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Mini-review: Amazon Part Finder on iOS

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A week or two ago, Jordan gave me a heads up about a new feature on Amazon's iOS app: A "Part Finder" feature that supposedly will identify fasteners using your camera's phone. The tech press is, predictably, excited about this: It's arguably augmented reality, and AR is hot right now, and most of the people writing about AR and Amazon probably don't own a pair of calipers, metric or inch thread gages, or a thread checker set

As one might expect, I was a bit skeptical to learn that it might take a journalist ten tries to even get the app to produce a result. So this morning I gave it a shot.

More or less at random, I opened one of my parts drawers and took out a selection of parts. I tried the following McMaster-Carr part numbers:

  • 92196A581, 18-8 Stainless Steel Socket Head Screw 5/16"-18 Thread Size, 3/4" Long
  • 91771A542, 18-8 Stainless Steel Phillips Flat Head Screws 1/4"-20 Thread Size, 1" Long
  • 97517A025, Aluminum Blind Rivet with Steel Mandrel Domed Head, 1/8" Diameter, for 0.1880"-0.25" Material Thickness
  • 97395A451, Dowel Pin 316 Stainless Steel, 1/8" Diameter, 3/4" Long
  • 92196A194, 18-8 Stainless Steel Socket Head Screw 8-32 Thread Size, 1/2" Long
  • 90895A029, 18-8 Stainless Steel Belleville Spring Lock Washer for 1/4" and M6 Socket Head Screws, 0.264" ID, 0.374" OD

TL;DR: I do not find this feature even a little bit useful. A few notes:

Lighting

My shop is lit mostly with task lights: Clamp-on fixtures with LED bulbs. This tends to cast shadows, which the Part Finder had a *really* hard time with; it took maybe 25 tries to get a single result. Worse yet, the app shows you the instructions every single time, making the photo process itself rather painful.

I next went outside and set up in full sun. This was even worse - the high contrast shadows seemed to throw the Part Finder off even more. Lastly I went inside in an area with a decent amount of indirect light, which worked much better - but still far from perfectly. 

In a few cases, the Part Finder couldn't even find the penny I was using, and once it claimed that it couldn't find the part. Some of these failures can fairly be blamed on my lighting, and some can probably be blamed on Amazon's image processing software. But the user experience sucked, and that falls squarely on Amazon's product team.

"Additional part details"

When I finally did get a match, the following message appeared:

IMG_4377.PNG

Great, we have analyzed the photo and gathered specs. Please select the additional part details below:

The Part Finder seems to operate *only* on fastener diameter, length, and basic classification. It doesn't deal with head type or thread spec, and when I scanned the blind rivet the app prompted me to ask whether it was a "Drive Anchor, Post, Hex Bolt, or Blind Rivet." 

Some of this filtering may be useful to leave in the user's hands, but the range here calls into question exactly what "specs" the Part Finder has gathered. Which leads me to:

Thread spec

The Part Finder cannot distinguish thread pitches, nor can it tell the difference between metric and inch threads.

To me, this is a need-to-have feature for any fastener identifier. I almost *never* lack a method of determining a fastener's diameter and length (I bring a caliper with me if I know I'm doing much work at all), but my thread gages mostly stay in the shop. If Amazon wants to get serious about this, they *need* to include thread identification in the Part Finder.

Conclusion

As I've written before (see this and browse here), Amazon's total lack of product hierarchy puts them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to this kind of feature. The obvious counterpoint is McMaster-Carr, whose catalog structure is perfect for establishing the appropriate scope in a part identifier feature search. 

In other words: Partly, Amazon's Part Finder just sucks at identifying parts. But there are also institutional barriers in the way of Amazon ever being good at something like this, and (if AR gets better) I do still hold out hope for another player to tackle this problem.

McMaster-Carr and the Future of Parts

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last year, I wrote a post describing my feature requirements for a modern parts management system. Re-reading it today, I realize that it doesn't really say what the user interaction would feel like - or how it would work at all. I hope to provide some of that here.

The key is this: Integrate small parts inventory management into the product design, prototyping, and maintenance, repair & operations processes. I'll treat these as three separate use cases, though they're all part of the same product lifecycle.

The reader will note that I believe McMaster-Carr to be the strongest positioned organization to take on these tasks. As a longtime fan of McMaster and a student of their intense customer focus, beautiful interface design, and impressive supply chain management, I hope that they seriously consider these recommendations - as I'm sure that their competitors will be soon.

Note: I diagrammed an early version of this idea in a flowchart here.

My current "system," during prototyping on  The Public Radio.

My current "system," during prototyping on The Public Radio.

During Design

As a hardware product designer, I want my suppliers' parts catalogs integrated into my design environment, so that I can seamlessly browse for new parts and view part data directly from my modeling software.

Autodesk Inventor is my go-to design software, and McMaster-Carr is my go-to parts supplier. I'm constantly browsing McM for a part, then adding it to an open order, then downloading the STEP file and importing that into my model. I consider this a luxury: McM's decision to include STEPs for the vast majority of their mechanical parts makes my job a ton easier. But the process is convoluted, and a lot of part data is lost. On parts like socket cap screws, for instance, McM tracks the following data:

  • Thread size
  • Length
  • Thread length
  • Material
  • Package quantity
  • Package price

But their STEP files contain none of that; all that's included is the part number and the material, which is often stripped of a lot of useful data (parts described as "Type 316 Stainless Steel" on McMaster's site often show up as either "Stainless" - or worse, "Generic" - in the STEP file).

For McMaster-Carr to become more fully integrated into my design and procurement process, they should include comprehensive part data in all of their STEP files. 

Moreover, there's a larger opportunity for McMaster to integrate their catalog directly into my design environment. If their catalog were available as a plugin for Inventor/Solidworks, designers could browse, design, and purchase all from one seamless interface - which I believe they will demand in the near future. Look at Plethora and Sunstone Circuits (and in web development, Squarespace) - across the hardware world, the movement is towards integrating design & supply chain management. McMaster-Carr is perfectly positioned to become a powerful player in the field. 

During Prototyping

As a prototyping mechanic, I want real-time internet enabled inventory management, so that I can understand what parts I have on hand & prepare for shortages before they happen.

Small parts management sucks. With their lightning-quick delivery and vast catalog, McMaster is the cornerstone of most prototyping shops' parts management system. But that solution is awkward at best, and often requires simply ordering more parts, even if we have some (somewhere) on hand. 

Small scale inventory management has historically been extremely difficult, but today it's increasingly easy. For instance, Quirky has shown us that it's not that hard to keep track of the number of eggs you have in your fridge, and Tesla's iOS app shows the charge state of your car's battery. It's only a matter of time before the same is the case with things throughout our physical lives, and McMaster-Carr is uniquely positioned to take small parts management on.

I envision a small parts cabinet full of sensors (some combination of force, optical, or proximity), which would periodically update an online database as to the quantity of parts inside each bin. But you needn't even start there. An easy MVP would be an iOS app that allowed the user to snap a photo of a small parts cabinet and tag each bin with a part number & quantity. The photos would be collected and stored online, and would be linked to the customer's McM order history. 

Then, when a mechanic takes a handful of bolts out of a drawer, all he needs to do is update the inventory count from his app. By tapping around a set of linked photos in the app, he's directed to the bin that he's physically looking at - and he can confirm visually that the parts are what they appear to be. By tapping on an "info" tab, he brings up the inventory data (including links to a 3D part file, technical data, order dates, and a list of mating parts/assemblies that the part has been used in - culled from the Inventor plugin described above) and assign a piece count to a job & edit quantity on hand in moments.

McMaster-Carr should build this system - starting with an iOS app that offers basic inventory management. Doing so would give them a view into their customers' usage data, and would help users streamline their restocking process. The days of bins labeled with bits of paper are numbered, and users will soon demand personalized (and internet-enabled) inventory management systems. McMaster is in a unique position in the marketplace, and has the opportunity - if they work now - to strengthen their foothold in small parts management.

For MRO

As a maintenance, repair & operations engineer, I want a single process that incorporates machine data, relevant spare parts, and procurement, so that I can get my facility back online more quickly.

A large part of McMaster-Carr's business is in supporting maintenance, repair & operations (MRO) professionals. These customers have unique needs; their ability to get the right part, right now, can have huge impacts on their company's ability to recover from unplanned downtime due to a broken machine.

In many cases, MRO engineers will find themselves with a broken part and will need to replace it immediately. Doing so will require careful measurement to determine the part's specifications, a process that can be difficult and imprecise - especially if the broken part has been mangled and/or lost.

McMaster should work to establish a system of folksonomy - user contributed data - that would allow MRO customers to tag parts with information about how and where they can be used. For instance, a particular serpentine belt might be commonly used as a replacement spindle drive belt on an old lathe. Instead of finding this data on the web - and then cross referencing part numbers back to the McMaster-Carr catalog - a tag could be submitted to the relevant part directly in the McM database. Subsequent users could then find the information they need right in the McM website/app.

Such a system would be complicated, for sure. It would require a significant effort on McM's part to hire and train community managers, who would monitor and vet user submitted data on a daily basis. But doing so would allow McMaster to leverage the huge - and growing - network of hardware professionals and enthusiasts. This community is sorely lacking a single go-to reference, and McMaster is in many ways the strongest candidate (with its enormous existing database of part, material & process data) to do so.


In order to pull off these tasks, I believe McMaster-Carr will need to become more transparent about their processes and inventory data. This will be a difficult process - I myself struggle with transparency - but I believe the payoff will be well worth it. A new generation of hardware professionals & hackers have come of age in a new information paradigm, and they are increasingly responsible for purchasing decisions in small and large companies alike. These people have grown up reading Amazon's shareholder letters and following the official Google tech blog. They expect to be part of a company's product development process, and will contribute their own time, energy, and expertise to projects that historically would have been developed in private. McMaster-Carr - with its huge network of enthusiastic users - should leverage that collective energy, and work with its customers to bring parts management into the 21st century.

Feature Requirements: Parts Storage System

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Parts storage has been a key aspect of my product development career, and has consistently frustrated me. A few reasons for my ire:

  • Parts cabinets are expensive. I probably spent $200 on my cabinets, which were mostly used; at my last employer, we spent over $2K on "standard duty" parts drawers, shown here, from McMaster-Carr.
  • Traditional parts organizers are time consuming to organize, and often aren't formatted to hold the size and quantity of parts you need to store.
  • Most management systems don't allow for reorganization without significant amounts of work.
  • Every organization & labeling system I'm aware of is disconnected from the part specs that I usually want to have on-hand when making a selection from physical inventory.
  • Keeping a digital catalog of parts inventory on-hand is time consuming, difficult, and totally disconnected from the location and quantity of the parts themselves. 

In order for the full implications of digital product development, manufacturing and distribution to come to pass, I believe that industry will need to completely rethink how it addresses, organizes, processes and tracks parts inventory. I have a few ideas of what this will look like, but I'd like for now to focus on the requirements for such a system. 

  • Parts should be uniquely addressable. For many of my applications, McMaster-Carr, DigiKey, Sparkfun, and Amazon product numbers would be fine. Ultimately a system like IP would probably be preferable, if only to apply uniformity and allow manufacturers and distributors of all flavors to buy into a single standard. At some point, I wonder about the possibility of addressing not only each brand/make/spec of bolt, resistor, or chip - but also addressing each physical instance of each of those categories. With the enormous addressing capacity of IPv6, this is well within the realm of possibility - we simply need to find an appropriate tracking mechanism. (Side note: IPv6 has an addressing capacity of about 3.4*10^38. In comparison, there are estimated to be on the order of 7.5*10^18 grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. That's a ratio of 4.5*10^19 : 1, in favor of IPv6 addresses.)
  • Physical organization shouldn't need to be hierarchical. Hierarchical systems work fine on dynamic interfaces (e.g. on the web, where they're used in conjunction with tagging and search features), but parts organization is subject to so many other forces - not the least of which is the size and quantity of a given type of item. For example: if the bolts I have on hand vary in length from 5mm to 50mm, finding a single drawer to accommodate all of them will be difficult. Much better to allow locational organization to be loose, and instead encourage browsing through a database. Put a different way: I don't see the need to institute a browsable Dewey Decimal system on my parts; I'll just search for them on my computer, and it'll tell me where I should look.
  • Parts on hand should be treated as a subset of parts in the world. When I'm designing a new assembly and searching for a bolt to use in it, I want to access a single interface that will allow me to search either globally (the entire catalog of uniquely addressable parts in the world), from a single manufacturer/distributor, or only from my in-stock catalog. On the other hand, when I'm physically looking at a particular item in my inventory, I should have easy access to the product specs for replacement parts and compatible mating parts. 
  • Inventory should be tracked in real time. When I remove parts from physical inventory, my database of stocked components should be updated immediately. As sensor technology evolves, it is my hope that this will be possible with minimal user interaction (e.g. via the use of pressure, proximity, or chemical presence sensors within the parts cabinet). In the meantime, the parts cabinet itself (or at the very least a nearby iPad running dedicated software) should offer me the ability to quickly update quantity on hand.
  • Complete part data should be available at the part's physical location. If I'm browsing for a bolt, I should be able to have access to all available part data for that bolt - including specifications, tolerances, 3D models, compatible mates, replacements - right at the parts cabinet. For now, this could be achievable by some user gesture at the parts cabinet (e.g. pressing a tactile switch at the individual part compartment) pushing a notification to a nearby iPad. As interaction hardware evolves, I would hope that this would happen within the parts organizer itself, through the use of haptic/gestural info (picking a part out of a bin) and integrated displays.
  • My purchasing system should know what parts I have on hand. When I order parts, it's almost exclusively through webstores. When I hit the "confirm your order" page, I want my inventory tracking software to scan for similar parts in my database and alert me if I've got anything in stock that would work for what I'm doing. If I'm ordering M4x12 button head cap screws and I have M4x12 socket head cap screws in stock, it's possible that I could save time, money, and inventory space by redesigning my assembly to accept what I have in stock. Conversely: When I place an order, my inventory system should know about it and prepare my parts organizer to accept new inventory.
  • Everything should have a 3D model. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. It blows my mind that many PCBs are designed without a digital visual check for interferences, and the situation is even crazier when you consider integrating PCBs into mechanical assemblies. I've spent a lot of time modeling off-the-shelf components for my own use, and have begun posting them on GrabCAD  for others to use. It's my hope that this type of thing catches on, and that manufacturers find ways to support/help the effort.
  • No paper. My previous parts organizers relied heavily on sticky notes and Sharpies, as I suspect most contemporary systems do. This is absurd. What happens when you run through stock of a particular part, and decide not to reorder? Well, you spend ten minutes scraping a crusty old label off of the bin, or taping over it with a new one. Adhesives fail over time, and pen-and-paper just isn't modular enough for the rapid changes in direction that modern product development shops go through. My bins should be unlabeled. Instead, I'll identify parts by comparing them to their 3D models (viewable in my parts organizer's interactive display), or - better  yet - by my parts organizer knowing what I'm doing (through whatever gestural interaction it uses) and telling me what I'm looking at.

What I've described here is huge, but not that conceptually complex. It also has the capacity to be expanded recursively, to apply to all kinds of physical and digital objects. A cohesive, consistent system for tracking and managing parts will allow for improvements in innovation and distribution techniques to reach their full potential. And I worry that without such a system, the benefits of rapid prototyping, just-in-time manufacturing, and distributed, adaptive supply chains will be highly constrained.