, reverse engineering is crucial to gather the necessary schematic and design information on the PCB. Reverse engineering allows you to create your own documentation on the product, helping you understand how to repair or reproduce it.
- Reduce your reliance on experts: One of the first steps you’ll probably take when your PCB is having an issue is to contact an expert for help with troubleshooting and repairs. Sometimes, there aren’t any professionals who have the expertise to handle your PCB. This lack of knowledge about the PCB can put you in a bind. Reverse engineering allows you to receive crucial information about your PCB and spot areas that could be causing a problem without the help of a professional.
- Identify weaknesses in a competitor’s designs: If you produce PCBs, you may want to find ways to make your products more effective than your competitors’ offerings. By reverse engineering a competitor’s PCB, you can identify weaknesses in it. With that information, you can improve your own PCBs and sell a more effective product. Even if you’re not trying to sell a PCB, you can identify weaknesses in a PCB’s design to build more effective ones for your unique purposes.
- Produce less costly PCBs: If you have a competitor selling a PCB at a high price, you can reverse engineer it to determine how much it actually costs to produce. Companies will often sell a PCB at a higher cost due to a lack of competition. By determining how much it costs to make the PCB, you could produce a similar one at a more cost-effective price, helping you attract new customers who previously didn’t have any other options.
HOW TO REVERSE ENGINEER A PCB
1. Draw, Scan or Photograph the PCB for Image Prep
2. Upload the Image
3. Construct the Layout
The following are some primary editing steps used on each side of the PCB to build the layout:
- “Paint” holes and solder pads: Before transferring the PCB, you’ll need to “paint” the solder pads and holes to ensure you don’t lose them. You can achieve this by swapping channels, as these can improve the holes’ visibility.
- Remove PCB trackpads: Users who run their PCBs through AutoTrace will need to get rid of any PCB trackpads before using the software. These PCB trackpads can convert to loops in the program, so you should remove them to maintain accuracy.
- Mark free holes: Multilayer boards often have holes or areas on them that don’t connect to anything else or connect to the PCB’s inner layers. You should mark these holes during the editing stage so you can identify them.
- Adjust saturation and layers: To increase visibility on painted PCBs, adjust the saturation and layers.
- Clean tracks: Before converting the PCB imagery in a program like AutoTrace, clean any tracks. If you leave the tracks messy, the resulting schematic can be unclear due to poor conversion. You may also want to smooth an image’s edges to ensure the picture converts cleanly.
- Desaturate and invert image: To desaturate the image, apply grayscale to it. Once you complete this, you’ll invert the image so the PCB’s lines become dark and are displayed on a white background. This desaturation process is crucial to obtaining a more accurate AutoTrace transfer, as it clears out any white or gray colors.
- Repeat process on the other side: To craft a full layout, you’ll need to conduct the above editing steps on the other side of the PCB. If you don’t repeat the processes for the other side of the PCB, you won’t be able to produce the dual-sided schematic needed to reverse engineer a circuit board.
4. Create Schematics
CHOOSE PCBHERO FOR YOUR PCB ENGINEERING SOLUTIONS
With all the complex requirements that come with reverse engineering PCBs, you may want to turn to PCB experts for assistance with the process. Whether you want to improve on an old PCB design or create something new, PCBHERO has you covered.
At PCBHERO, we’re dedicated to producing top-quality PCBs for companies in various industries. We can provide you with almost any kind of PCB you could think of, which helps us meet virtually any of your needs. We can even produce prototype PCBs for times when you need a unique solution for your manufacturing processes. Prototyping PCBs can offer a wide range of benefits for businesses. When you need anything from buried via PCBs to double-sided FR4 circuit boards, we have the answers to your problems.
If you have any questions about reverse engineering or want to know more about our engineering solutions in particular, please contact us. One of our representatives will respond to you as fast as possible to give you the help you’re seeking.