What is the difference between reverse engineering and re-engineering?

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What is the difference between reverse engineering and re-engineering?
Re-engineering and reverse engineering (Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Re-engineering and reverse engineering are two ways to rebuild something. That thing might be a manufactured product, like a car, or a hairdryer, or it might be a piece of software. The key difference between the two concepts is the starting point and they also impact on issues of ownership.

Reverse Engineering

Reverse Engineering is the practice of examining a finished product and either taking it apart to copy it, or imagining how it can achieve the types of behaviour that is detected under testing. As the owner of the patent or copyright of the product under examination would not need to begin from such a viewpoint, reverse engineering is almost always a strategy used by those who want to copy the work of others. A rival firm hoping to imitate a product does not have access to the specifications and development plans of that product. Therefore, taking a sample apart is the only way that rival can draw new plans to manufacture, or produce that item.


You may be familiar with people saying “back to the drawing board.” This is an appeal to start re-engineering something. The spurt for re-engineering might be that a prototype of a new product was shown to be defective during the testing phase. These defects make it necessary to re-design and rebuild the product as an alternative to scrapping the project entirely. Those engaged in re-engineering are luckier than people who are forced to reverse engineer a project. They have access to the original plans and they are less likely to be sued or sent to prison.


Both re-engineering and reverse engineering are projects that are often started to address a threat from a rival product. Even if a business has a successful product, it will re-engineer it from time to time to ensure it keeps up with new technology and to prevent a rival company coming out with something better. Reverse engineering is the strategy of the back marker in any race to win market share. Although, re-engineering can also be a reaction to a better rival product.

Re-engineering example

The transformation of the Sindy doll in the UK was performed to address the superior market appeal of Barbie. A doll does not need detailed plans and Barbie’s advantages were all aesthetic. So, Pedigree Toys, the UK makers of Sindy, re-engineered the doll in the 1990’s, to look a lot more like Mattel’s Barbie. They got so close that Mattel sued them and forced them to change the design again.

Reverse Engineering example

In its race to industrialise, the government of South Korea encouraged its manufacturers to reverse engineer First World products. South Korea was an impoverished neighbour of the mighty industrial innovator, Japan. Unable to compete with Japanese products, Koreans decided to copy them. Samsung successfully reverse engineered the design of the VCR, which, the patent holder, Sony, was disinclined to licence. However, Sony was unable to enforce its Japanese patents in Korea, and so ended up licensing Samsung to produce the VCR in Korea, with its lower cost base. Samsung still hasn’t given up the reverse engineering habit. A 2012 ruling in the USA agreed with Apple that Samsung’s design of the Galaxy II was a blatant reverse engineering of the iPhone.

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