How To Reverse Engineer A PCB

For [Peter]’s entry for the 2015 Hackaday Prize, he’s attempting to improve the standard industrial process to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Why? Fertilizers. He’s come up with an interesting technique that uses acoustic transducers in a pressure vessel, and to power that transducer, he’s turned to the greatest scrap heap in the world: eBay. He found a cheap ultrasonic power supply, but didn’t know offhand if it would work with his experiments. That’s alright; it’s a great opportunity to demo some basic reverse engineering skills.

A few months ago, [Dave Jones] posted a great video where he reverse engineers the front end of the new Rigol Zed. The basic technique is to make a photocopy, get some transparency sheets, grab a meter, and go to town. [Peter]’s technique is similar, only he’s using digital image manipulation, Photoshop, and a meter.

The process begins by taking pictures of both sides of the board, resizing them, flipping one side, and making an image with several layers. The traces on the bottom of the board were flooded and filled with the paint bucket tool, and components and traces carefully annotated.

With some effort, [Peter] was able to create a schematic of his board. He doesn’t know if this power supply will work with his experiments; there’s still some question of what some components actually do. Still, it’s a good effort, a great learning opportunity, and another log in [Peter]’s entry to The Hackaday Prize

42 thoughts on “How To Reverse Engineer A PCB

  1. I guess if your going to reverse something might we well be something easy.
    Some years ago I reversed the Double dragon arcade board set as at the time there were no schematics available.

  2. Years ago I used to reverse Engineer products for work. We used to refurbish business phone systems. Back then there was no internet and the OEMs did not care about anything over 4 years old. Also they weren’t sharing – their business was selling the “latest & greatest” new systems and they saw us as direct competitors to their new product sales!

    These days there are plenty of refurbished phone equipment vendors on the market. They provide a valuable service just like we did 25 years ago. They provide value priced phone equipment to business who won’t or can’t upgrade their phone systems.

    1. I’m not using photoshop, nor gimp nor inkscape. I didn’t mention what I was using or how to set up the layers in the blog ’cause that’s specific to whatever the reader uses. I think all modern image editors support layering.

      Don’t know why Brian thought it was photoshop – maybe Dave Jones mentioned it in his blog and the term stuck.

      (And yes, photoshop is very cool, but expensive.)

  3. Which of these sounds more correct.. Sing along with me here…
    1) Eh… Bee… Cee…. Dee… Eee… Eff…. Gee… — Why… Zee
    or
    2) Eh… Bed….Ced…Ded…Edd….Eff…. Ged… — Why… Zed

    “Now we know our Eh, Bed, Ceds… next time won’t you sing with Med”

    and the scope model is the Rigol DS1054Z.. There is some stuff before the Zee in the part number there.

          1. Lamest argument ><

            Zen..zen..not zed, not zeener…zen

            Whole new sound for you to hack into.

            English, the ever evolving language forever forced into boxes by its incorrect alternative.

        1. You seem confused between the two separate things that are the name of the letter and the sound that letter makes.

          The eighth letter of the alphabet is called aitch not haitch. In the USA it seems to be always pronounced correctly but increasingly in England it is pronounced haitch and that really bugs me. Zee or Zed is just a US UK thing where a different name is used, the sound the letter makes is the same in both languages. Another one is “a” the name of it is ayy and it is pronounced a. When newsreaders say “we have ayy situation” that really rubs, that is US thing I think and it is making it’s way over here lately.

    1. British English and American English are quite different. Not just talking about jargon/slang, but pronunciations of words. Brits will pronounce vowels differently, such as v-I-ta-min for US is vi-ta-min for Brits. De-bree in US is day-bree in UK. Aluminum is aluminium. Zee is zed.

      So just adding “ed” to the end of letters is not a valid critique.

      1. You’re somewhat of a journalist. It would be very unprofessional of you not to care about the language in which you do your work, in my opinion.

        Yeah, come at me peeps.

          1. Now that Hackaday is backed, I’m sure that they can provide funds for the modicum of development required to add editable comments to WordPress (by installing a single module).

            Such difficult. Many problem.

        1. I read pieces in Harpers. I read pieces in the New Yorker. In case you’re not aware, this is the best writing and the best editing you’ll find in any publication in the English-speaking world. I see typos in these pieces.

          I also read the comments for these pieces. I’ve never seen people taking up screens of real estate with complaints about non-standard language.

          There’s a reason the comments here are shit, and it’s chucklefucks like AC, other armchair grammarians, and outrageously entitled people that don’t like what they don’t pay for.

          You know what’s going to happen because of these idiots? We’re going to get another commenting system. Something with upvotes. Maybe even karma. We’re going to do this in the desperate hope that enough people on here are smart enough to vote on useful comments. Maybe, just maybe, some intelligence will float to the top.

          Cream rises to the top, but shit floats, so we’re also going to get a fuck ton of memes and shitty repetitive puns. See Slashdot, Reddit, hell, even Fark – it’s the same shit over and over again. Congratulations. Because you can’t be responsible with an extremely liberal mod team on the comments, the comments are going to get worse.

          Don’t complain when it happens.

          Replies to the parent comment will be deleted.

          1. So why don’t you just delete the OP? Removing off topic stuff like this including the standard “not a hack” crap seems to be less work intensive than change software and having to deal with the inevitable troubles that creates.

          2. @Megol:

            Deleting comments is the first step towards being called a fascist. I’ve seen it happen on dozens of forums, and the surest way to drive a wedge between the community and moderators is to start moderating heavily. You need a light touch.

            That said, this light touch is being abused. For evidence of that, I need only point out half the comments in this post are related to how austrailians and brits say the last letter of the alphabet. Way to keep it on topic.

            In the absence of any ability to moderate effectively, the only option is a culture shift of the commentors. Having people call out these jackasses is just trolls trolling trolls trolling trolls. A democracy-based system is the surest way to fix the problem of people going wildly off topic, but that also brings the problem of shitty low-effort comments in the form of memes and puns.

          3. What’s the difference? Why not just leave it the way it is? If comments led to something productive on a normal basis I would agree, but most of the time is just comments, like people hearing a talk on something, then commenting to the person next to them. Seems natural you’ll get all sorts of comments, and so long as scrolling and comment bandwidth doesn’t cost anything, I can very easily keep scrolling past what I don’t want to read. I like HackaDay comment just the way it is, don’t fix something that isn’t broken, if anything just improve the current system, but changing the system, and changing the function of a singular system is way different.

    2. FWIW, I heard from a friend that it was Helen Keller who convinced Americans to pronounce “zee” instead of “zed”, because it was difficult for lip readers to distinguish between “zed” and “red”.

    1. I’m going to reply to Brian here since the hackaday comments system, as noted above, only nests so far.

      Take note that I didn’t call anyone names here in my OP comment. I also didn’t say anyone was wrong or right or stupid and didn’t make any demands of any kind. I just pointed out a funny thing about the alphabet and how saying “Zed” doesn’t fit the pattern or the song. I also followed that up by making a note in the comments section of what the full part number of the oscilloscope was. This was important information that was left out of the main article. By doing so, I added useful information to the conversation.

      The fact that people are losing their minds is a little silly, especially Brian who is supposed to be someone responsible but instead is the one calling people names and posting rants. Like I said above… Everyone Chillax.

  4. I’m only here for the comments of some enlightened/intelligent readers (the other stuff doesn’t bother but censoring it would) and your attitude is shit. I certainly hope you don’t have any say in what happens to the comments section in the future because if you did I get the feeling it wouldn’t be in our best interest. More like proving that you are right and that bureaucracy should win over democrazy. yes crazy

    1. that being said brian does cover some of the best topics, good topics being the (often rare) thing that inspires great/enlightening conversations in the comments. Just give the people what they want and find a way to make it work out for everyone.

      1. Lol, look I got a bite!! Does it bother you that anyone can voice whatever opinion they want? Welcome to the free internet that’s how it should be. But I’m sure they’ll figure it out for you soon if you cry about it enough. On a related note doesn’t the Haber process (as used in industrial production) already use ultrasonic cavitation?

  5. It would be cool to have a program that does (the software side) of this for 1-3 layer boards–taking the captured images, flipping them, following traces, asking to meter certain points and the results, and possibly even finding datasheets on some components if it can read the packaging (and then possibly labeling some of the traces)

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