HPC in the Cloud ran an article last week written by Jon Riley of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS). The article talked about the initiative by NCMS to rejuvenate manufacturing in the United States by connecting manufacturers with supercomputing hardware and software to make them more competitive in the global marketplace.
The leap from tried-and-true methods to newer technologies has historically been a difficult one, but it almost always pays off big in the long run. In the late 1990s, for instance, the Electric Boat Corporation (which has been the builder of submarines for the U.S. Navy ever since they were introduced a hundred years earlier) embarked on designing and building the USS Virginia, the first of a new class of attack submarines. This was the first time a U.S. submarine was going to be designed entirely on a computer before it was to be built.
There was no margin for error. A brand new class of submarines had to go from design to construction to launch in a matter of several years and perform excellently at sea to prove its worth as a weapons platform.
As it turns out, the USS Virginia was launched on schedule in 2003 and operated without a glitch during its first sea trials. Computer-aided design, which had accurately simulated every corner and lever of the submarine, proved an extremely effective way to design submersibles. The CAD software even alerted designers whenever a space was laid out in the blueprint that would prove too cramped for sailors to live and work.
I highly doubt the Navy will ever go back to the days of drafting schematics for new craft by hand or physical model. Computers are just too convenient for this work, but only once the transition from old ways to new has been tried, learned, proven, and streamlined.
While the defense industry, along with larger manufacturers, has widely embraced high-performance computing (HPC) for improving the way they work, other sectors like smaller factories and engineering shops are lagging behind. Enter the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences.
NCMS is partnering with the federal government, vendors, academia, and of course manufacturers to create a network of Predictive Innovation Centers (PIC). The idea is for these centers to offer educational resources, project collaboration, and access to applications and simulation tools remotely through cloud computing and also at physical locations.
NCMS hopes this will have a snowball effect: as an initial group of small and medium manufacturers (SMM) gets used to using HPC (high-performance computing) technology, others will follow and the benefits will ripple through the rest of the economy:
While PICs will result in the creation of new jobs at the centers themselves, the true benefits extend much further . . . As almost 300,000 SMMs begin to engage HPC, they will grow their existing customer base and expand into new sectors, creating direct, indirect and induced jobs across the nation . . . New technology companies and service vendors for the growing HPC infrastructure will provide even greater sustained job creation, further supporting and enhancing community, state and regional services and facilities.
The “missing middle” of U.S. manufacturing has been hesitant to adopt HPC to gain a competitive advantage in the world marketplace. Concurrently, U.S. manufacturing has slowly been “outsourced” overseas for the past several decades, just like information technology resources (IT) have been in more recent times. The initiative proposed by NCMS is both smart and elegant: it proposes to increase U.S. competitiveness in both manufacturing and IT, while also ensuring economic growth for many decades to come. It’s definitely an idea and a movement that’s worth following.