Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Friday, August 12, 2022

Hope for the Missing Middle 

There are about 300,000 manufacturing companies in the United States. Only 5 percent of the total are big organizations like Boeing, General Motors and Procter & Gamble; the rest are small- to medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs). And the disparity between the two groups couldn't be greater.

The missing middle really isn't missing — it's poised on the brink of a manufacturing renaissance.

The term "missing middle" was coined by the Council on Competitiveness to describe the small- to medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) who are missing out on the benefits of digital manufacturing — specifically advanced modeling, simulation and analysis using high performance computing (HPC) systems.

There are about 300,000 manufacturing companies in the United States. Only 5 percent of the total are big organizations like Boeing, General Motors and Procter & Gamble; the rest are SMMs. And the disparity between the two groups couldn't be greater.

The large industrial firms have been using HPC and leading edge digital manufacturing technologies for years. It's fundamental to their business and their ability to compete in the global marketplace. On the other hand, SMMs are using comparatively rudimentary desktop systems to develop simple models (at best, most of the SMMs — some 65 percent — don't even have this capability). They rely to a great extent on time-consuming and expensive physical prototyping.

To bring the plight of the missing middle into sharper focus, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) collaborated with Intersect360 Research to survey a cross-section of US manufacturers. The results were highly illuminating. The chart below sums up the results of their research. (Note: Mod/Sim stands for modeling/simulation.)

>Source: Intersect360 Research and NCMS, "Modeling and Simulation at U.S. Manufacturers: The Case for Digital Manufacturing," 2011.

Addison Snell, CEO of Intersect360 Research, says the survey revealed that:

  • 55 percent of the HPC usage is at companies with over 10,000 employees.
  • 56 percent of the SMMs maxed out at 2D drawing have 20 or fewer employees.
  • 62 percent of the companies with over 10,000 employees are using HPC.
  • Only 8 percent of the companies with fewer than 100 employees are using HPC.

What's the Hold Up?

The sluggish adoption of digital manufacturing among the SMMs is puzzling given the benefits that the technology can bring. Equipping the missing middle with leading-edge digital manufacturing capabilities has the power to transform US manufacturing — boosting productivity, accelerating time-to-market, and increasing customer satisfaction, while creating jobs and allowing a much wider range of companies to compete globally.

So why the hesitancy on the part of the SMMs?

Snell points out that not every small manufacturer is interested in adopting the technology. Digital manufacturing only appeals to SMMs who consider R&D or engineering expertise critical to maintaining a competitive advantage, he says. Many manufacturers differentiate themselves through non-technological means: For example, by being a fast follower in terms of design (e.g., making use of R&D supplied by a contractor), and providing superior customer service.

He comments, "The good news is that even among manufacturers at the lowest end of technology adoption, the survey reveals that 72 percent of them see a need for experimenting with new technologies, if it can be done with less cost and risk."

However, despite initial enthusiasm, most SMMs remain wary.

Yes, they want to explore digital manufacturing, but only if they can do so with minimal risk and expense. Among their concerns are the cost of acquiring computer hardware and software, developing the in-house talent needed to implement, run and maintain the systems, and validating modeling and simulation results against existing processes. (See the DM-Zone blog "Why SMMs Balk at Adopting Digital Manufacturing" for a longer discussion of why the technology faces an uphill climb among SMMs.)

Convincing the Cautious Missing Middle

Outreach is the answer. Required is a concerted effort on the part of many different federal, state and local agencies, non-profit organizations like NCMS, academic institutions, HPC vendors, and publications like the Digital Manufacturing Report. The goal is to educate the SMMs about the benefits of digital manufacturing, and provide a low cost, low risk, value adding way to become involved with the technology.

Fortunately there are a number of initiatives underway.

For example:

  • Digital Manufacturing SIG — In March of this year, NCMS brought together 50 people representing over 30 organizations from government, industry and academia to create a Digital Manufacturing Special Interest Group (SIG). The SIG's charter is to "help shape the technology and drive innovation into the hands of the people who need it." NCMS serves the SIG as an impartial third party helping to deliver funding opportunities and research projects. To date, 15 organizations have joined the SIG. A number of these are also participants in the Alliance for High Performance Digital Manufacturing (AHPDM). With several other organizations waiting in the wings, this initiative is up and running. Typical SIG members include the Ohio Supercomputer Center, Intel, Microsoft, Simulia, Altair, GE, GDLS, Clemson, and L&L Products.
  • PICs — Addressing the SMM's need for a low cost, low risk way of exploring digital manufacturing, NCMS is in the process of developing a knowledge infrastructure focused on product design, development and advanced manufacturing. This network of Predictive Innovation Centers (PICs), which will leverage the resources of US universities, national labs and industrial research centers, will allow manufacturers of all sizes to experiment with HPC tools and optimize their own innovation processes through the use of digital modeling and simulation (M&S).

    According to Riley, the PIC strategy is to educate its users by providing a low risk environment where they can learn about M&S through free or low cost educational programs and interactive demos. It will also be a place where they can play with tools and technologies that will allow them to understand the promise and power of digital manufacturing. In addition, robust M&S capabilities and collaborative environments will be available so users can solve specific engineering problems. Finally, the PIC will provide help with the full integration and adoption of advanced M&S capabilities at the end user level by providing all the needed services and resources.

  • Other initiatives — There is a ramp up of activity involving a variety of organizations in both the public and private sector:
    • For example, under the guidance of Executive Director Earl Dodd, the Rocky Mountain Supercomputer Center (RMSC) is lending a hand to the missing middle in Montana and the surrounding region.
    • The U.S. Department of Commerce has awarded a $2 million grant to the Council on Competitiveness to create a public/private partnership designed to help SMMs in the Midwest compete on a global basis. Known as the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium (NDEMC), the new entity's goal is to lower the barriers for heartland SMM adoption of HPC-based modeling and simulation. The Council is working in collaboration with NCMS, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois, and the Ohio Supercomputing Center (OSC). The Department of Commerce grant is being matched by $2.5 million in private sector funding from General Electric, John Deere, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble, and Purdue University.
    • Blue Collar Computing (BCC), an initiative sponsored by OSC, has been around since 2004. Its goal is to help industry gain easy and affordable access to advanced computing technology. One of BCC's latest initiatives is a collaboration with PolymerOhio to provide advanced computational capabilities to the state's SMM polymer manufacturers. The Polymer Portal, a virtual doorway to the latest modeling and simulation tools, went live on May 5, 2011. Eventually the program will be expanded nationally to all types of manufacturing. Funding has been provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP).
    • DARPA, whose supply chain includes many SMMs, has just issued a BAA (Broad Agency Announcement, DARPA's equivalent of an RFP) for Open Manufacturing. Part of the $138 million the Agency is earmarking for the initiative will enable "non-traditionals," mostly SMMs, to take advantage of "comprehensive manufacturing design, simulation and performance prediction tools." NCMS's Jon Riley notes that the BAA's description of its proposed manufacturing centers seems very similar to the Center's PIC concept.

Building Momentum

These are just a few of the initiatives underway across the country that will help spread the word among the 285,000 SMMs that digital manufacturing modeling and simulation is absolutely essential to their ability to compete in today's markets. And just how important is the widespread dissemination of this technology?

Says Riley: "This is the greatest innovation to hit modern manufacturing since Henry Ford developed mass production. It's that big a deal."

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