Research News

Grant to support ontology-based research in digital manufacturing

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 13, 2017

“My role is to create the ontology infrastructure to help software developers, particularly working with small- and medium-sized companies, to ensure greater compatibility between the various digital components that they need to use.”
Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor
Department of Philosophy

UB and the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) have entered into an agreement to implement a $1.3 million project designed to create and test workflow innovations using a standard vocabulary and set of categories — forming what can be called a suite of ontologies — to support digital manufacturing for a local technology and services innovator.

The project, known as the Coordinated Holistic Alignment of Manufacturing Processes (CHAMP), will focus on coordinating the production processes and data created in the course of operations at Cobham Industries, an Orchard Park company working in the aeronautical engineering field.

The goal is to identify problems in Cobham’s workflow and generate reports for analysis. While the framework will be closely tied to the needs of Cobham Industries, the ontologies themselves will be made freely available to other companies.

“My role is to create the ontology infrastructure to help software developers, particularly working with small- and medium-sized companies, to ensure greater compatibility between the various digital components that they need to use,” says Barry Smith, principal investigator, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and director of UB’s National Center for Ontological Research (NCOR).

Smith leads the CHAMP team that includes faculty members from UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and CUBRC, a Buffalo company specializing in research and development, testing and systems integration in the areas of information fusion, chemical and biomedical sciences, and aeronautics.

CUBRC has a long history with UB’s NCOR. That partnership has led to several major technology breakthroughs, according to Michael D. Moskal, CUBRC’s senior vice president and chief information officer.

“We will be working with UB to extend these technologies and make them available to the DMDII membership with the goal of enhancing their capabilities and providing an important competitive advantage in a rapidly changing digital manufacturing world,” says Moskal.

Standardizing the language of industry and its disparate components is a fascinating, albeit massive, undertaking that can have costly consequences if done incorrectly or incompletely, as the 2004 multibillion-dollar Airbus A380 saga illustrates.

The A380 was a joint French and German venture. The last step in the plane’s production required large sections of its fuselage to be incorporated into its main body.

When mechanics began threading hundreds of miles of cable through the plane’s airframe they soon discovered that their cables were too short. The French and German engineers had each used their own software programs for computer-aided design (CAD). But the two programs, it turned out, had used conflicting definitions of the word “hole.” Total cost of correcting the snag: $5 billion.

The A380 designers’ expensive discovery points to the need for standard ways of describing functions, products and components. Prior to the A380 problem, there was some activity in this field, but the standards were written in English and therefore inaccessible to computers. With computers involved in the engineering and manufacturing process, those standards had to be translated into computable resources.

It’s in this context that the word “ontology” started being used.

Basically, an ontology is a standardized vocabulary that provides definitions of terms that enable computers to utilize information and software in more consistent ways.

Ontology is a discipline within philosophy that dates back to Aristotle. It’s usually devoted to exploring possible worlds or abstract questions of being and causality; but ontology is also concerned with quite practical questions of how one category of entities is related to another.

The to-and-fro of questions and negotiations allows humans to communicate effectively even when different groups use different technical terminologies, but computers don’t have those abilities.

“For a long time I’ve been very interested in demonstrating that philosophy can be applied in the wider world, as we see in hospitals where using applied ethics has become routine,” says Smith. “My goal was to have an applied ontology. It seemed to me obvious that the work we’re doing in philosophy could have enormous applications as computers began to take over more and more of the activities normally reserved for humans.”

For the CHAMP project, Smith is joined by UB faculty members from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), including, Kemper Lewis, professor and chair of MAE and director of SMART; associate professor Rahul Rai; and Andrew Olewnik, director of the engineering school’s Experiential Learning Program.