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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 5

High-Powered Computing Heralds Digital Industrial Revolution

Digital simulations have become so powerful that companies send their products through the wringer—sometimes literally—before ever building a prototype



Travis RathboneSpecial Report Illustration by Justin Metz

When Thomas Edison invented a practical electric lightbulb more than 130 years ago, he performed thousands of experiments on prototypes, and we still marvel at his methodical patience today. A modern inventor proposing a similar approach, however, would more likely elicit laughter than praise. Product research and development more and more lives in the realm of bits and bytes, with engineers designing, testing, tweaking and even demonstrating new ideas via computer before any physical version exists.

Powerful computer servers performing highly calculation-intensive tasks, aka high-performance computing (HPC), now make all the difference between new technologies that launch and those that languish. This “digital manufacturing” takes place across thousands to millions of processors before a company produces any physical parts. Consumer goods manufacturers are using digital modeling techniques that far exceed those that big firms in industries such as aerospace introduced years ago. The strategy lowers design and production costs and helps to move goods from concept to store shelves faster than ever before. Computer-drawn models and complex digital simulations increasingly dictate what those items look like, how they are made, what they are made of and how they will perform together. Driven by Moore's law, which holds that computer processing power doubles roughly every 18 months, HPC capabilities should advance another 1,000-fold in the coming years. It is no surprise, then, that in the words of the nonprofit Council on Competitiveness, we are entering an age in which “to outcompete is to outcompute.”

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