May 5, 2006

High Performance (Potato) Chips

by Michael Feldman

In this article, we focus on how Procter & Gamble is using high performance computing to create some common, everyday supermarket products. Tom Lange, a 27-year veteran of the company, tells us how P&G models products, processes and production systems for the betterment of consumer package goods.

“I’m going to be talking about things that are very familiar to people,” said Tom Lange, Director of Modeling and Simulation at Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Not the kind of introduction you normally think of when someone speaks about high performance computing applications. But this is exactly what Tom Lange talked about at the High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) Conference in Newport, Rhode Island a few weeks ago. His presentation was titled “The Aerodynamics of Pringles.”

Tom Lange has spent over 27 years at Procter & Gamble, modeling products, processes and production systems — everything from how the aerodynamics of potato chips optimizes production to how baby size affects diaper leakage. Although P&G has really only used high performance computing for the last 10 years or so, its origins go back to the late 70s.

“When I joined Procter & Gamble in 1978, we had high-end IBM 360/370 kinds of computers that we used to solve statistics problems,” said Lange. “Our first finite element analysis kind of problem — something that would look more familiar to a supercomputing person today — we solved using a Boeing computer in the middle of the 1980s. So our exploration of the use of simulations to improve our ability to innovate for the consumer is a legacy that is not just a few years old, but in fact more like 15 years old.”

Today, P&G has a fairly typical setup for commercial users of high performance computing. Lange said they have a heterogeneous computing environment — a shared memory SGI Altix system and a multi-hundred-node cluster. Choosing which system to use depends on their suitability for the specific type of modeling/simulation application.

As far as software goes, P&G gets its codes from a variety of sources. They use software packages from ISVs like Abacus, Fluent and LS-Dyna. Most of P&G’s proprietary code is implemented with user-defined functions within these packages. Lange calls this his “commercial-plus” strategy. At P&G, they have not attempted to maintain internal codes.

P&G also uses some national laboratory codes from both LANL and Sandia National Labs. “The same weapons code used at Los Alamos for more sophisticated purposes is used for combustion code in automotive applications and at P&G for paper products manufacturing,” said Lange.

Procter & Gamble tells its story

Unlike its competitors, P&G’s been publicizing how it uses high performance computing technology for a few years now. Other companies have been much more reticent to share their HPC story with the masses. Even Lange admits this story would not have told at P&G in the 1980s. But the nature of product manufacturing has changed.

“We’re in a global competition for ideas,” said Lange. “There’s no illusion at Procter and Gamble that it’s the only place where smart things happen. Since that illusion is not there, our willingness to say what we do know gives us the hope we’ll learn from others. If we’re just sitting in the back hiding, not saying anything, that doesn’t improve our innovation.”

Procter & Gamble does appear to have a more strategic focus on using HPC technology than its competitors. Lange’s position — the director of modeling and simulation — may be hard to find at other companies that produce package goods. Although modeling may have been used to help with product and package design at P&G ten or fifteen years ago, it wasn’t seen as a critical asset. But today, Lange believes there is an increasing awareness to use this technology to develop and improve products. This mirrors what has happened in other sectors — defense, electronics, automotive, aerospace, oil & gas — in the last decade or so.

Lange believes his willingness to speak at conferences like HPCC helps him connect with others in government and industry that deal with similar types of problems. He is hoping to develop some good relationships at the conference, leading to possible future collaborations. Lange uses events such as these to get to know his counterparts in other organizations.

“I know my counterparts at Chrysler, I know my counterparts at Dreamworks, I know my counterparts at Morgan-Stanley,” said Lange. “I would have never met those individuals if I hadn’t been involved in things like [HPCC]. In a lot of ways they all have similar jobs to mine. They’re trying to bring computing to their innovation process.”

Lange believes that collaboration between the defense, automotive industry, and package goods industry is quite possible. For example, P&G models many of the properties of skin to develop the interaction of its lotion products. Those models could be relevant for a crash test simulation at Ford Motor Company or a battlefield armor protection simulation for the Army.

“In my world I’m worried about wrinkles and freckles, said Lange. “I’m just trying to make everyone’s life just a little better. But the science and engineering of making everyone’s life a little better has an amazing similarity to what are some of the more complex problems in safety and defense.”

High Performance Pringles

In general, Procter and Gamble use high performance computing modeling to design consumer package goods for a variety of its products: Ivory, Pringles, Charmin, Downy, Tide, Crest, Mr. Clean, Pampers, and a whole range of Hugo Boss products. A fairly recent success story is the Folgers Coffee plastic canister, which features the so-called “Aroma Seal.”

“There’s a lot of complex science and engineering associated with that particular container,” said Lange.

He explains that structural integrity is especially important for hermetically sealed packages. This type of container must be able to withstand pressure changes in elevation when they’re being transported — for example, during shipping, when the product is being driven over 11,000-foot mountain passes. Metal containers are very resistant pressure changes. But metal has drawbacks in maintaining the flavor profiles of foods, such as coffee, whose aroma is a result of its volatile oils. Metal does not react well with those volatile oils, so the coffee flavor tends to degrade over time.

Plastic, on the other hand, is better at preserving the coffee flavor profile. However plastic is not as good at maintaining its structural integrity when undergoing pressure changes during transport. Lange said this can be overcome if you just make the plastic really thick, but this is not very practical from a consumer acceptance and environmental point of view. So the challenge was to design a plastic container that would be both strong and practical for the consumer. For this, Procter and Gamble had to resort to sophisticated computer-aided engineering.

“That plastic coffee canister — the Aroma Seal package — would not exist without modeling,” said Lange. “Packaging, in general, is where this [modeling] gets applied — whether you’re talking about a Tide bottle or any of our liquid products.”

At P&G, product modeling is used to design a range of properties associated with a package, including its manufacturability, its strength and it resistance to leakage. In some cases, modeling is used to create more efficient packaging, so that fewer raw materials are used. This benefits both the manufacturer, because it is less expensive to produce, and the consumer, because its lighter, more compact and friendlier to the environment.

According to Lange, their paper products, including disposable diapers, toilet paper and paper towels is another area where a lot of modeling takes place. Also, substrate-based products such as Swiffer, Bounce, Thermocare have also benefited from high performance computing, employing chemoinformatics and molecular mesoscale modeling to predict the behavior of liquid solutions. Lange said that none of these products would be on the store shelves without modeling.

And then there’s Pringles. One of the reasons the aerodynamics of Pringles is so important is because the chips are being produced so quickly that they are practically flying down the production line.
“We make them very, very, very fast,” said Lange. “We make them fast enough so that in their transport, the aerodynamics are relevant. If we make them too fast, they fly where we don’t want them to, which is normally into a big pile somewhere. And that’s bad.”

Lange notes that the aerodynamics of chips is also important for food processing reasons. In this case, the aerodynamic properties combine with the food engineering issues, such as fluid flow interactions with the steam and oil as the chips are being cooked and seasoned.

Future Applications

Lange thinks that he will be able to use more advanced codes, such as human biomechanical modeling, on next-generation computers. At P&G, he would like to apply biomechanical modeling to design more user-friendly packaging. To the degree Procter and Gamble’s products interface better with the full range of humanity, the more likely he’s going to able to deliver a preferred product in the marketplace.

Lange describes one possible application of this from his own experience. He said he noticed that his mother-in-law, who has arthritis, leaves tops ajar or the caps off on a variety of containers around her home, because it’s too painful for her to continually open and close them.

“It’s a classic engineering dilemma, said Lange. “How do I make something that never leaks but opens easily? Introducing the human into this, in a full biomechanical way, is a complicated problem. It puts a huge demand on computing.”

Lange said that if they had more computing power, they could also perform much finer-grained molecular modeling. For example, they could simulate the nanoscale behavior of liquids. With this capability they would be able to predict the stability and opacity properties of different liquid solutions. Today he can only address those problems with very simple mesoscale representations.

Lange thinks it’s a shame when he occasionally hears his counterparts in the aerospace and automotive sectors say their systems are fast enough today — that no more computing power is really needed. He believes there are problems in all engineering domains that have yet to be addressed because of a lack of computing capability.

“My appetite for computing is insatiable,” admitted Lange. “For every factor of ten that Moore’s Law gives me, I can make use of every bit of it!”

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