Appliances vendor’s virtual showroom set to make real impact

Seek and you shall find.

Steve Joseph, vice-president of marketing at Dacor Inc. experienced the truth of this axiom in quite a dramatic way.

The Diamond Bar, Calif. firm manufactures high-end kitchen appliances, which are carried by several Canadian stores.

Dacor wanted to set up an online resource that designers, builders, architects and engineers could use to build product information. 

So it recently loaded images and information on its entire product line to Autodesk Seek, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application from Autodesk Inc.

“Seek will help targeted clients find our products faster and easier,” said Joseph. Apart from product pictures, he said, Seek also stores associated design files, such as 2D drawings, 3D models, specifications and product descriptions.  

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The service – announced earlier this month – connects to two Autodesk technology previews: Project Dragonfly, a home design application and Project Showroom, an interactive Web service that enables users to mix and match products in life-like room settings.

When Seek links to Dacor’s updated Web site (that goes live January), clients will be able to create their own designs, and a slicker, savvier online showroom.

From a potential customer’s standpoint, visual realism is a big benefit.

For instance, Project Showroom enables Dacor to display how an oven would look amid a range of digitally rendered kitchen settings and lighting conditions.

All this is accomplished by downloading the product image into Project Showroom.

Doing this the conventional way would be very cumbersome, said Joseph. “We would need to take six to 10 photos of each of our products and recreate multiple physical showrooms.”

Factoring in photography, décor and construction costs, a typical photo shoot for Dacor’s product catalogue costs anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000.  The process takes two to three months.

Using Seek, Joseph expects to significantly reduce both cost and work hours.

Designers’ treasure trove

The biggest advantage, he says, is the immediate access designers and builders have to product data in Seek.

The SaaS offering is tied to other Autodesk design products as well, such as AutoCAD and Revit, a building information modeling (BIM) tool.

When an architect working on AutoCAD wants to locate an oven that fits his kitchen design, all he has to do is key in or export his specs and other design requirements into Seek. Seek then returns a range of options that fit the bill.

“The architect will find all the information – not just dimensions but other functional data, as well – on the product. He just grabs an image of the product and it will be fitted into their AutoCAD plan,” said Joseph.

Seek helps designers and builders significantly reduce time expended on research, as well as the trial-and-error process, according to Brenda Discher, director, industry solutions at Autodesk.

She said builders and designers can instantly access an up-to-date list of pertinent products for projects.

“There will be less need to scour shops and manufacturers. Stuff from appliances, lighting fixtures and various hardware items will be a mouse click for AutoCAD and Revit users,” the Autodesk director said.

Discher said the project is part of her company’s cloud computing initiative.

Amazon-powered Web crawling

Given the massive amount of product data and CAD files loaded into Seek, Autodesk needed to create a system that could support Web crawling.

So the Autodesk team built a scalable backend processing network layered on top of Amazon EC2 (Elastic Cloud Computer), Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service), SQS (Simple Que Service) and Simple DB.

“We use Amazon EC2 for nearly all processes including pre-crawlers, crawlers, processing engine, and indexing,” said Mike Haley, senior manager, SaaS technologies at Autodesk. He said separate EC2 instances are run for each data source and data set, and this allows content to be processed quicker.   

Given the huge data volumes, he said, Amazon S3 is a key element in Autodesk Seek’s data processing pipeline.

The Autodesk Seek engineers built an intermediate processing pipeline using “versioned data sharding” where product data is broken up into small chunks and moved from Amazon S3 to EC2 for processing and back again for long term storage.

In addition to serving and storing Autodesk Seek data, Amazon S3 is also used as a content hosting service for Autodesk’s catalogue data providers.

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