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. Searches From Just A Sketch

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by Charles Choi
New York (UPI) Apr 07, 2004
A novel computer program enables users to translate a rough sketch of an object into a search of millions of database entries for the exact item sought.

"It's like a special kind of Google that lets you search for parts based on their three-dimensional shapes," explained mechanical engineer Karthik Ramani at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"You have to remember that product variety and complexity have increased drastically," Ramani told United Press International. "Just a single commercial airliner has more than a million unique parts. Such a search method could save millions of dollars annually by making it unnecessary to design parts anew and enabling you to mine for other knowledge, such as past decisions regarding costs and design advice about the part."

Software firm Imaginestics, also in West Lafayette, has licensed the technology, and Ramani said they already are working with manufacturing giant Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill., on how the program can help save the company save costs.

"We're in the beginning of talks with General Motors, Ford, and spoke with Raytheon and the U.S. Navy, as well as other major manufacturers in the Midwest," Ramani said. "Almost any product or service that relies on making engineered parts from catalogs, from the automotive industries, heavy equipment, electronics, where variety in parts has exploded and products have become more complex can benefit. There are opportunities to not only cut costs but make better decisions in design."

According to Ramani, design engineers currently spend about six weeks per year looking for information on parts.

"The shape search system will allow engineers to cut this time down by as much as 80 percent," he said. In addition, such a system could also provide access to valuable background about how the part was made, including details about safety testing or its machining and casting, which in turn provides data on how much it costs to make the part.

"There's a lot of reinventing of the wheel that goes on nowadays simply because there's no way of searching for parts," Ramani said. "How useful could it be to find out who else has automatically catalogued parts and quickly get what you want?"

The software works by researchers first taking 3-D models of a part and converting them to bunches of small cubes called voxels -- the 3-D equivalents of the pixels making up two-dimensional pictures. The program then converts the voxels into skeletons that represent a part's shape.

"Like our skeleton, it represents the bare bones of a part's shape and features, such as how many holes it contains and where the holes are located," Ramani said.

The software creates multiple skeletons of each object, with each skeleton possessing varying levels of detail. This way a user can sketch a desired part, and then fine-tune the search with further specifications.

"You can search for a part quickly without knowing part names," Ramani said. "Corporate memory is short. People leave, managers come and go. They forget file names and project names. This type of system allows you to retrieve your own company's knowledge, your own company's history."

Searchers also can select a known object that resembles the desired part and query the system to find a cluster of like parts. Users also can choose an existing item and pencil in modifications to make it look more like a desired part.

"This narrowing down strategy helps get at the needle in the haystack," Ramani said. "Other systems over-automate the search by trying to find a part all in one shot. Here we have human intelligence help contribute to the system. You can give it feedback, say it looks more like this or less like this, and get closer to what you want."

A series of experiments in which people tried out the system showed it helped find parts with 85 percent accuracy. The research team also found the multi-step search technique was 51 percent more accurate on average than a one-shot approach.

"This is a very elegant way of specifying what you want and finding parts in existing catalogs that can hold up to hundreds of thousands or millions of parts each," computer-aided manufacturing researcher Roshan D'Souza at Michigan Technological University in Houghton told UPI.

"It could be very helpful. If you're thinking of a really large design house, such as one designing an automobile that has thousands of components. A whole lot of parts are standard parts -- bolts, manifolds, fixtures to mount parts on. If you know the overall shape of what you are designing, this system could be really helpful in reducing design time," D'Souza noted.

The engineers currently are working with Purdue psychologist Zygmunt Pizlo to improve the human-computer interface. One idea Ramani mentioned is using handheld computer tablets one draws 3-D sketches onto for searches.

"In the future, we'd like to see a Web service where you can search catalogs for parts to put together your own things. You never know how creative people are," Ramani said. "So I think the full extent of the future applications has yet to be discovered, but what we have right now are a number of initial areas that industry is very anxious about and have already started talking with us about."

"I think it's a fundamentally important modeling technique for computer-aided design problems. If it becomes a reasonably viable option, it can enable significant reduction in time in new designs and manufacturability of new parts, which could be significant in the economic growth of the design and manufacturing industry," mechanical engineer Somnath Ghosh at Ohio State University in Columbus told UPI.

"There are a vast amount of databases that exist, and often designers are not able to make use of all of this. So in my opinion, such a kind of database extraction module poses a lot of promise."

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