Are there any cheap PCB reverse engineering services for simple PCBs?

Sometime I really wish there was something like github for hardware becaus I constantly find myself in a situtation where I would like to combine a bunch of PCBs onto one and maybe even change the layout a bit to make everything fit better for a project.

For example let's say I wanted to combine these 3 PCBs:

(just an example)

If I had the gerber files for them I could probably learn how to combine them with Eagle or whatever and then get it printed in China for a few bucks. But unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a database with all these gerber files.
But I was just thinking that it really couldn't be that difficult to reverse engineer such PCBs. I mean if you had the equipment you could probably just blow all the components off the PCB with hot air and then reveal the traces with some acid and finally take a photo and use some algorithm to convert it into a gerber filr, right?
If someone in China did this on a large scale it would have to be pretty cheap I woukd imagine.

Does anything like that exist?

Mount them on a motherboard.

For most common sensor PCBs (can't see yours; links require login) and the like you can easily find the schematics and reproduce the circuit. If you go that route, you can often optimise the end result (you don't need three pull-up resistors on the I2C, for example).

Or indeed just mount them on top of your own board. That's often the way to go for boards like buck converters.

"But I was just thinking that it really couldn't be that difficult to reverse engineer such PCBs."

The old race/speed car builder Micky Thompson used to have people come to his shop wanting him to build a car to break some speed record. He would tell them something like "The first thing you need to understand is that speed cost money. With that understood, just how fast do you want to go?".

felic:
Sometime I really wish there was something like github for hardware becaus I constantly find myself in a situtation where I would like to combine a bunch of PCBs onto one and maybe even change the layout a bit to make everything fit better for a project.

For example let's say I wanted to combine these 3 PCBs:

You could contact the suppliers of the PCBs and ask them if the designs are open source.

I mean if you had the equipment you could probably just blow all the components off the PCB with hot air and then reveal the traces with some acid and finally take a photo and use some algorithm to convert it into a gerber filr, right?

Wrong.

A gerber file is a description of a a whole single entity. You can't just join them together, it makes absoloutly no sense at all. Forget it.

If you do want to combine circuits then you need to take a step back and get the schematics. Then draw the schematics on one sheet and relay the PCB and then produce your gerber file.

If someone in China did this on a large scale it would have to be pretty cheap I woukd imagine.

Does anything like that exist?

No, and to think that it might shows how much you don't know what is going on.

Probably the easiest thing to do is to find the manufacturer's datasheets for the chips & major components and start from scratch. Of course, you need an understanding of what the board does because there's (usually) more than one way to use a chip.

It can be very tricky to copy a design that has programmed chips, or if the board manufacturer removes the markings from the chip (I worked for a company that did that), or if they use a special hard-to-find or custom chips/parts.

...With small boards like that it's not too hard to "buzz out" the circuit (find the connections with meter that beeps with a zero-Ohm connection) and draw the schematic.

BTW - Anybody running such a "service" would be sued for IP theft, although perhaps not in China. :smiling_imp: There are legal ways of "reverse engineering" but copying a circuit/schematic is not one of them. And, it's usually easier to come-up with your own design anyway.

You also need to create a BOM, bill of material, for the board. Include the component manufacturer, if known, the manufacturers part number, the physical size outline, component tolerances and component voltage rating.

Then you can remove all the components, if necessary, to actually trace out the connections and vias.

You may be surprised to learn there are often 4-5 possible variations on a single component shown on a schematic.

Paul

There ARE a lot of available Schematic/PCB/EDA designs on Github, EASYEDA and even OSHPARK site if you want to do some searching... but I see no scenario where, if you want to MERGE designs, that having the PCB is useful... since you will need to redraw the thing from scratch anyway.

Well, 99% of the time, the PCBs that I'm using are most likely clones already anyways and I can find the components without any problems.
I have to say that I have never really designed a PCB myself. But I think I've seen videos where the PCB was automatically generated and optimized from a schematic or soemthing (not a gerber file I guess). So I was thinking that if I had two of those and connected them appropriately, I could use some sort of PCB generation/optimizatuon algoruthm that creates the gerber file for me.

Also, I don't think this wouldn't be illegal. I mean what's the difference between that and a service that creates sheet music for a given song or subtitles for a given video?

Many PCB CAD programs have autorouting options. Not having the best results with them, often a little thinking and keeping overview of the whole board can give much better routing (with far less vias and much neater looking result).

Besides, component placement matters, and that you will have to do by hand. Many schematics have a block of parallel capacitors between Vcc and GND - typically one or two large electrolytic, plus a handful of 100 nF ceramic ones. Of course on the board they're not placed next to each other, but scattered around to provide decoupling where needed.

Now when you finally have the components placed, silkscreen done, traces all nicely arranged, ground and power
planes in place - then creating the gerber files is a simple export.

felic:
I mean what's the difference between that and a service that creates sheet music for a given song or subtitles for a given video?

Those are illegal in many jurisdictions as well, if you don't own the copyrights to the original or have permission from the copyright holder.

It may or may not be illegal in your jurisdiction - if you want to be sure, you have to ask a copyright lawyer. I wouldn't bother myself for reasons pointed out above: trying to copy a PCB usually doesn't make much sense.

But I think I've seen videos where the PCB was automatically generated and optimized from a schematic

Yes that is what I said in reply #5, are you paying attention?

felic:
Also, I don't think this wouldn't be illegal. I mean what's the difference between that and a service that creates sheet music for a given song or subtitles for a given video?

Copywright abuse is widespread, that does not make it legal.

DirtyPCBs will give you PCB layouts (in, iirc, a rather inconvenient format, no exceptions) from samples of the PCB, though I suspect their service providers aren't currently operating due to the virus. That said, I would very much prefer to get the schematics and make my own layout (do be aware that the DC-DC converters are layout sensitive) - those board designs are all, I suspect, the manufacturer reference design for the main chip... The datasheets even have layout info where that's particularly relevant.

I would suggest going the motherboard route though, because getting all the parts together would cost you significantly more than those modules cost, and then you'd have to assemble it. There are enough parts on those boards, some of them fine pitch, that it would be a real pain to assemble those yourself. mini/micro USB and USB-c connectors are surprisingly hard to solder at home, even with reflow.

Also, those buck/boost converters blow if you short the output - it's handy to be able to swap out the modules :wink: