As a member of the High Performance Computing Advisory Committee of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness (CoC), I recently attended an important CoC meeting in Washington, D.C. Discussions focused on how HPC technology can be better integrated into the manufacturing value chain to help small- and medium-sized businesses create more jobs.
In the eyes of the CoC, the manufacturing sector is critical to the U.S. economy and to our competitive stature in the world. CoC views the relationship among HPC, manufacturing and job creation as indivisible. And I agree.
CoC is a non-partisan organization composed of industry, university and labor leaders who work to guide policy in Washington to boost U.S. competitiveness in the global market. Recently, the Council helped launch the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium (NDEMC), which “encourages the transfer of advanced manufacturing techniques and processes that leverage computational power, simulation and cutting-edge modeling techniques.”
With NDEMC goals in mind, CoC requested that our HPC Advisory Committee offer recommendations to the White House on strengthening manufacturing with assistance from supercomputing. Although the final recommendations have yet to be drafted, our suggestions centered on the following key themes:
Fill the talent pipeline – Manufacturing draws from a broad set of skills, both blue- and white-collar, that are getting increasingly high tech, but very little is being done to keep the talent pipeline full. Where does a young person go to get educated in digital manufacturing? How does a middle-aged worker gain the technical skills needed to stay current with technology? Why aren’t the educational paths more clearly defined in this critical sector?
These unanswered questions underscore the lack of technology prowess that plagues the United States. We have little political leadership pointing the way. If someone won’t step up, maybe we all need to step up from the grassroots. Universities, trade schools, community colleges, unions, and even individual companies will likely have to take it upon themselves to initiate educational programs that inject HPC and other technologies into the mainstream of manufacturing. We on the committee could see no other solution beyond promoting education at every level and to start this education now.
Based on my years of experience watching HPC get adopted in other sectors, I suggested dropping the “HPC” and “supercomputing” monikers from these efforts. There’s no reason to scare people away with these terms. In today’s world, it goes without saying that HPC technology will be included in devising new manufacturing processes, among others.
HPC Techies have to learn manufacturing – Professionals in the supercomputing world don’t speak the same languages as small manufacturers. It’s impossible to acknowledge pain points, diagnose problems and prescribe solutions without understanding the language. The computer techies have to understand modeling and simulation, visualization, parallelization, all in the context of manufacturing workflows. On the other hand, maybe this is an opportunity to create an entirely new genre of consultants who serve as go-betweens helping to bridge the gap between manufacturing and computer technology.
Get ready to hold hands – Integrating new technology into the manufacturing workflow at the company level will be disruptive. For most small manufacturers, it might be the first time their design, modeling, simulation, testing, etc., workflow has ever varied from its original design. The disruption will be major, and everyone involved must hold tight and have faith that it will work out in the end.
One of the biggest mental obstacles for the small business owner to understand is that this new technology may require the hiring of new people with different skill sets. That’s a good thing because the increased efficiency will more than pay their salaries as the overall business grows.
Go from workflow to workforce – As HPC technology is seamlessly integrated into the manufacturing workflow, everyone in the enterprise should take a role in the process. High-tech mentoring must take place in all directions. New personnel should learn the existing internal processes, and mature workers should be trained by the younger, more technically savvy, employees to learn about the latest innovations and how they apply to manufacturing.
The idea here is to improve the talent pool from within the organization so that when individuals move on to other companies, as talent will shift, they will take their skills and germinate another workplace. Their old employer, meanwhile, won’t suffer from the loss of talent because skill sets will have been shared and replicated. Gradually, the entire workforce begins to mature in its technical capabilities and skill sets from the inside out.
As these ideas were being discussed, it became obvious that members of the HPC Advisory Council understand the challenges facing the U.S. manufacturing sector are complex, and no single or simple solution exists. The broad concepts outlined above are just the beginning of the conversation, and additional input will be provided by our committee and others before the final CoC report is written.
In closing, I ask you for your input – What are your recommendations for streamlining the integration of HPC into the manufacturing workflow? Or maybe you feel HPC isn’t the answer at all. Either way, please post your recommendations and comments below. I will try to convey as many of your thoughts as possible during the next meeting of the HPC Advisory Committee.
For more information on the Council on Competitiveness, visit www.compete.org.