Ontology meeting at UB seeks to create standards for digital manufacturing

Release Date: February 28, 2020

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Portrait of UB philosophy professor Barry Smith.
“The lack of interoperability today in digital manufacturing is a massive issue – and it’s only getting worse. ”
Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The Industrial Ontologies Foundry (IOF) is a global community of scholars, researchers and industry professionals working to create a logically organized set of definitions — known as an ontology — that would allow computer programs to communicate across different operating systems and software programs.

The IOF will hold its third Buffalo expert meeting in the Jeannette Martin Room in Capen Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus on Thursday, March 5, at 12:45 p.m.

“Whenever two companies are working together, they need software that also works together. That’s interoperability, a problem that an ontology can help to solve,” says Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, director of the National Center for Ontological Research at UB, and a charter IOF member.

“The lack of interoperability today in digital manufacturing is a massive issue – and it’s only getting worse,” Smith said.

Computers increasingly drive manufacturing operations, especially in the emergent field of digital printing – also called ‘additive manufacturing.’ But recent advances combine skills and technologies that require collaboration and organization across different enterprises and specialist communities.

Previous attempts to create standards in the domain of digital manufacturing have ironically led to disparate developments burdened by the very inconsistencies they were intended to resolve.

“Logically defined terms like milling, cutting, transporting and thousands of others have not been assembled in a single ontology so that companies can use the same terms in their software in a way that would promote interoperability,” says Smith, who was recognized in 2016 as one of the world’s 50 most influential living philosophers.

In 2004, the Airbus A380 design included a $5 billion cost overrun because the French and German teams working on the fuselage and main body, respectively, used software with conflicting definitions of the word “hole.” This resulted in the hundreds of miles of cables, threaded through the plane’s airframe, being too short to reach their intended target.

The IOF wants to achieve across the entire domain of manufacturing what has already been realized in computer-aided design (CAD), where all CAD programs output their designs using a format called the Standard for The Exchange of Product model data (STEP). This means that in the CAD world anyone can input a design and convert it to the format appropriate to their software.

 “STEP does very well for CAD. But it doesn’t cover materials, processes, maintenance, transport, recycling, disposal, and many more,” says Smith.

The UB meeting will bring together leadership from the STEP and materials science communities with prominent ontologists in order to learn from one another how to create the sort of open-access suite of ontologies that is needed for the future.

“Supply chains rely on one company telling another company what it’s building and how it’s building it in computational terms. Two companies using the same software may have achieved the needed sort of interoperability. But once a new company enters into the chain with different software, that interoperability is lost,” says Smith.

Smith’s previous work with the Gene Ontology (GO) showed how philosophical ideas could help biological science.

“I have for many years been convinced that there are areas of philosophy that are useful in non-philosophical domains. I think I helped show that in the case of biology with the GO, and I hope we are helping to show something similar now, in the field of digital manufacturing,” he says.

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