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Sandia and a Revolution in Engineering

Fact Sheet

[computer model]
Michael McDonald models the movements of a robotic system for remediating nuclear and hazardous waste. Computational tools are revolutionizing manufacturing processes as well as stewardship of nuclear weapons and materials.

When President Harry Truman sent the letter that led to the creation of Sandia National Laboratories in 1949, little did he know that weapons research and development would have such far-reaching applications. Sandia's invention of the clean room would later provide a necessary tool for the microelectronics industry. Parachute technology for delivering bombs would be parlayed into a revolutionary new airbag that is lighter in weight and safer than conventional airbags. Advanced modeling and simulation capabilities using high-performance computers would have many applications, including oil and gas exploration and manufacturing.

Making a Weapon a Weapon
Clean rooms? Airbags? High-performance computers? What could a nuclear weapons lab possibly have to contribute to "civilian" technologies?

The answer can be traced to Sandia's responsibilities within the nuclear weapons program. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, Sandia National Laboratories has been responsible for the engineering development of the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile. Sandia has also been responsible for integrating each weapon with its delivery vehicle, the mechanism by which the weapon gets to its target. Sandia's mission is built on the Labs' extensive science and technology base.

Sandia's mission involves ensuring the performance of the weapon under all manner of adverse conditions (such as slamming into the earth at 9,000 feet per second) and accident conditions (such as fire), as well as ensuring that the weapon will not be able to function should it fall into the wrong hands and that it retains its viability even when measures are taken against it.

Safety, Security, and Reliability
These requirements -- safety, security, and reliability -- and the science base necessary to satisfy them have crossover applications in many diverse areas. Need an integrated circuit that can withstand the harsh conditions aboard a satellite or in a nuclear power plant? Need to know how wear and tear affect the safety and reliability of an automobile tire? Or how architectural features will withstand a bomb blast? These are just some of the issues that are benefiting from Sandia's engineering and systems integration expertise.

Many of the problems Sandia scientists and engineers work on require the analysis of thousands of potential scenarios and variables. In the past, much of this work involved physically testing components and systems under various conditions. But today's political, economic, and social environment has led to a transition from test-based engineering to one rooted in science. The technology that has enabled this transition is high-performance computing.

The Trend Toward Teraflops
For the past decade, Sandia has been advancing high-performance computing capabilities and has become a world leader in massively parallel computing, a field Sandia helped develop. Sandia is the only institution to win two Gordon Bell prizes -- given annually for outstanding achievement in this field -- including the first prize awarded in 1987. Massively parallel computing is a way of solving a numerical problem by dividing it into pieces so that different parts of the computer solve pieces of the problem simultaneously. The strategy has resulted in a tremendous increase in computing speed and power.

In 1995, a team from Sandia and Intel Corp. set a speed record of 281 gigaflops by combining two Paragon XP/S Supercomputers at Intel's Beaverton, Ore., facility. In 1996, a Sandia and Intel team broke the teraflops barrier, achieving one trillion calculations per second. Reaching a teraflops is a seminal achievement: It represents a thousandfold increase in computing speeds.

The new record was achieved with funding from ASCI, the Department of Energy's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, a critical component of the nation's nuclear weapon stockpile stewardship and management program. ASCI is creating leading-edge computational modeling and simulation capabilities for maintaining the safety, reliability, and performance of the stockpile. This level of simulation requires high-performance computing that greatly exceeds the current level.

The increased memory of the teraflops computer is as important as its increased speed. Its memory -- the world's largest -- is 15 times greater than that of Sandia's Intel Paragon and 1,000 times greater than decade-old supercomputers. The greatly increased memory and speed, combined with new software and physical models, are enabling Sandia to solve national security problems that involve modeling many complex physical effects. Examples range from virtual weapons testing to predicting the aging and reliability of stockpile materials.

Your Role in a New Era
Many problems encountered by Sandians in their day-to-day work are similar to problems faced by scientists and engineers in industry and academia. Product life cycles and time-to-market have shortened, reliability is a key consumer expectation, and disposal of products in a way that doesn't harm the environment is a manufacturing concern. With the teraflops computer, life-cycle analysis will now be possible. Experiments will still be necessary to validate computer codes, but no longer will it be necessary to build multiple physical prototypes, test them until they fail, redesign them to account for weaknesses, and then test again.

This is the core of the revolution in engineering. The engineering mantra will still be "Design. Prototype. Test. Refine." But it will be accomplished in virtual space in less time. Engineers will be able to delegate the analysis of design trade-offs to a high-speed, high-performance computer, resulting in a better product for the customer. Products such as buildings or aircraft, which may have to withstand potentially catastrophic environments, will be subjected to explosions or fires on a computer rather than in real life.

Like any new tool, high-performance computers must be honed and refined to their best advantage. Sandia is partnering with industry, universities, and other organizations to apply the teraflops to develop practical solutions to real-world problems.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.

Technical Contacts:
Russ Skocypec, "Revolution in Engineering," (505) 845-8838, rdskocy@sandia.gov

Sudip Dosanjh, teraflops computer, (505) 845-7018, ssdosan@sandia.gov

Paul Hommert, weaponization, (505) 845-8940, pjhomme@sandia.gov

Media contact:
Larry Perrine, lgperri@sandia.gov (505) 845-8511

Last modified: December 8, 1997

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