Verne Global

HPC | Manufacturing |

30 May 2017

How HPC and Computational Fluid Dynamics are shaping aviation's future

Written by Nick Dale

Nick is Senior Director at Verne Global and leads our work across HPC and specifically its implementation within advanced manufacturing.

Over the last 20 as years High Performance Computing (HPC) has developed and become more widespread, its contribution to the aerospace industry has become very significant, making airplanes safer, quieter, and more efficient. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a branch of fluid mechanics that uses numerical analysis and data structures to model the flow of fluids and air around an object, is the area of HPC application with the greatest impact on modern aerospace design and engineering.

Before commodity HPC clusters made the widespread application of CFD analysis possible, aerospace designers and engineers were dependent on the very tedious process of creating physical models, then testing them in wind tunnels in order to understand the effect of their ideas. Since the democratisation of HPC made the widespread application of CFD possible, every stage of the aviation product lifecycle has been modernised, enabling engineers and designers testing aircraft to thoroughly examine performance changes before bringing them to life them in the physical world. This has empowered companies that design and manufacture airplanes to make advanced decisions about which changes are most promising and lower costs, all in in a much shorter timeframe than previously possible.

The fuel efficiency of modern jet planes, which now use roughly 80% less fuel per passenger-mile than they did in the 1950s, is one area that has greatly benefited from the application of CFD. Although the airline industry can save millions of dollars and drastically reduce carbon emissions with just a one percent improvement in the fuel efficiency of commercial airliners, achieving such improvements is no easy feat. Moreover, industry analysts expect a doubling of air traffic over the next two decades, meaning that overall emissions are expected to increase.


Clearly, making aircraft even more fuel-efficient is important, and doing so will require radical design improvements. These new designs would be virtually impossible to achieve without the help of CFD. By employing complex fluid models to calculate the forces that act upon aircraft wings, for example, engineers are finding new and novel approach to their design, including “active wings” that flex and morph to improve aerodynamics. By combining these novel designs with newly developed composite materials, aerospace engineers aim to provide optimal lift and reduce drag, which could improve by 10% the fuel economy for commercial airliners.

Jet engine efficiency is another area of aerospace design, in which HPC and CFD have had a thoroughly disruptive influence. Though conceptually jet engines are relatively simple machines, designing them to work at optimal efficiency is highly complex. Before the era of readily available HPC power, progress in jet engine design required building prototype engines and testing them in the physical world through trial and error, which kept the speed of progress slow. Now, CFD models are utilised throughout the design process, meaning that engineers can easily test engines at different run points in their development, and in different environments with ease. This ability to quickly process engine data has yielded double digits improvements in fuel efficiency while requiring fewer moving engine parts, further lowering carbon emissions and quieting engines.

But the innovations forged by CFD are not just changing the way we fly, they are also improving the efficiency of transportation on land as well. In the trucking industry for example where 12% of the nation’s petrol usage is consumed (half of which is used to overcome aerodynamic drag), HPC has been used to re-think tractor trailer design and, thereby, radically improve fuel efficiency. As a result of the aerodynamic insights and design improvements made possible by CFD, truck manufacturers are now able to produce up to a 24% reduction in drag on their newest trucks. This lowered drag equates to a roughly 12% savings in fuel, which could result in a savings of over 4 billion gallons of gas per year. Just as in the aerospace industry, these improvements have been achieved through a much more efficient, cost-effective development and testing process.

Despite the rapid progress of CFD over the last twenty years, in many cases it still only provides an approximate solution, leaving much room for improvement. Current CFD models include hundreds of millions of cells, but the demand for higher-fidelity modeling with more complex geometries is strong. As the engineering world looks forward to the more widespread adoption of multi-disciplinary modeling, then further onto enhancement with direct numerical simulation, continued investment and development of HPC resources becomes even more profitable and practical.

By providing engineering and manufacturing firms with the power and freedom to easily scale their data center infrastructure, while maintaining a carbon neutral footprint with extremely high security, Verne Global offers a cost-effective and easily implemented solution to this voracious need for compute power. We deeply value our clients within advanced manufacturing industries, and encourage companies in these fields to contact us for more information about how Verne Global can bring a new level of power, speed, and efficiency to their computational efforts.

Further reading: For anyone wanting to know more about how HPC is transforming the aviation industry, I'd recommend they watch this interesting presentation from SC15 by NASA Aerospace Engineer Dr. Shishir Pandya.


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