Semantic design

Design engineers spend an inordinate amount of time searching through design data in the course of their work.

But all that looks set to change. Because now, a new semantic engineering environment developed by European researchers promises to save time and boost productivity.

By incorporating a semantic layer into a product lifecycle management (PLM) system and enabling users to visualise products, components and materials, the new development promises to save engineers and designers time, reduce costs and raise productivity.

‘Many companies still store information on paper files, while others keep key design data in obscure databases and repositories where it is either hard to find or cannot be accessed at all. Engineers still have to pick up the phone to call colleagues who worked on past projects to obtain information that should be readily accessible to them. It takes a lot of time and reduces productivity,’ explained Mikel Renteria, the director of technology at Semantic Systems in Spain.

Working in the EU-funded SevenPro project, Renteria led a team of researchers, engineers and test users from five European countries who sought to solve these problems by developing what they believe is the first semantic PLM system.

By annotating data semantically, the meaning of the information can be understood by computers as well as humans, making it easier to find and establish connections with other information even if it is stored in distributed files and databases across a network. The SevenPro semantic environment relies on an adaptable ontology, a vocabulary of related concepts used to assign meaning to data and describe the relationships between data items.

‘One of the major advantages of our system over the off-the-shelf PLM systems currently available is that it is highly customisable. We do not use a set ontology, but rather adapt the ontology to the products, services and design processes in use at a particular company,’ added Renteria.

In effect, companies do not have to adapt their processes to the system, because the system will adapt to a company’s processes by creating and maintaining its own semantic model.

Much of the data is annotated with semantic information automatically when added to a company database or network, including designers’ comments and references. So when it comes to searching for information, complex queries such as ‘find door parts made of aluminium alloy 7072 that have a crash test report associated to them’ will return results that more closely match the needs of the user.

The system works with different types of data and can interoperate with pre-installed computer-aided design (CAD) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Toolkits were developed to automatically extract knowledge hidden implicitly in CAD files or corporate databases.

The SevenPro team also looked at the way information is presented to users, creating an environment that makes it easier for designers and engineers to visualise products, parts and components, and to see the connections between them.

‘It is possible to graphically browse all the data associated with a certain product, which makes data and data associations easier to identify and greatly improves the workflow,’ Renteria said.

Those features were highly prized at two companies that tested the system as part of the SevenPro project and are now using it commercially: Italdesign Giugiaro, an Italian car designer that has worked for Ferrari, Lamborghini and BMW, among others, and Fundiciones del Estanda, a Spanish metal foundry.

Fundiciones del Estanda highlighted, for example, that the SevenPro system offered functions that were not available in its pre-existing design environment.

Italdesign Giugiaro similarly praised the advantages of the system, with a survey of test users from different engineering and design departments giving most of the SevenPro platform’s features high marks.

Based on that success, the SevenPro team has started marketing a commercial version of the platform called Repcon KRP and is looking for partners and investors to develop the product further.

Renteria says the scalability of the platform means that a commercial installation is affordable for both large companies and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Source: ICT Results