March 28, 2006— Searching for this thingamajig or that doohickey? A new search engine could help you find the item in an online catalog not by its name or product number, but by its shape.
The 3D-Seek search engine, being developed by Purdue University and software start-up Imaginestics in West Lafayette, Ind., uses sophisticated pattern recognition programs to match sketches or finished illustrations with the right three-dimensional image file of an industrial part.
“The neat thing is that you can search 3D with 3D. You can search using a sketch or an image or using a 3-D part,” said Karthik Ramani, the director of Purdue Research and Education Center for Information Systems in Engineering and the chief scientist at Imaginestics.
Although the software is initially geared toward the manufacturing industry, it could find its way to the ordinary consumer, helping shoppers at hardware or auto parts stores locate the correct component based on a freehand sketch.
Development of the software arose as a solution to a common problem in manufacturing: too many parts and no efficient way to find them.
Each new product that comes to market — whether it’s a vehicle, a vacuum cleaner, or a vending machine — is made up of many different parts that are drawn in three dimensions using computer-aided design software.
Once the part is drawn and manufactured, the image file is often stored in a database with millions of other part drawings.
Those parts can be difficult to track down for use later by another designer in the company simply because there is no industry standard for naming parts.
“There are millions of parts. Which one is similar? You don’t know based on the file name. You have to know specifically that this person has done this thing. It’s not very easy,” said Xiaoping Qian, assistant professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Oftentimes, designers end up drawing a duplicate part without knowing it, which wastes time and money.
With 3D-Seek, a designer uses a mouse or stylus to sketch the part they need. They can specify different viewpoints, such as top view or side view.
Software in the search engine plots the sketch and, using sophisticated calculation formulas, generates a list of unique numbers based on the object’s geometry.
Then the search engine pulls up a list of parts that have a list of similar numbers. The user can refine the search based on the query results to get closer to the exact part.
Although the 3D-Seek catalog contains just 6,000 parts on a Web site that the company has invited the public to test out, the software is capable of sifting through millions of components.
Ramani is working with manufacturers and Imaginestics to develop new and improved versions that will produce more accurate results.