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April 8, 2014

HPC ‘App’ for Industry Stresses Ease of Use

Tiffany Trader

One of the main enterprise uses for high performance computing (HPC) is to bring product designs to market faster via a process known as rapid prototyping. This week three popular companies – Unilever, Syngenta and Infineum – have partnered with the HPC facilities at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC’s) Hartree Centre, drawn by the allure of using HPC to boost competitiveness. The Hartree Centre is the UK’s largest supercomputing facility dedicated to industrial applications.

The companies will be honing their wares digital-style with a new breed of software tools aimed at helping shave months or even years off product development, driving down costs in the process. Thanks to advances in computer modeling, simulation and 3D visualization, product experimentation that used to take a week can now be done in just 40 minutes according to the folks at Hartree. The initiative is based on a simple “app,” which plugs in to one of most powerful supercomputers in the UK, STFC’s Blue Joule Supercomputer. With a Linpack rating of 1.25 petaflops, this IBM BlueGene/Q machine is currently the 23rd fastest supercomputer in the world based on the TOP500 ranking system.

STFC Blue Joule graphic 400xMassimo Noro, relationship manager at Unilever who helped found the project, said: “We have identified STFC’s Hartree Centre as a key enabler that will allow us to access the power of the supercomputer to accelerate our discovery processes. Against a tough, highly competitive market environment, speed-to-market is critical for UK companies, especially a company like ours that creates new products every year.”

The three-year endeavor will support the designing, improving and manufacturing of complex high-value formulated products, e.g., environmentally friendly cleaning products; cleaner, more efficient lubricating oils and fuels; more sustainable crop protection products; and next-generation personal care products. Funding for the effort comes in part from a £1 million grant from the Technology Strategy Board.

A primary goal is ease of use. The expectation is that the manufacturers themselves, rather than specialist computational scientists, will be able to run predictive simulation tests through an “app” that was designed for just this purpose.

Developed by the Hartree centre in association with IBM, the app links to the Hartree Centre’s Blue Joule supercomputer. Software was selected to enable the kind of complex product design that will be undertaken. A key computational task will be predicting the behavior and structure of different concentrations of liquid compounds and how they will interact with each other – in the packaging, throughout shelf-life and in use.

Results will be shared amongst and will benefit all three industry collaborators. Even though the companies are structured around entirely different products, they share a common need to understand the behaviors and structures of the ingredients they use, and the interactions between them. Doing this as efficiently as possible will help them get products to market up to 80 percent more quickly.

Cliff Brereton, director of STFC’s Hartree Centre, said: “STFC is well known for its computational science expertise in modelling and simulation and one of our aims is to bridge the gap between science and industry to the benefit of UK companies competing on an international scale. We hope that the results of this initiative will pave the way for further advances in materials chemistry which will benefit consumers, the environment and the wider economy, through significantly faster design processes and cost reduction.”

In the video below, Unilever’s Massimo Noro explores how using the STFC Hartree Centre will benefit product design at the multinational consumer goods company.

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