New Tool Helps Manufacturers Search for Obscure Parts

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After entering an image or photo, VizSeek searches the manufacturer’s database for similar shapes. After entering an image or photo, VizSeek searches the manufacturer’s database for similar shapes.

In a world where complex parts are plentiful, searching for the right widget or thingamajig can be maddening for a manufacturer—and costly. Imaginestics LLC, based at the Purdue Research Park of West Lafayette, has invented a tool it says will save manufacturers time and money. Called VizSeek, the technology can use things like a sketch or picture to search a manufacturer’s entire database to find that nondescript doohickey.

Imaginestics describes VizSeek as visual search software. Think of it like a Google search for shapes: rather than entering text into a search engine, users enter an image, such as a drawing, 3D model or photo, and the technology searches the manufacturer’s database for similar shapes.

“When the user uploads a visual file, VizSeek computes its ‘shape signature,’ and compares it with the shape signatures of parts in the [manufacturer’s] database,” says VizSeek Application Engineer Rob Hill. “[That database] could be a catalog of parts of their supplier, CAD data if they’re a designer, images, 3D models or drawings.”

Each database is unique to the company using it; when a customer purchases VizSeek, the software indexes the manufacturers’ entire catalog or collection of parts to make it searchable.

“So when someone uploads something—a photo or model—VizSeek takes that shape and compares it to the shapes that are in that database,” says Hill. “Within a few seconds, it displays the search results ranked in order of the closest match based on the geometry.”

The technology, which can be used on a computer or smartphone, is about to launch a new feature; users can take a picture with their phone, which automatically synchs with a nearby computer to complete the search.

Hill says engineers rely on design data from parts they’ve previously made, but it can be difficult to find the parts using text rather than visual inputs.

“[The design] could be in different repositories or databases, or could’ve been done by an engineer years ago who had a different name for that part,” says Hill. “There’s engineering data associated with the CAD model or the drawing that’s very important to engineers; that’s where visual search can really help. There’s a cost associated with part design; if you’re starting from scratch, that can be very costly.”

Hill says VizSeek also streamlines operations; the clunky process of exchanging multiple emails attempting to describe—in text—an odd-shaped part can be reduced to a single visual search. Hill also believes relying on visual inputs eliminates language barriers that often arise in global transactions.

VizSeek charges users a subscription fee based on the number of files the software indexes to make them searchable. VizSeek Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Dr. Jamie Tan says visual search software is not an entirely new concept and is gaining traction, especially in the fashion industry.

“But there aren’t any in the manufacturing industry,” says Tan. “We’re the only one. I don’t know why other visual search services aren’t focusing on the manufacturing industry; maybe it’s not as sexy as the fashion industry. Because our company has been in the manufacturing industry for many years, we know what the customer wants, and that’s very important.”

Imaginestics has cut its teeth providing visual search services for the Department of Defense and large companies, including Ohio-based DAYTON LAMINA, which touts $200 million in sales for special punches and die components.

The company is currently focusing on growing its presence in the manufacturing industry. Self-funded to date, Imaginestics is working to raise several million dollars in venture capital to expand its sales and marketing efforts—certain more manufacturers will find great value in visuals.

Hill says customer service agents have told him VizSeek streamlines the process of helping clients identify obscure parts.
Hill says VizSeek increases the speed to market—an important factor in the “just in time” nature of the manufacturing industry.
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