A New Age in Supercomputing: The Manufacturing Compute Co-Op

The National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium (NDEMC) has been doing some great work pioneering support for small to medium size manufacturing enterprises (SME’s) access to sophisticated simulation and modeling programs. SME’s can hardly afford to build their own supercomputer but these businesses gaining access to computational tools have a large number of benefits. Because computational design tools allow SME’s to test and refine designs before actually producing a prototype, a lot of wasted effort can be avoided. This helps small manufacturers respond to customer needs more rapidly with less waste and expense and can result in superior products.

That sounds great—it helps businesses be faster to market, respond more quickly to customer needs, produce better products, and keep more manufacturing jobs at home instead of shipping them off to China. But beyond NDEMC’s collaboration between business and university compute resources, how is the NDEMC initiative going to scale to the rest of the country?

One solution is to center the compute resources at universities and build the expertise in the university staff to support compute enabled manufacturing design. This works in a number of areas, but I can see the demand for university compute resources getting stretched beyond their capabilities as soon as SME’s embrace the technology en masse.

Another solution may be to start manufacturing compute cooperatives. Businesses in the United States have been operating cooperatives since Benjamin Franklin established a mutual fire insurance company in 1752. That particular cooperative is still in operation. Other businesses began cooperatives as early as 1810 to join together to purchase goods in bulk then reselling the goods at cost to the cooperative members. Many co-ops failed because of poor management practices, inadequate size and organization, or conflicting opinions within the cooperative. In 1844 a cooperative was established in Rochdale, England where a group of struggling weavers pooled their funds to purchase quality goods and supply themselves at cost.

But they also established a broader vision that the cooperative could also fulfill other social needs through cooperative action. What followed was a set of principles that have become known as the Rochdale Principles upon which cooperatives around the world operate today. The current (ICA revision of 1966) set of Rochdale Principles includes:

  1. Open, voluntary membership
  2. Democratic governance
  3. Limited return on equity
  4. Surplus belongs to members
  5. Education of members and public in cooperative principles
  6. Cooperation between cooperatives
The original Toad Lane Store in Rochdale, United Kingdom

The original Toad Lane Store in Rochdale, United Kingdom

Building a design compute cooperative would first require a facility to house the hardware. It wouldn’t have to be all that big, but it would need to have access to a reasonable amount of power. Fortunately, advances in hardware will help with the power consumption. You’ll need a power distribution unit (or set of them) to supply filtered power to the nodes. The facility will have to be cooled, adding to the power consumption. Fortunately, Moab version 8.0 has additional capabilities for managing the power consumption of the cluster that will help keep it green.

Next you’ll have to populate the facility with nodes. Intel’s new Knights Landing platform is an example of how the node footprint is decreasing, so in the future it will be possible to create a supercomputer in less space than ever before. The nodes will have to be networked and a few servers reserved for managing the cluster. You’ll need software to control the flow of jobs to the nodes and account for time used. Adaptive Computing’s got this one covered with the Moab HPC Suite. Once the nodes are configured and up and running, you’ll need some IT staff to keep it that way. IT staff time could be volunteered from member businesses, but I would think that a lot of small manufacturing businesses might not have a dedicated IT staff. That may be an added benefit of the cooperativethat they share a common IT department that helps all members with IT issues. There are a number of IT issues to be worked out, such as configuring the security of the resources.

Next is the modeling or computational software and the expertise to use it. This is where the cooperative shinessince a single small manufacturing business may not have the resources to pay for, or the quantity of work to keep a good designer busy. The cooperative could have one or more on staff that helps the member company’s engineers prepare their designs for computational analysis, and can help in analyzing the results.

As small and medium manufacturing businesses embrace HPC technology they will help local manufacturing to blossom. The creative abilities of their owners and employees will be better spent bringing innovative products to market instead of spending time and money trying out design ideas. It’s time to open the floodgates of innovation and usher in a new era of productivity!

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