When Reverse Engineering Becomes Reengineering

Our company name may be Circuit Breaker Sales Co., Inc. (CBS), but life extension — not necessarily circuit breakers — is our product. While more often than not, the product whose life is extended is a circuit breaker, it might also be a part, a complete medium-voltage substation, or anything in between. One of our life-extension offerings is dealing with obsolescence, since many of the products needed to maintain electrical infrastructure are no longer offered, and surplus equipment can be scarce. CBS takes pride in employing one of the industry’s largest teams of engineers (if not the largest) to solve obsolescence through reverse engineering. They are among the few who understand the challenges and risks that come with reverse engineering power products.

Reverse engineering has an ominous connotation when it’s associated with nefarious actions taken by competitors (or countries) to steal technology. But when it is employed honestly and transparently to solve obsolescence and to keep customers running, it is a needed, reputable service.

Reverse engineering is the reproduction of a manufacturer’s product following detailed examination of its construction and composition. In its simplest form, reverse engineering might involve replacing a worn fastener with a new one. Engineers evaluate the original bolt to determine its type, material, size, and torque requirements. They consider the purpose and importance of what it is securing and select an identical fastener that meets or exceeds its performance capabilities. Another simple example is re-creating a circuit breaker part, such as a bracket or a plastic push button. The original part is evaluated to determine its material and then measured and drawn up for reproduction. The part’s purpose, importance, and testing criteria are considered. Finally, the replacement part is manufactured by a process that ensures that it meets or exceeds the original part’s performance criteria.

Generally, when CBS performs reverse engineering, the primary goal is to match the original design, but sometimes that is imprudent or impossible. It would be silly, for example, to reuse a hazardous material when a safe, modern replacement is available. Let’s look at a recent CBS case study where reverse engineering was impossible and reengineering became necessary.

General Electric’s ST-230 auto-charged trip device is essentially a backup power source to supply energy to AC-powered circuit breakers during a loss of normal power. The device differs from a conventional capacitor trip unit in that a battery backup supplies the capacitor losses and maintains the unit at full operating voltage for several days. The ST-230 auto-charged trip device is no longer offered for sale except on the surplus market, where numbers of serviceable units have been dwindling.

Several challenges prevented CBS from matching the original, 40-year-old ST-230 design, which consisted of the technology of the day. A printed circuit board (PCB) furnished with analog components was supplied with a multi-ratio transformer specifically designed for the application. CBS can reverse engineer PCBs, but many of the components on the board were obsolete, and the multi-ratio transformer would have been cost-prohibitive to reproduce on a small scale. Furthermore, it no longer made sense to reverse engineer the part, given that newer technologies have become available in the decades since the ST-230 was originally designed. This was a case where it would be imprudent to match the original unit. So a partial redesign was employed.

CBS engineers and technicians used the standard reverse engineering process. They evaluated the original unit, considering its purpose, operating characteristics, and testing criteria. While maintaining the form factor, they upgraded the functional components of the original design to modern, readily available, proven technology. Finally, they tested the new design to IEEE standards, in this case C37.59, with excellent results. The redesigned ST-230 exceeds the capabilities of the original, holding a charge over three times longer, while its simplified design includes off-the-shelf components.

When you think of CBS, we hope you think of us as a waiting partner able to solve whatever issue is ailing your slice of our American infrastructure.