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New Technology Brings Supplier and Buyer Together
   by Mary Napier
   Strategies   Winter  2007
  
The Internet has changed the way companies do business. No longer a series of on-line brochures, the Internet has become a marketplace that connects buyers and sellers from across the globe. A new service from Imaginestics, called VizSeek, lets manufacturers market their parts in a way that allows sellers to find them with just a shape concept and a doodle.

Seeking the Possibilities
Imaginestics was founded in December 2002 in West Lafayette, Ind. at the Purdue Research Park. Since the beginning, Imaginestics has focused on helping “companies leverage their 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional product information for current and future application,” according to its web site. Nainesh Rathod is the president & chief executive officer of Imaginestics.

Rathod describes VizSeek as “the first online 3D shape search engine that allows designers, engineers, and buyers to find suppliers based on the shape of the parts they manufacture or have the capability to produce. VizSeek can take a doodle (freehand sketch), 2D drawing, or 3D model as a search input.”

“Once the shape is input, VizSeek takes the search for products to the next level in terms of speed and accuracy by overcoming the limitations of text-based searches and database queries that are contextual in nature,” said Rathod.

Rathod also explains that since shape is the lowest common denominator for any part/product, the shape search engine is not hampered by traditional text-based search engines and can successfully address the challenges posed by variations in specifications of products or services available from suppliers across the globe.

How it Works
How does it really work? To put it simply, VizSeek associates parts with capabilities. But what does that mean?

Manufacturers have invested billions in Product Lifecycle Applications such as PLM (PDM, CAD, CAM, and CAE), ERP, SCM, and MRO. The PLAs promised efficient storage and retrieval of product information, but in reality, their biggest disappointment is the lack of ability to search and retrieve accurate and relevant information. A major flaw was discovered in the way manufacturers searched for information, especially part data. Information stored by manufacturers relating to part data was being searched using text descriptors based on a person’s perceived description of that part or feature. Research also showed that text description is often not consistently interpreted. Other techniques also have been used to structure content, but billions of terabytes of data still remain unstructured.

However, since CAD was invented, most product data is associated with 2D and 3D geometry. Eighty-one percent of mold makers are receiving 3D data electronically from their OEMS, according to CIMdata. Manufacturers and software developers of PLAs are even realizing that 3D geometric information is reliable and accurate. They saw a potential to reduce design and manufacturing cycles by using a 3D technology.

VizSeek, an online 3D search technology, uses shape as an input, so that a graphical object of similar shape can be retrieved. It also can go one step further by doing a secondary search. This search “can be conducted using structured objects such as attributes or domain-specific knowledge to retrieve information such as machining and process costs, scheduled production dates, maintenance records, product assembly or work instructions, and maintenance history,” according to the Imaginestics web site. It took researchers from Purdue University’s Precise Lab three years to solve the problem of shape-based data searches. Imaginestics quickly teamed up with Precise Lab to commercialize the process.

In the first six months of 2006, the web site had 1.6 million hits, which consisted of about 140,000 people visiting the site.

Who Should Use It
Imaginestics is providing this service free to MAPP members in hopes that members will see the benefits of this new technology. Members can explore this technology directly from MAPP’s web site, www.mappinc.com, by clicking on “Find A Supplier.”

This new technology, according to Rathod, is for manufacturers, suppliers or anyone else involved with technology, engineering, and manufacturing. Manufacturers can use VizSeek to find suppliers, while suppliers can use it to market their products or services to manufacturers. 

Imaginestics is committed to teaching users to access the technology effectively. For MAPP members, Imaginestics will set up a webinar to walk new users through the site and educate them on how VizSeek can help those looking for solutions and those who can supply them.

The first option on the site is to search using the doodle of a manufacturer or designer to match the requested part with catalog inventories. The VizSeek catalog contains more than 6,000 parts and continues to grow as suppliers upload their own files. Users also can search by tracing, using a 3D Model or a 2D drawing. Whichever search option users choose, they will receive step-by-step instructions on how to search, so everyone can find what they are looking for. As a supplier, your own product files can be uploaded - an excellent way to get your products online for potential users.

How it Can Help You
The new search technology is more than just a parts finder, according to Rathod:

It gives you a competitive edge. It will also help you reach the engineers early in the decision making process, which is often difficult. The mold makers are often the third or fourth people in the chain. The decision making happens early, so mold makers don’t usually have the ability to influence them. But, with our technology, we also have a product area, which gives you access to i-advisor software. This software gives the person advice on if the part is actually manufacturable, and ties it to VizSeek. It also gives advice on how to change the design, so a mold maker can reduce cost. This information makes the mold maker competitive, and also reduces the production time. This technology allows them to search 3D products and educates them.

Rathod also mentioned that VizSeek helps promote the manufacturing capabilities of MAPP members by accurately linking the search user, either from CAD applications or the online portal, directly to the MAPP member.

An Experience with VizSeek
Scott Adams is a sales engineer at Metro Plastics Technologies, located in Noblesville, Ind. Metro Plastics is a privately owned custom injection molder and rapid prototype service bureau. The company has five stereolithography machines for rapid prototyping services and has the capability to produce urethane castings from the SLA models or master samples. Metro Plastics also has custom thermoplastic injection molding capabilities with presses ranging from 60 to 750 tons.

Adams heard about VizSeek through a notification from MAPP regarding a training session that would be used to teach interested parties the ins-and-outs of the program. Adams’ initial reaction to the training session was that the technology was very user-friendly, very straightforward, and easy to work with. He thought VizSeek was a great tool.

After the initial training experience with the site, Adams learned as he went. According to Adams, the site is so easy to use that you don’t really need help learning how to use it. You just need to take the time to explore it yourself. However, Rathod actually called Adams and walked him through a few steps on the phone, so he could maximize what he was getting from VizSeek. Before this technology was available, Adams knew that getting potential customers to understand the company’s real capabilities were a problem. However, VizSeek technology helps counteract that problem.

“The major benefits, from my perspective, would be to allow other companies in every industry to actually visualize our capabilities through the 3D feature, simply by going to the part they need and having our company queried for the manufacturing of the part,” said Adams. “It gets our name out there more. I do foresee a tremendous potential for a program like this,” said Adams. “With the help of Imaginestics and Purdue University, technology seems to never have its limits.”

Metro Plastics has a web site on which the company utilizes online quoting and an FTP site. The new 3D search technology is just one more step the company can take to help its business grow.

By continuing to explore new and innovative ways to use the Internet, companies will reach new markets with existing product components. Technologies like VizSeek, a free service to MAPP members, connects suppliers to existing and potential customers in an exciting way.

“This is a new way of connecting suppliers with customers, not in the traditional yellow pages approach, but in a new innovative approach,” said Rathod. “It doesn’t just list your name, but puts your company directly on their desktop.”