Supercomputing slow to win over supply chains

Over time, competitive pressure may force many manufacturers to turn to high-performance computing (HPC) for product design and testing. But it could be years before the kind of systems used now by companies such as Wal-Mart Stores and The Procter & Gamble Co. get broadly adopted within supply chains.

Wal-Mart, P&G and other large users have no problem pointing to the benefits of high-performance systems in bringing products to market and helping them manage their business operations. Nonetheless, attendees at a conference in Washington, D.C., last week said that major barriers remain to widespread use of the technology.

The list of hurdles they cited includes the lingering presence of legacy code that hasn't been adapted for newer low-cost hardware, plus a lack of IT workers with the right skills, the inability of many smaller companies to afford high-performance systems and the need for middleware that could be used to adapt complex computational codes to broader business uses.

Thomas Lange, director of the modeling and simulation program in P&G's corporate research and development unit, said high-performance systems aren't being widely used outside of automotive and aerospace supply chains. The lack of adoption applies to P&G's own supply chain, he said.

Lange and other proponents at yesterday's third annual High-Performance Computing Users Conference said they hope that increasing pressure on companies to shorten their time to market for new products and squeeze out costs will help usher in broader use of HPC technology.

"We're not going to set criteria [for suppliers] to use HPC," Lange said. "We're going to use the standard market forces that are present."

Large companies that already use supercomputers and other high-performance systems may also play a role in helping their supply chains to move to similar machines. For instance, Wal-Mart is aiding its suppliers on HPC issues on an "as-needed basis," said Nancy Stewart, the retailer's chief technology officer. In one case, Wal-Mart used its own HPC techniques and technology to provide assistance to a needy supplier, Stewart said.

Aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney works with its suppliers on HPC issues, as well. But it also pays a lot of attention to determining whether the people who have access to high-performance tools "actually have the ability to use them," said Jayant Sabnis, chief engineer for systems analysis and aerodynamics at the company. If the technology isn't used correctly, the product-design consequences can be disastrous, he said.

The conference was sponsored chiefly by the Council on Competitiveness, a Washington-based industry group with members from a broad array of large companies. The council sees high-performance computing as important to the U.S. in global economic competition.

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