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HPCwire recently ran a great article describing in a nutshell the potential that high-performance computing (HPC) can have in increasing the competitiveness of US manufacturing.

Despite what media coverage about the ailing manufacturing sector may lead one to believe, the US still leads the world in manufacturing output. In 2009, as Michael Feldman of HPCwire describes, the US accounted for 20% of the world’s manufacturing output and was 45% more productive in this area than China.¬†Nevertheless, there are challenges ahead; the US is only fourth in manufacturing competitiveness worldwide according to one study.

Why is manufacturing such an important part of the US economy even though it employs only 10% of the national workforce? Feldman writes:

The real value of the US manufacturing sector is that it’s at the heart of much of the science and engineering innovation on which the remainder of the economy rests. Today US manufacturers employ more than a third of the country’s engineers and account for 60 percent of all private sector R&D. As such, it creates products that are used by the more lucrative service industries. Think, for example, of all the myriad services that are dependent on the production of computer chips and other electronic devices. Manufacturing, like agriculture before it, is a foundational activity that acts as a catalyst to other business sectors.

As we’ve been following on this blog, this great potential for reinvigorating the foundational sector of the US economy has been taken up as a cause by various organizations ranging from the federal government to the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) to universities to system integrators like us.

What exactly are the advantages of HPC for the manufacturing industry? Jon Riley of NCMS puts it well in his Digital Manufacturing Initiative manifesto:

The new tool for manufacturing innovation exists in the digital domain, examining, simulating, and processing trillions of data points, then returning valid prognostic results in a matter of hours, not years. Forget prototyping, forget material testing. With predictive simulation, every material, design, eventuality and variable is analyzed, cross-analyzed, and assessed for potential outcomes. Someday soon, any attempt to innovate, or manufacture, without this tool will be the equivalent of an office that doggedly sticks to manual typewriters when all other companies have high-end PCs, email, and word processing applications. The most successful innovators are the ones who innovate at high speed, bringing new products to manufacturing and then on to market in months rather than years.

The major area of improvement is with small- to medium-size manufacturing firms. While 61% of the large manufacturing corporations such as Boeing and General Motors already use HPC technology, only 8% of small manufacturing businesses have adopted these tools.

The major hurdles, as Feldman describes, are price and lack of in-house IT expertise in SMBs of the manufacturing sector. But these smaller-sized companies make up the majority of US manufacturers, and equipping them with HPC tools can spur technological innovation that will ripple through and positively influence other aspects of the economy.

The potential is enormous; it’s just a matter of getting over the tipping point, it seems to me. If you’d like to learn more about US manufacturing and high-performance computing, listen to HPCwire’s recent podcast on this topic.