Rarely is a professional as knowledgeable about his tools as the design engineer is of the computational power needed to bring designs to the light of day. The PC-based workstation has allowed mainstream engineers to shed the drafting table and become part of the automated workforce for all aspects of their jobs.
Engineers can design, simulate, analyze, test and refine without leaving their workstations. In some cases, the design may not even require physical testing before manufacture. The quality of the products is higher than ever, and both the cost of development and time to market have decreased--sometimes dramatically.
Multiple revolutions in computing have made the shift to the modern, multi-functional workstation possible:
1. The processing power revolution. This covers several facets, including faster overall processing subsystems, multi-core processors and compute clusters. The latest industry-standard processing systems from Intel and AMD incorporate multiple levels of fast cache, and memory and processor busses two to three orders of magnitude faster than those of 20 years ago.
Multi-core processors enable many computations to execute in parallel, adding a significant performance boost. For some calculations, the performance improvement can be almost doubled with a doubling of cores. Multi-core processors are already paying off, but there is still significant room for performance growth.
Compute clusters add to computing power by adding more cores, and frequently, more powerful cores. Unlike the Crays or mainframes of the past, these utilize industry-standard processors and the same analysis and simulation software that can be run, albeit more slowly, on the deskside workstation.
2. The graphics revolution. Faster graphics processors and higher-resolution monitors have made it possible for engineers to render very high-resolution designs within seconds or minutes, rather than hours. We have so much inexpensive GPU processing power that we can turn some of it into fast numerical computation engines to help with analysis and simulation.
3. The software revolution. None of these innovations would have been possible without advances in software development and delivery. In particular, the entire engineering software industry has refocused on writing parallel code for multi-core processors and clusters.
But that's only part of it. New development tools have made it possible to more easily turn GPUs into computational rocket engines. Free and open source software utilities give engineering professionals the ability to work with designs without having to wait for purchase approvals.
Still More for the Future
Theses revolutions are continuing in the cloud, and on tablets and other devices. The cloud provides computing power on demand, letting you rent thousands of cores for a few hours for a big job. You can provide your own application software and data in virtual machines, or you can turn to cloud vendors that partner with MATLAB, ANSYS or other engineering software vendors to deliver both hardware and software when you need it.
Tablets and smartphones let you harness that power from your desk, at the client site, or from home, giving you the flexibility to maximize your creativity and make the best use of your time. It won't be too long before engineers use an entire array of computers and devices in the pursuit of the best new products for their markets.
Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for DE. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@deskeng.com.