January 12, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Supercomputers giving Japan manufacturers an edge

Software developed using the K supercomputer can simulate air movements around a car. (Photo provided by Hokkaido University Associate Professor Makoto Tsubokura and Suzuki Motor)

TOKYO -- Japanese companies and research institutions are looking for new ways to use the ultrafast number-crunching capabilities of the K supercomputer, and others like it, in manufacturing. 

      Using software developed with the help of Japan's home-grown K computer allows companies such as carmakers Toyota Motor and Suzuki Motor, and Bridgestone, best known for its tires, to skip making full-scale prototypes. This reduces costs and development time. These companies and others aim to begin using data from the K within a couple of years in hopes of gaining a competitive edge.

     Jointly developed by the Riken research institute and Fujitsu, the K computer in the western city of Kobe went online in September 2012. Its name comes from the Japanese word "kei," which means 10 quadrillion, a reference to the number of calculations the device can perform per second. The K has been rated at 10 petaflops, making it the world's fourth-fastest supercomputer.

     Its users are mostly universities and laboratories, but the Research Organization for Information Science and Technology, a state-backed body, gives a limited number of companies access to the unit. By 2020 the science ministry plans to have a supercomputer 100 times faster than the K.

     Manufacturers create models and prototypes to test the performance of new products. Companies have long sought to use supercomputers in their research and development, but their application has been restricted until recently due to limits in the machines' processing power. The K, engineers say, can simulate complex phenomena and help detect problems that used to go unnoticed until products were modeled and tested physically.  

     A team of specialists from 13 companies and Hokkaido University has developed software that can simulate the air resistance generated by cars. The software divides the space around a car into 2.3 billion segments to see how air movements affect the car's body when it passes another vehicle or encounters a strong crosswind.

     Computer modeling enables engineers to come up with the most aerodynamic shapes. Vehicles with lower wind resistance are more fuel efficient and handle better in sudden maneuvers.  Up until now, automakers had to build large wind tunnels and test full-scale models to do this kind of testing. The team believes the supercomputer can do away with this costly step.

Just (don't) add water

The Shipbuilding Research Center of Japan has developed design software that can calculate turbulence in water as small as 1mm created by a ship as it moves through the water. The software will allow shipbuilders to forego testing of floating models in huge tanks, cutting in half design costs for such vessels, which typically run into tens of millions of yen. The shipbuilding center is considering allowing shipbuilders to use its software for a fee.

     Fujitsu and the National Institute for Material Science have created prototyping software with the aim of producing a high-performance magnet that does not require rare-earth elements. The software calculates the performance of a magnet by changing the size and shape of crystals at the nanometer (billionth of a meter) scale to find the best combination of materials.

     The pharmaceutical industry is another leader when it comes to using supercomputers. Drugmakers use them to simulate conditions inside the body and find promising new compounds. Now companies in other fields are also discovering applications for supercomputers. The Research Organization for Information Science and Technology accepted 42 applications for projects using the K in fiscal 2014, up from 27 in 2012.