Not reinventing the wheel

Tom Shelley reports on progress in locating lost knowledge and preventing it from becoming lost in the first place.

Before starting work on a new product, it is well worth ensuring that nobody has done any part of it before, and if they have, learning all possible from previous designs and intents.

The first move, might well be a quick search with Google, but despite its vast database, there is a great deal of data that is not accessible online, and most companies have some kind of archive which has never been digitised.

Furthermore, although patents can be searched online both using the facilities of both the US Patent and Trademark Office and the European Patent Office, it is often very difficult to locate old ideas without knowledge of who invented them and what they were trying to do.

It is said that a really well written patent protects all aspects of an invention, while making it as difficult as possible for others to understand. This is not the case with inventions made within a company, but information held in old reports and documents can be difficult to locate.

Dr Ian McGill, presently with Oakdene Hollins, but formerly the director of the International Tin Research Institute, ITRI, recently addressed a seminar in London on 'The reinvention of technologies for sustainability'. In this, he explained how he has had the entire ITRI archive scanned and digitised so that the current generation of researchers could investigate it to find items that might be of use that may or may not have been considered useful at the time, but could be extremely useful now.

Going back to 1932, this archive includes some 40,000 scientific papers on Microfiche, 80,000 card indexes to scientific papers and 5,000 documents in filing cabinets. In all, there were 826,400 pages and the paper weighed 83 tonnes. Despite the size, the cost to provide access was modest: £10,000 to scan in the card indexes, £75,000 for scanning and document indexing, and £15,000 for hardware and software. The end result of this is a database of searchable PDF files, much of which is now available online as the Institution's 'Tindex'.

Established engineering companies too, are becoming increasingly concerned about loss of knowledge and time wasted by re-inventing things that have been done before as well as the re-exploration of dead ends and the remodelling of geometry and parts that have been designed before.

Recognising this need, all the major CAD vendors include searchable databases and search engines. Dassault's V6 portfolio allows searching for a particular geometry as well as names, using facilities such as 'Enovia 3D Live Similarity'. One of the latest companies to embrace the company's full V6 portfolio is US electric sports car maker, Tesla Motors, which already uses Catia PLM Express and Enovia SmarTeam but are now implementing Enovia V6, Catia V6 and Delmia.

Geometry search is also available with Siemens NX PLM products using 'Geolus' and there are in addition, geometry software specialist companies such as ShapeSpace and Bingo.

One answer to preventing technical developments becoming lost, however, is to make them truly memorable, by producing the best possible graphics to illustrate them. To this end, Luxion has recently announced the release of Keyshot 2.1, which supports SolidEdge, Autodesk Alias and Pro/Engineer.

Tom Shelley

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