Panel: Gov"t backing of supercomputers can aid business

Von Todd R.

If corporate America is to become more competitive with the world, it needs to find ways to leverage government investments in ever more powerful supercomputers so the improved technology finds its way into the private sector.

That was the message of a panel discussion on global leadership Tuesday here in Pittsburgh at the SC2004 Supercomputing Conference, where IT executives from General Motors Corp. and animation company PDI/DreamWorks described how supercomputers have made them more competitive in their respective fields.

The idea, said moderator David E. Shaw, chairman of David E. Shaw & Co., a New York-based consulting group, is that to outcompete other markets around the globe, U.S. businesses need more powerful hardware such as supercomputers. But to do that affordably, companies need to leverage ongoing government investments in research, military, meteorological and other supercomputers and use those investments to help reduce the costs of supercomputers for private industry.

An initiative to study sharing such technologies has already been launched by the Council on Competitiveness, a Washington-based nonprofit group that aims to help U.S. companies compete around the world. Two government agencies, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, are also contributing to the effort, which will look at ways to amortize government technology investments over a larger group of potential users, Shaw said.

The benefits are very real, said panelist Sharan Kalwani, manager of high-performance computing infrastructure at GM.

Designing new vehicles and tooling up factories to build them is incredibly expensive and took as much as 60 months to complete back in the early 1990s, Kalwani said. Now that powerful supercomputers can compress and overlap multiple schedules for design, tooling, research, safety testing and manufacturing, the process takes only about 18 months from a concept to a final vehicle, he said.

"It required a lot of investment" and was hard initially to get acceptance from upper management, but eventually the benefits became obvious, Kalwani said. "The ROI is there."

Another key benefit is that the use of supercomputers has directly led to an increase in quality of GM"s cars and trucks, he said. "(Management is) now seeing the results, and they"re fully behind us," Kalwani said.

One area seeing the most effect has been vehicle safety testing, where test cars are smashed into obstructions to test their safety for occupants. Each test of a real vehicle takes a long time to prepare with sensors and other equipment and costs about US$500,000, he said. Once the test is done, the vehicle is scrap, and no more testing can be done on it.

But by using supercomputers for virtual crash testing, more than 100 tests of various accident factors can be simulated and can be rerun 40 or more times almost instantly to ensure accurate results that have been found to exactly duplicate the results of testing on actual vehicles, Kalwani said.

Andy Hendrickson, head of animation technology at PDI/DreamWorks, a unit of DreamWorks LLC in Redwood City, Calif., said supercomputers have also revolutionized the animation business by allowing complex mathematical calculations to be done more quickly, helping to create more lifelike animation and dramatically increase savings in labor costs.

Since animation film costs are mostly made up of labor, the savings can be huge, Hendrickson said.