March 3, 2011

White House Announces Project to Spur HPC Adoption in US Manufacturing

Michael Feldman

The White House hosted a press conference on Wednesday to announce a new public-private partnership that aims to bring HPC technology to the have-nots of the US manufacturing sector. Using a $2 million grant from the US Department of Commerce and an additional 2.5 million investment from industrial partners, a consortium has been formed to broaden the use of HPC technology by small manufacturing enterprises (SMEs).

The new organization, named the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium (NDEMC), will be tasked to spread adoption of advanced modeling and simulation software in a sector that is in dire need of IT modernization. As we reported last week, there is a big gap between HPC capabilities at the large manufacturers versus their smaller and much more numerous suppliers. At these less well-endowed firms, HPC capabilities are absent or in short supply. NDEMC will attempt to fill that gap by sharing its members’ expertise and resources.

The project is being led by the Council on Competitiveness, who gathered the partners and made the successful bid for the Department of Commerce grant. Besides the Council, the consortium includes the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the Ohio Supercomputing Center (OSC), the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), and Purdue University, as well as industrial partners John Deere (Deere and Company), General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and Lockheed Martin.

The central goal of this project is to bring access to HPC simulation and modeling software down into the supply chain of these major manufacturers. The reason that’s useful is that large OEMs, even with their own supercomputers and advanced software, are still dependent upon product quality and design innovation from their component suppliers. If the large firms can bring their supply chain up to the same technology level, that benefits everyone.

And from the government’s point a view, a more robust manufacturing sector benefits the nation as a whole. In that sense, this Commerce grant and the new partnership are just part of a larger industrial policy that the White House has been touting for the last couple of years. With regard to manufacturing specifically, the Obama administration’s goal is to reverse the “invented-here-manufactured-there” model and double US exports from this sector over the next five years. “Our global competitors in India and China are not waiting for America’s lead to chart a new economic path,” noted US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, who spoke during the press conference.

Locke said giving these SMEs access to HPC will dramatically change how these firms operate. “For small and medium sized manufacturers today, the typical product development cycle takes 14 months,” he said. “But with this new technology it can be reduced to eight months.”

Besides Secretary Locke, the press conference also included comments from Assistant to the President for Manufacturing Policy Ron Bloom, US Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development John Fernandez, and Council on Competitiveness President and CEO Deborah Wince-Smith. Together they highlighted the importance of HPC technology to the manufacturing sector and took pains to emphasize that this was a collaboration between the government, academia and industry.

“What is really significant about this partnership is the recognition that the United States really cannot maintain its standard of living, drive its productivity, keep its job creation moving forward, and maintain its national security if we do not innovate and create the next generation of high-value products and services,” said Wince-Smith.

Other than that, the 30-minute press conference was a little bit light on the facts, such as how the $4.5 million investment was going to be applied. For that, HPCwire got a chance to talk with Cynthia McIntyre, senior vice president at the Council on Competitiveness and project lead for the grant. According to her, quite a bit of the money will go toward supporting trainers and educators at the non-profit partners (OSC, NCSA, NCMS, and Purdue). In some cases, these domain experts will be deployed to work on-site to help bring the selected smaller manufacturers up to speed. “We need to understand their workflows and how modeling and simulation can help them with their productivity,” explained McIntyre

In general, the funds won’t be used to buy computing infrastructure — at least for the SMEs. Instead, the approach will be to employ the existing HPC resources of partners like OSC and NCSA. What form this takes is not exactly clear, although part of the project funds will apparently go toward building a Web environment that can be used to access the HPC modeling/simulation software remotely.

Also a little bit fuzzy is the criteria that will be used to select the supply chain manufacturers for the project. According to McIntyre, this is still to be determined, but one approach being considered is to gather a group of firms that share similar application needs such as in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) or finite element analysis (FEA).

Given the limited funding for the project, they don’t expect to bring in more than a couple dozen SMEs, at most. With just $2 million from the feds and $2.5 million from industry, the buy-in is relatively small at this point. During the press conference, White House policy expert Ron Bloom admitted that this is just a pilot project, and if successful, would require greater resources in the future. “What we can do is to use this modest amount of money to start this [project], to make some important progress in developing this software, and as this gains momentum, we would expect it to grow in size,” he said.

If it does expand, it will probably do so under another grant (and possibly another administration). The project is expected to begin within the next four to six weeks and last for just 18 months. That doesn’t leave the project a lot of time to come up some with successful case studies and proof points for follow-on funding.

Nonetheless, that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the project’s proponents, who repeatedly drove home the point that these technologies will need to be adopted by manufactures if they want to be competitive in the 21st century. “This is going to change the game on how third millennium manufacturing is done,” said Wince-Smith.

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