Blog  /  Reverse Engineering PCB: What Is It and How to Make

Reverse Engineering PCB: What Is It and How to Make

Does reverse engineering PCB mean anything to you? If it doesn’t, it’s okay because we’ll shed more light on it in this post. But if it doesn’t, it’s STILL okay. Plus, you don’t need to worry. Why? It’s because, in this article, we’ll be tackling issues surrounding the following: If you plan to gather concrete […]
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Does reverse engineering PCB mean anything to you?

If it doesn’t, it’s okay because we’ll shed more light on it in this post.

But if it doesn’t, it’s STILL okay. Plus, you don’t need to worry.


It’s because, in this article, we’ll be tackling issues surrounding the following:

  • If you plan to gather concrete evidence to deal with an IP infringement from a competitor
  • You want to remodel outdated and scarce integrated circuits.
  • Or perhaps you want to carry out extensive PCB competitive analysis.

Whatever the case, running a reverse engineering PCB will ALWAYS be handy.

We created this article to give in-depth knowledge about reverse engineering PCB.

If you’re ready, let’s begin the journey.

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What Is Reverse Engineering PCB?

Before diving deep into this topic, we need to address this part. After all, it’s the ideal thing to do—especially if you’re a newbie.

So, what exactly is reverse engineering PCB?

Reverse engineering PCB is an inverse research technology. The technology uses a series of reverse research techniques to get the following:

  • A circuit schematic
  • PCB Design
  • BOM

Ultimately, the whole process is mainly for creating manual and prevailing designs.

For instance, in the past, it took years to develop a new product. But today, with reverse engineering PCB, you can create a new product in a few months.

Also, electronic technology has developed significantly in the last ten years, resulting in many product upgrades, making electronic products update faster.

Many electronics engineers believe using old R&D techniques may not work. Why? The techniques aren’t as fast as the rapid steps of the current electronic product auxiliary.

So, reverse engineering PCBs is the best approach to adapting to the market's pace. After all, there are millions of manual designs in the market.

Now, let’s look at how to start the process.

PCB Reverse Engineering Techniques

Non-Destructive PCB Reverse Engineering Technique

This technique uses imaging methods like X-ray tomography to capture the PCB layers' structure in 2D form. The keyword here is non-destructive, so whichever process you use must not damage the PCB.

An X-ray image of a PCB

An X-ray image of a PCB

X-ray tomography is the most suitable non-destructive reverse engineering technique because it can capture the hidden parts of the board, after which you can apply mathematical algorithms like discrete Fourier transform and central slice theorem to create the circuit’s 3D image.

But you must consider factors like the board’s dimensions and material density to select the X-ray tomography parameters like source power, number of X-ray projections, filtering, and exposure time.

Destructive PCB Reverse Engineering Technique

Since this technique involves damaging the PCB, the first step in the process is to analyze the external layers. This step helps identify the mounted components, visible copper trace connections, and ports for external connections.

After that, disassemble all the components then remove the solder mask layer using sandpaper, chemicals, laser, abrasive blasting, etc., to view the entire first copper layer. Continue delaying to the core while capturing images using a high-res camera or microscope for each layer.

Although it damages the board beyond repair, destructive reverse engineering gives a clearer picture of its design and operation.

Tools and Equipment for PCB Reverse Engineering

Whether you use destructive or non-destructive PCB reverse engineering, you need one or more of these tools to complete the job.

Optical Inspection Tools

These tools capture the current outer layer of the circuit board, primarily high-resolution cameras with digital zooming capabilities. Microscopes and AOI systems can also help. Your workstation should have bright lighting to complement the camera's adjustable lighting feature and capture the nuances that highlight the board’s layout.

A PCB being inspected under a microscope

A PCB being inspected under a microscope

X-Ray Inspection Equipment

X-rays have the advantage of penetrating through materials, so X-ray equipment is handy when doing non-destructive reverse engineering. You don’t need these machines for the destructive process because you’ll delay the PCB. But you can use it to capture the original image and compare it with the rest that you’ll capture using the optical inspection tools.

We recommend using computerized tomography (3D X-ray) because it can help you build detailed 3D models of the PCB to highlight the depth structure.

The equipment includes X-ray machines, detectors, and inspection software, which help in layer separation, internal trace routing, and buried via analysis.

Electrical Testing Equipment

Key electrical testing kits you should always have for PCB reverse engineering are multimeters, logic analyzers, and oscilloscopes. Besides verifying the electrical connections via continuity testing and board functions via signal testing, these devices help check the performance of each component (component testing) in the circuit.

A computer engineer inspecting a PCB using a logic analyzer

A computer engineer inspecting a PCB using a logic analyzer

Software Tools

From the captured images, you need specialized electronic design automation tools to generate the schematic diagrams for analysis and complete the reverse engineering process. These tools reconstruct the board’s layout and create the bill of materials. Altium Designer, Zuken CR-8000, Mentor Graphics PADS, KiCAD, and Cadence OrCAD are the most popular ones.

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How to Reverse Engineer a PCB?

Now, you have a foundational knowledge of reverse engineering PCB.

It’s time to look at the steps to reversing engineering PCB.

Step 1: Inverse Bound Designing

First, it’s crucial to ensure your PCB has well-lit images on both sides.

Inverse Bound Designing


It’s because you’d create a layout for developing a schematic with the two sides.

Then, you can draw the layout on graph paper using a bare board. It’s best to use symbols for each component. You must also ensure that you work towards capturing the right scale.

But if you’re handling more complex PCBs, abandoning your pencil and paper is ideal. Instead, you can opt for photographs, even though they are more time-consuming. Hence, a quality camera and great lighting will ease the process.

Step 2: Build the Layout

If you have a simple PCB, this step would be easy. All you’ll need to do is to scan the drawing you made into a program like AutoTrace. That way, you can convert the image from Bitmap to Vector.

Build the Layout

But it’s a different ball game with complex layouts. You’d need to take multiple photo captures and do a lot of editing. No doubt, the process takes more time and stress than the simple layouts.

Let’s face it. You can’t avoid taking multiple editing steps for both layout types. This is because reverse engineering PCB requires a lot of focus and time.

Usually, editing steps apply to both sides of the PCB, so you’d have to run the process twice. That way, you’d be able to generate a double-sided schematic.

The editing steps depend on the colors, measurements, and type of PCB. So they include:

  • Painting the board’s solder pads to avoid being misplaced during transfer
  • Removing PCB trackpads if you use AutoTrace because they change to loops
  • Making free holes mark on a multi-layer board because of the likely inner layers
  • Fine-tuning saturation and layers to improve clarity on painted PCBs
  • Cleaning conversion tracks in AutoTrace (dirty tracks don’t convert properly)
  • Applying Grayscale and reversing images to get clear dark lines on a white background

Step 3: Generating Schematics

This step is the most straightforward after you’ve completed the preceding two stages.

So, you can create schematics with specific programs like:

Any of the above programs can do the job.


Source: Instructables

But that’s not all.

After getting the selected programs, you need to start combining them. And the things to connect are as follows:

  • Label components
  • Both sides of the PCB
  • Symbols

Afterward, you can arrange the tracks to make the system easily interpret. Then, run through the process from scratch to check for bottlenecks.

However, there’s one common setback with reverse engineering PCBs. And it’s the fact that you can’t determine the direction of its connections.

So, it’s normal to see something like this:

Some tracks that look like they are passing through layers. But they are connected to tracks or planes on the board.

So, here’s the thing.

If you encounter such inconsistencies during troubleshooting, worry less. The problem may be hidden connections.

Why Would Any Engineer Want to Engage in Reverse Engineering PCB?

There Is No Sufficient Data

When you lack the data on how to repair a PCB, reverse engineering becomes vital.

Undoubtedly, most PCBs come with PCB data, documentation, or even a schematic nowadays.

But that’s not all.

Primary details on a PCB can even be enough data for you.

The no-data issue often comes up when you work with outdated PCBs.

If No Professional can handle the PCB

These days, most engineers can troubleshoot and repair PCBs. But, if you can’t get anyone to fix it, you’d have to bite the bullet.

It’s even worse if the PCB manufacturer is out of business or dead. In such cases, you have no choice.

For a Very Important Reason

Unless you’re a passionate PCB engineer, you may not want to fix a circuit board. But you can ply that route for a pertinent reason.

For instance, if the PCB powers an essential item, you may want to keep the piece. And you may experience this if you’re dealing with an old vehicle or electronic equipment. In such scenarios, there may be no available replacements. Or, if the replacement is available, it may exceed your budget.

So, in this case, reverse engineering a PCB may be your best bet.

What Are the Benefits of Reverse Engineering PCB?

Helps PCB Design & Development

Helps PCB Design & Development

Reverse engineering can help to redesign a PCB to its rudimental design. This helps to eliminate errors.

But photocopying a PCB design that experiences a lot of errors is a different ball game. You can do this when you’re dealing with legacy systems.

Removal of Old Semiconductors

With reverse engineering in old PCBs, you can remove obsolete semiconductors. That way, you can get compliant ones that fit into new environmental norms.

Save Time and Cost When Upgrading

It’s a great idea to employ reverse engineering PCB when upgrading. By so doing, you’ll be using the existing checked components. And this helps to save you cost and time.

Enhance Your PCB Components


With reverse engineering PCB, you can do one thing, which is:

Improve the functionality of your PCB components, even with a new PCB design.

Develop a New Product Without Infringing on Another Company’s Intellectual Property Rights

If your company doesn’t have the IP rights to specific product designs, you can build a clone, and your company won’t be infringing rights.


You can reproduce a brand-new product from a basic design via reverse engineering.

Reconstruct and Preserve Outdated PCBs

Reverse engineering makes it possible for you to preserve outdated PCBs. And you can achieve it by doing the following:

  • Reinstate and refurbish worn-out circuit boards
  • Develop cost-effective PCB designs within your budget
  • Eliminate any form of wastage relating to spoiled and scuffled boards

Disclaimer Notice: It’s best to consider every legal implication before reverse engineering a PCB. That way, you’ll save your company from getting penalized.

Challenges and Limitations of PCB Reverse Engineering

PCB Complexity

Modern circuit boards are complex because they have multiple layers and high component densities.

Reverse engineering such boards is tricky because you must handle the complex trace routing implemented to avoid signal integrity issues.

So, it would be best to have advanced tools to rebuild the layout and schematic.

Access to Hidden Features

Internal layer features like buried vias are difficult to spot and access, so you must use X-ray imaging to spot them if using the non-destructive technique.

Component Identification

Accurate component identification can be challenging if the PCB has obsolete or custom-made parts that optimize the circuit’s performance. Suppose their data is not available or the board lacks markings and datasheets. In that case, the last resort is to test them electrically and do schematic cross-referencing to determine their electrical and performance specifications.


Errors can arise in the BOM, schematic and layout creation, which can cause product failures or malfunctions later when rebuilt. To avoid these issues, engineers must use various quality control measures, such as design rule checks and signal integrity analysis using simulation software.

Legal and Ethical Concerns

Unauthorized PCB reverse engineering can have severe legal implications because it can infringe on IP rights or be considered industrial espionage.

Therefore, electronics companies trying to reverse engineer products should first deal with the legal issues to ensure compliance before commencing the process.

If there are legal concerns from the competitor, partnerships, collaborations, or licensing agreements can resolve them, allowing reverse engineering to proceed.

PCB Reverse Engineering FAQs

Is PCB Reverse Engineering Legal?

PCB reverse engineering is legal if it doesn’t infringe on IP rights, which can result in legal battles with the OEM. You should consult your legal team before the project starts or inform and come to an agreement with the OEM before reverse engineering their product’s circuits unless they are open source.

Can I Reverse Engineer Any PCB?

Yes, you can. It is challenging for complex multilayer PCBs, but possible if you have the right equipment.

What Is the Best Reverse Engineering Software for PCBs?

It depends on factors like the circuit board’s complexity and the level of detail you need. But the best overall are Altium Designer, KiCAD, Cadence OrCAD, Eagle PCB Design, and Mentor Graphics PADS.

Is PCB Reverse Engineering the Same As PCB Cloning?

The two terms imply the same thing because they involve reverse engineering and recreating a copy of a PCB designed and built by a different person/company, the OEM.


Reverse engineering PCBs shouldn’t be new to you by now. You’ve inevitably gained a lot of information about the process.

But it doesn’t stop there.

It would help if you began to take steps to try out the process and see how it works for you. We’d be frank with you—there will be a lot of bottlenecks along the line. But the most vital thing is for you to keep running your research and tests.

Also, the reverse engineering process has legal implications. So, consider this before proceeding.

If you need more advice on this topic, feel free to contact us. We’ll be glad to help.



Special Offer: Get $100 off your order!

Claim your $100 discount by sending an inquiry today. Act now to save on your next project!
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