Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Making High Performance Computing Accessible and Affordable to Manufacturers 

The Rocky Mountain Supercomputer Centers (RMSC) is on a mission to bring high performance computing (HPC) technology to the “missing middle” of the North American manufacturing sector. These are the small- to medium- sized manufacturers (SMMs) that are poised to launch new products, hire additional personnel, and beat their bigger competitors to market if only they had advanced modeling, simulation, 3D visualization and analysis capabilities at their fingertips.

Rocky MountainsCost and expertise are the barriers that stand between these manufacturing organizations and the HPC technology that can help them. These barriers are identical for SMMs cutting across all sectors. The expense of buying, operating and maintaining an HPC system, also known as a supercomputer, is typically associated only with major corporations, academia and government agencies. And even if such a system could be purchased, very few SMMs have the staff with the training and skills to scale up their existing workloads to run on a supercomputer.

From our headquarters in Butte, Montana, and with the support of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, we at RMSC have examined the “missing middle” phenomenon in our own state, which over 3,000 manufacturers call home. Here and elsewhere, the lack of funding and expertise is compounded by another factor — time. Small manufacturers are so busy with the business at hand, they don’t have time to learn about HPC technology, and neither do the people they employ. This is unfortunate — SMMs may have the most to gain from the adoption of digital manufacturing.

An HPC system has the power and capacity to process large data volumes very quickly. Such a system can model thousands of variables and analyze scores of outcomes in two, three and four dimensions in a fraction of the time required for a desktop computer. For example, an application that takes weeks to run on a desktop system might take less than an hour of HPC time.

What does this mean for the manufacturer? It means that when they enter the realm of digital manufacturing, virtual prototyping becomes a reality. In fact, it becomes standard operating procedure. HPC enables the manufacturer to design, engineer and build prototypes onscreen and then test them in a variety of simulated environments. Design specifications can be changed with a few key strokes. Bending metal doesn’t occur until the final — and usually the only — real prototype is built.

The time and money saved in eliminating the process of building multiple physical prototypes are staggering. But the advantage of getting a new product to market before your competition is game changing.

Bridging the Gap

RMSC is a public-private partnership funded by the state of Montana to drive economic development, in part, by serving the missing middle. Its business model is uniquely designed to accomplish this by breaking down those barriers that have traditionally prevented the SMMs from accessing HPC technology.

RMSC is doing this in two key ways:

• First, it has implemented an HPC system, which it is making available to users in the “cloud.” This simply means that RMSC owns, maintains and operates the system, and the center’s clients access it via the Internet. More importantly, the center’s revenue model is built on a pay-as-you-go, or on-demand, basis. Its clients lease time on the RMSC ‘Big Sky’ supercomputer under either a per-project or periodic payment schedule.

This on-demand HPC cloud model eliminates the access, cost and risk barriers typically associated with using a supercomputer. RMSC has addressed the expertise issue as well by providing assistance from HPC experts who have experience scaling common business applications to run in multicore HPC environments. In most cases, we can customize our HPC platform to work with the client’s operating system and workflow constraints.

We call this an “innovation sandbox,” where manufacturers can dip their toes in the digital waters to test virtual prototyping, simulation, 3D visualization, multi-dimensional analysis and other HPC advantages in a secure and affordable environment. The beauty of this model is that it offers the flexibility of starting out with a pilot and then quickly ramping up to an operational level once the application has proven itself.

• Secondly, RMSC is tackling the missing middle challenge from another angle. The center knows the impact that in-house expertise can have in helping a manufacturing firm make the leap to HPC and also in sticking with the technology after that first taste of success. But this situation highlights a much larger problem facing the U.S., Canada and other nations: the scarcity of HPC-educated students emerging from our colleges and universities.

In early 2011, RMSC began addressing this issue by launching MORE Opportunity (Maximizing and Optimizing Research and Educational Opportunity). It is leveraging its status as a registered non-profit organization to join with partners at the industry, government, tribal, academic and community levels to build tomorrow’s workforce today. With partners from these sectors, RMSC is pursuing grant and foundation funding to initiate research projects that teach our young people to apply HPC technology in solving real world problems.

For example, RMSC has already partnered with a Native American college in Montana to make the RMSC Big Sky system available to mathematics professors and their students to apply in projects that can’t be run on a commercial computer. Our goal is to train these students — even if they aren’t computer majors — in HPC applications so they take that knowledge with them into their fields of endeavor after graduation. Perhaps one of these HPC-savvy students will be the person your manufacturing company hires next year or brings in as an intern next summer.

RMSC’s dual approaches to serving the “missing middle” — the sandbox of commercial innovation and the talent-building MORE Opportunity — are crucial first steps in bringing the benefits of HPC technology to digital manufacturers.

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