TOKYO -- Japanese companies and research institutions are looking for new ways to use the ultrafast number-crunching capabilities of the K supercomputer in manufacturing.
Using software developed with the help of Japan's supercomputer 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 and other companies 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 in the western city of Kobe, the K computer 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.
Companies have long sought to use supercomputers in their research and development, but the machines' processing power has been lacking.
The K is changing that. Engineers say it can simulate complex phenomena and help detect problems that used to go unnoticed until products were modeled and tested physically.
Just (don't) add water
One example of this is a piece of software that can simulate the air resistance generated by cars. The software, developed by a team of specialists from 13 companies and Hokkaido University, 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 shape. Vehicles with lower wind resistance are more fuel efficient and handle better. Up until now, automakers had to build large wind tunnels and test full-scale models to get the shape just right. The specialists believe the supercomputer can do away with this costly step.
The Shipbuilding Research Center of Japan offers another example. It has developed software that can calculate the water turbulence that a moving ship creates with millimeter precision. The software will allow shipbuilders to forgo testing of floating models in huge tanks, halving design costs that typically run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. 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 earths. The software calculates the performance of a magnet by changing the size and shape of crystals at the nanometer (billionth of a meter) level to find the best combination of materials.
The pharmaceutical industry is another big supercomputer client. Drugmakers use the contraptions to simulate conditions inside the body and find promising new compounds.
Companies in other fields also want to get into the supercomputer reservations book. The Research Organization for Information Science and Technology has accepted 42 applications for K supercomputer use for fiscal 2014, up from 27 in 2012.