I had the chance to talk with … Drew Sherlock of ShapeSpace a while back, and then had the opportunity to meet him in person at COFES. We talked about the importance of search in in engineering and product development, and how searching by shape is adding another way for companies to find (and hopefully easily reuse) parts. Search has received a lot of attention over the years – particularly as companies are trying to consolidate search across multiple data sources using enterprise search. In design and engineering, search has evolved to include parametric search (search based on attributes, typically on metadata that describes a part) to complement more basic text search techniques. But can a company have too many ways to search? Given the potential benefits of reuse – and the tendency for most people to reinvent the wheel when they can’t readily find a good starting point – I will say “not yet.” Maybe if we find the killer search technique it will change everything, but for now having another way to find relevant parts is a big step forward.
What do they Offer?
What ShapeSpace offers is the promise of a new way to find parts. Finding parts quickly improves efficiency, helps companies reduce duplicate parts (by finding and eliminating existing duplicates), and helps companies reuse existing parts instead of creating new ones (reducing the number of new duplicate, or near-duplicate parts being created). Of these, reuse is one benefit that can be broken down into many valuable improvements:
- Reusing a part saves the time to engineer a new one, speeding time to market
- Reuse eliminates the effort required to design the new part, saving cost
- Reducing duplicates (old and new) helps reduce purchase costs and inventory carrying costs
- Reuse of a part also means reuse of the analysis, validation, testing, and compliance effort for that part
The way they do this is by reviewing CAD files (currently working with Solid Edge) and creating an index of shapes with their product, PartBrowser. Then, people can search (currently on the desktop) via text, sketch, or sample parts. The most intriguing part to me is the way they display the results. The software uses a 3D context to show search results (see graphic) with different panes, or sheets, of 3D thumbnails of parts. These sheets are transparent and grouped logically, and the user can rotate and move them to get a better fit to what they are looking for. This allows them to browse based on visual clues, narrowing in on the shape they are looking for. In this way it is more of a browsing approach, showing everything similar to a shape selected, and bringing the closest matches up in front, plus other suggestions with similarities. A very compelling idea, and a very interesting concept for the interface. For a more in depth look at the 3D context (with the navigation tree and related text) see this sample PartBrowser screenshot.
Who do they Work With?
They are in beta, working with some early customers. One customer in food industry, using it for the designs in their plant and processing facilities, another in the furniture industry using it for dies. The potential industries include any company that uses 3D part designs, which doesn’t limit them very much. The potential for this to be a very generalized tool in the PLM toolkit is significant.
How does this Fit into the Ecosystem?
ShapeSpace is not the first company to offer shape-based search, and certainly not the largest. This is an area that is ripe for innovation, however, and specialty vendors like ShapeSpace are more likely to push the limits than their larger competitors. ShapeSpace is in very early stages of their solution, but will also be very interesting to keep an eye on as their product and company matures.
So that’s what I hear from them, I hope you found it useful. What do you think? What else should I have asked them?