January 27, 2014

Japan’s Manufacturers Cozy Up to Supercomputing

Tiffany Trader

Beyond a pure passion for technology and the thrill of turning ideas into reality, there is a hugely practical basis for investment in advanced computing. Supercomputers and other computational technologies bolster economic competitiveness, a notion that nearly all academic, industry and government leaders have embraced. As supercomputers become more powerful, manufacturers can run bigger and more complex models, saving time and money in the process.

In Japan, manufacturers are increasingly turning to the nation’s fastest supercomputers – such as the 10-petaflop K supercomputer, installed at Japan’s RIKEN research institute – to get a leg up on the competition. As an article in Nikkei Asian Review details, Japanese business and research organizations are exploring how to best leverage the potential of the K computer and similar powerful computing machines. There are several projects in place now, which are expected to yield results within a couple of years.

Software developed for K is being used by carmakers Toyota Motor and Suzuki Motor, and Bridgestone, the tire maker, to help them design their next-generation of products. The hardware-software combination is making it possible for the manufacturers to meet their prototyping needs without having to build full-scale physical designs. Not only is the digital approach less costly and time-consuming, it enables greater innovation as new ideas can be tried out with a few clicks of the keyboard. Testing a large number of design parameters in a physical format just wouldn’t be feasible from an economic or time standpoint.

Developed by a team of specialists from 13 companies with the cooperation of Hokkaido University, the software simulates the air resistance created by a car by interpreting the space around a car as a grid of 2.3 billion segments. The computer simulation reflects how the air movement is affected by different driving conditions, for example a passing vehicle of a strong crosswind.

Digital modeling enables engineers to determine the most aerodynamic shapes. Lower wind resistance enables vehicles to be more fuel-efficient and increases steerability. Previously, automakers had to construct large wind tunnels and run tests using full-scale models. The supercomputer helps minimize the need for expensive physical testing. It can even find flaws that would previously have gone undetected in a a physical mockup, according to K engineers.

In addition to the auto industry, Japan is also expanding its supercomputing efforts into the shipbuilding field. Instead of simulating air flow, design software developed by the Shipbuilding Research Center of Japan shows how a ship’s movement creates turbulence in water as small as 1mm. By enabling shipbuilders to forego testing of real-life floating models in enormous tanks, the design costs for such vessels can be reduced by up to 50 percent.

The Fujitsu-RIKEN K supercomputer is also being used to enable a faster pace of discovery in materials science and pharmaceutical research. While the main user base for the K system are universities and labs, the Research Organization for Information Science and Technology (RIST), which manages the allocation process, also maintains a number of industry relationships. RIST accepted 42 applications for projects using the K in fiscal 2014, up from 27 in 2012.

Going forward, Japan’s science ministry is working to develop an exascale supercomputer, 100 times faster than the K, by 2020.