Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Bringing Big Tools to the Little Guys 

Jon Riley, National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, addresses the plight of the missing middle at SC11. "We call them the missing middle because they basically are in the Valley of Death – they don't know how to get their innovations to market, they don't have the tools and technologies to do it affordably, and they dominate the landscape of manufacturing worldwide."

Jon Riley is a man with a mission. Which is why he was in Seattle this week at SC11 at a show seeming concerned more with the latest in high performance computing and esoteric computational problems like modeling the weather, making sense out of the GPU revolution, or cramming more cores into petaflop machines as opposed to the more mundane concerns associated with the world of manufacturing.

But Riley, executive director, Design & Engineering Programs at National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), looking at the assembled vendors, sees manufacturing all around him as he walked the aisles – HPC companies creating technology that can eventually wind up helping manufacturers both large and small make things for the global marketplace.

And that's why Riley made an vigorous presentation in the Intel Theatre on Tuesday afternoon, laying out NCMS's mission of helping small- to medium-sized manufacturers realize the benefits of HPC – in particular to embrace the tools and techniques of digital manufacturing modeling and simulation. NCMS's goal is to help the SMMs be more competitive in the global marketplace by realizing the benefits of a technology most have yet to embrace.

Riley explained that "One of the key technologies that we are focused on is modeling and simulation enabled by high performance computing." And although the large manufacturers like Boeing and Ford are definitely on the Center's radar, it is the SMM members of their supply chain that NCMS is targeting its efforts and attention – the so-called "missing middle."

Mammoth Market

He asked the audience to consider the potential market that this group represents. There are 300,000 SMMs in the US; two million worldwide. These are companies with less than 500 employees. Even factoring in the Boeings, Caterpillars and Proctor & Gambles, the average size of a US manufacturer is 40 employees. The number of manufacturers with 20 or less employees is by far the majority in the US.

Another telling statistic that Riley mentioned is that in the 1970s, 72 percent of the investment in research and development was coming from the big companies and government funded organizations. Today 64 percent of today's R&D is coming from smaller companies. "You can see that the onus is on these companies to innovate, but the problem is they don't have the technologies to efficiently innovate with a high rate of return. They have great ideas, but don't know how to get them to market, and get it done at a risk level that makes sense for them and their customers."

In this country, 84 percent are making no use of digital manufacturing technology; 12 percent have some basic capabilities such as 2D CAD; and only four percent are using advanced technology such as clusters and high powered workstations to perform such modeling and simulation tasks as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA). These 300,000 companies represent a major opportunity for the HPC industry to bring a new level of digital manufacturing to a group that is currently still in the digital dark ages.

In response, NCMA has devised a series of initiatives that emphasize collaboration between the Center and its partners in academia, industry and the government. The idea is to not just foster innovation among the SMMs, but commercialize that innovation as well.

NCMS is primarily focused on providing the infrastructure. NCMS members bring to the table the needed talent and ability and often the investment from a public/private partnership. Also included is federal funding as well as foundation and state funding. Also part of the mix are the technology developers and integrators, and, of course, the customers.

Into the Valley of Death

The target of all this effort is the missing middle. Says Riley, "We call them the missing middle because they basically are in the Valley of Death – they don't know how to get their innovations to market, they don't have the tools and technologies to do it affordably, and they dominate the landscape of manufacturing worldwide."

NCMS and other organizations that are addressing the digital needs of missing middle are feeling a sense of urgency. By 2020, says Riley, 98 percent of all manufactured products will be created using virtual technology, including modeling and simulation. Those who do not have the tools to meet this challenge will no longer be in business.

Among the major initiatives being undertaken by NCMS is the creation of a countrywide network of Predictive Information Centers (PICs). These are collaborative centers, located in a region or a state, that reflect the primary manufacturing interests of their locale, such as textiles or the automotive industry.

Part of the PIC will be a Solutions Hub, as Riley puts it, "an iTunes for manufacturers," where applications will be accessible to the SMMs through the cloud. Backed up, of course by the consulting skills and talent available through the Center's partners.

The trick will be to start at the very beginning by educating the "never, evers," those SMMs with no understanding or experience with digital manufacturing. The next level is to entice these companies to try out the technology in a low cost, very friendly sandbox. Then it's time for the companies to engage with modeling and simulation on a serious level – this may mean investing in HPC systems, building modeling and simulation expertise in house, or signing up to dive into the cloud to get the computational results they need to be more competitive and innovative. Not to mention moving product to market far faster.

A national network of PICs will be able to share resources; innovations in one region of the country can quickly spread to other manufacturers, lifting all boats in the process.

NCMS is taking the long view. "We're trying to turn a very large boat with a very small rudder," comments Riley. "That's why NCMS is committed to five, ten or even 20 years to realize these goals."

To watch Riley's video, "We Do it Digital: Bringing Big Tools to the Little Guy, click here.

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