At the beginning of January 2011, the prospects for a manufacturing and engineering led recovery looked bright. A strong rise in export orders over the previous three months was driving sustained growth in the sector. Of 394 manufacturers that responded to the CBI’s January Quarterly Industrial Trends Survey, 32 per cent had seen an increase in output over the past three months while 16 per cent said that it had fallen, giving a balance of plus 16 per cent, compared with plus 9 per cent in the previous survey in October 2010.
Bucking the trend in the wider economy, the manufacturing sector had also reported an increase in employment over the three months to January 2011.
Today, the situation looks less positive. Manufacturing in August shrank at its fastest rate in more than two years as export orders plummeted. Senior economist at Markit, Rob Dobson, commented, “the second half of 2011 has so far seen the UK manufacturing sector, once the pivotal cog in the economic recovery, switch into reverse gear.”
If manufacturing is to reverse the trend and retain its role as a driver for economic success in the UK, the key will be in driving efficiencies through the product development cycle. IT can play a major role in this. For many engineering companies, high performance computing (HPC), the use of parallel processing for running advanced application programs efficiently, reliably and quickly, will have a particularly critical role to play.
The primary benefit of HPC is its ability to drive ‘time to insight’ – the length of time taken between the presentation of the problem and an understanding reached of how to solve it. By shortening this cycle, manufacturers have the opportunity to compress the design cycle, add time to the build space and reduce time to market.
HPC gives manufacturers the opportunity to drive through innovation, understand more complex issues, achieve more accurate and predictable outcomes and make product development faster and more efficient. All of this has the potential to translate to renewed economic recovery by showing a positive impact on GDP.
So, the possible benefits HPC can deliver are clear. The issue is that engineering companies face a range of challenges in their bid to achieve it. Cost is inevitably key.
Organisations typically want bigger and better computing systems, especially if they are running significant HPC applications like computational fluid dynamics (CFDs) or finite element analysis (FEA). Yet, the size of computing resource and associated cost of running such applications can be prohibitive.
The problem is made worse by the tendency for different groups of HPC users within the same company to run their own siloed HPC systems. The core dilemma for manufacturers is how can they achieve an implementation comprehensive enough to cover all of their requirements but sufficiently consolidated to be run in an efficient manner.
Finding a Simpler Solution
To be successful in the future, HPC needs to move away from a focus on ‘closed-in’ proprietary architectures towards a more open standards–based approach. Currently, the technology is still trying to catch up with the kind of standardisation seen elsewhere in the ICT space.
To accelerate adoption of the technology, vendors first need to make systems easy to understand and use. By so doing, they will help drive their customers to adopt scalable and flexible architectures. They can help streamline this process not only by implementing open, standards-based solutions but also by using simple commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS).
Second, providers need to be prepared to work with their customers in the engineering and manufacturing sectors to ensure that their software and applications are modified to be capable of leveraging the size and scale of computing systems that HPC typically has to support.
Computing Power on Demand
Running alongside these developments is the emergence of a completely new delivery model for HPC, which Bull has helped to pioneer, known as HPC on demand. This approach involves the solutions provider investing in infrastructure that gives prospective users the opportunity to buy access to that computing resource rather than having to make an upfront investment in complex IT hardware implementation.
HPC on demand addresses the major difficulty that many engineering companies have in managing their requirement for IT systems: their inability to accurately anticipate their future workload. In most cases, there will be no predictable pattern of need. If a company implements HPC in a traditional way, they typically run the risk of either having to overprovision or being limited in the design work they can do because they do not have sufficient equipment in place.
The best way to overcome this dilemma is to meet peak requirements at an on demand level.
By using this approach, manufacturers and engineering companies no longer need worry about the complexities of running their own environment or the negative impact this might have on profitability. Instead they can tap into the available computing capability across the web as and when needed.
The emergence of HPC on demand is also opening out the technology to a wider range of companies including many SMEs in the manufacturing and engineering spaces who have basic computing resources, but cannot invest further and would rather seize the opportunity to outsource hardware and technical support so they can focus on their core business.
Freed from the shackles of technology, such organisations now have freedom to innovate. With HPC on demand, they have no need for physical infrastructures and no more maintenance requirements, while still having access to high-performance tools for innovation.
Finding a Way Forward
The right delivery model, whether based on a straightforward open standards-based approach or full HPC on demand, helps manage this power to deliver advantage for manufacturer, businesses and the overall economy. With the latest UK manufacturing data far from positive and the tentative economic recovery beginning to falter, this capability can be key in ensuring manufacturing and engineering companies have at their disposal every means possible of boosting operational efficiency and driving competitive edge.