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Companies turn to high-performance computing to stay competitive

For Simpson Strong-Tie, HPC cut product development times

March 9, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As more manufacturing heads offshore, concern about U.S. companies' ability to maintain their competitive edge seems to be growing in Congress, which held hearings this week on the topic. At the same time, legislation has been introduced to increase research funding, some of which would benefit areas such as high-performance computing (HPC).

But Mark Crawford, vice president of engineering at Simpson Strong-Tie Co., doesn't need to be convinced of the value of HPC.

Simpson Strong-Tie makes metal connectors used in construction, and in many ways is the polar opposite of the Web 2.0 companies springing up near its Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters. But this manufacturer may be one of the more high-tech companies around.

For most of its 50 years, Simpson Strong-Tie built its metal connectors by making physical prototypes to test. Last year, however, it began using HPC to do some of its design work and is now testing product variations in a virtual environment. It still does physical testing, though not as much, and has cut product development time in half: A new product that once might have taken six months to develop now takes just three, said Crawford.

The HPC system "is one of the key aspects to maintaining our competitive advantage," said Crawford, noting that Simpson Strong-Tie can more quickly investigate complex designs and see how connectors fair in various conditions such as during a high wind.

More companies may be acting in a similar fashion. HPC is a fast-growing technology, with revenues growing about 9% annually worldwide. IDC expects HPC revenues to reach $14.3 billion by 2010.

Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC, said much of the growth in the market is at the midrange and low end, with new buyers taking note. "Technical servers have become so inexpensive that you can buy a very powerful system for a small sum," said Joseph.

Moreover, HPC hardware is getting easier to use, and can help companies save money and time by alleviating the need for real tests and physical prototypes, he said. New areas of growth for HPC include basic engineering of parts, as well as large-scale online games and animation.

Crawford has been using desktop systems for some of the engineering work on Simpson Strong-Tie connectors, but computations sometimes took a week and weren't always completed. That led the company to try out an HPC system from Linux Networx Inc. The system uses 14 Opteron processors to run Abaqus Inc.'s engineering software.

The connectors made by Simpson Strong-Tie are of light-gauge steel and are used to join wood, as well as wood to concrete and masonry. Complex engineering is needed because "the strength of these joints is what essentially holds a building together," especially during a hurricane or earthquake, said Crawford. The integrity and safety of a building "is largely dependent on the little small connectors that they put in there to hold it together."

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