In this special guest feature, Tom Wilkie from Scientific Computing World reflects on concerns that smaller companies are falling behind in their use of high performance computing.
The lack of interest in high performance computing shown by small and medium sized companies book-ended this year’s European supercomputing conference, ISC High Performance, held in Frankfurt last week.
In the keynote address that opened the event, the conference was told that Europe is failing to persuade enough small and medium companies to take advantage of high performance computing (HPC) and engineering simulation, even though HPC and computer-aided engineering (CAE) are essential tools in modern industry.
SMEs: critical to a prosperous future
Jürgen Kohler, senior manager, NVH CAE & vehicle concepts at Mercedes-Benz, pointed out that 99 per cent of Europe’s manufacturing companies are small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and that they provide 66 per cent of all employment. But, he said, very few use HPC.
Towards the end of the week, in one of the workshops held after the formal conference had concluded, SMEs were also the focus of attention, as speakers from Germany discussed plans by the Gauss-Allianz to create a national guide to HPC resources in Germany, in part with the aim of putting SMEs in touch with centers of expertise that can help them access HPC.
It was one of several initiatives to encourage the use of HPC by SMEs that were discussed both during the conference and during the exhibition. Genci, the French national supercomputing agency, was awarded increased funding by the French Government, just before the opening of ISC High Performance, to support SMEs in their take-up of numerical simulation, as part of an ambitious national plan entitled Industrie du Futur : transformer le modèle industriel par le numérique.
On the commercial side, Altair announced that it was offering a trial of CAE on the Cloud – free of charge — as part of a new high-performance computing “Cloud Challenge” together with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Intel. The idea is to demonstrate the benefits of the cloud for large-scale design exploration in CAE. The company also announced that it is offering HPC solutions on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, especially to target manufacturing industry’s need for compute-intensive simulations, such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD), crash and safety analysis, optimization, and electromagnetics.
Simulation cut costs and improves safety
Jürgen Kohler’s keynote address to the ISC conference deftly melded history, humor, and public policy issues as well as engineering and computing technology. He outlined how Mercedes Benz had introduced the concept of the ‘digital prototype’ in 2001 and how the company had developed it into a comprehensive virtual design environment. More simulation meant less physical testing, he said, with concomitant cost reductions.
Within Mercedes Benz, the advantages of high-performance computing extend even to crash testing: the company simulates about 70,000 crashes each year, and carries out only about 700 real prototype crash tests. The crash test simulation program itself generates about 40 Exabytes of data a year, but the company filters that down to about 6PB and actually analyses only about 400TB.
Big data is not yet an issue for us,” he said, although it was relevant for the sales effort and other aspects of the commercial rather than the technical side of the business. But he suggested that there would be a need, in the future, to look at what knowledge could perhaps be extracted from the technical crash data that is currently thrown away.
He cited one example of how simulation can yield a more precise and a more appropriate picture of what is going on in a crash than the use of physical dummies is able to do. Old people have more brittle bones than younger ones, but both older and younger people drive Mercedes Benz cars. So the computer modelers have developed the ability to simulate crashes using a more realistic and individualized model of the human body, and how it would behave in the event of a car accident.
Kohler outlined how this has been applied to the development of a new side-restraint system. To decrease the risk, the focus was on avoiding or minimizing injuries to the travelers’ rib-cages. Safety assessment had shown that the worst-case scenario was that of elderly occupants, and so Mercedes’ computer scientists were able to modify the computer model to age the bones in the rib cage of the human body used as a ‘dummy’ in the virtual crash test.
Spreading the word about HPC
Throughout his keynote address, Kohler illustrated how HPC, CAE, CFD, and Computational Aero Acoustics (CAA) are essential enablers in engineering, improving efficiency and ensuring competitiveness. In response to a question from the audience, he pointed out that Mercedes Benz was requiring the companies in its supply chain to adopt computational techniques themselves.
But he also addressed issues of policy much wider than the technology and supply chain of Mercedes Benz. He welcomed the efforts of the European Commission to try to stimulate uptake of HPC among SMEs, with initiatives such as the Horizon 2020 research-funding program and the SME HPC Adoption Program in Europe (SHAPE) within the EU-funded Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE).
However, although these were a step in the right direction, Kohler argued that these initiatives by themselves were not going to succeed in moving European industry towards a digital future.
Jürgen Kohler’s suggestions on how to improve uptake of HPC by SMEs, together with some of the national and commercial strategies that were discussed at ISC, are reported in the next article in this series of reports and analyses from the conference: Easing access to HPC for the SME and A portal opens to German HPC centres.