Manufacturers eyeing up billion dollar quantum disruption opportunities

Manufacturers are eager to explore how quantum computing will drive out process inefficiencies, our new research confirms, but they are frustrated by slow progress towards usable solutions.

In this blog, I take a closer look at the research and how the Digital Annealer, the quantum-inspired bridging solution from Fujitsu, is bringing the power of disruption within reach today for manufacturing businesses.

Auto manufacturer Mercedes-Benz is researching how quantum computers can be used to optimize the digital modeling of new materials that might “…unlock a billion-dollar opportunity”, according to Benjamin Böser, director of open innovation at the car maker’s North American Research and Development department.

That opportunity is battery innovation for electric vehicles. Although the deployment might still be up to 10 years away, the theoretical possibilities are extraordinary:

“We could simulate the actual behavior of a battery with a quantum computer,” says Mr. Böser, “which is currently not possible with existing computer power.”

Little wonder that manufacturers are investigating quantum computing. The frustratingly slow pace of battery innovation is currently holding back the mass adoption of electric vehicles. Whoever gets to a solution first will unlock a massive market and usher in huge disruption to the auto industry.

Quantum computing unlocks huge potential for manufacturers

From our conversations with manufacturers across all sectors, we are hearing that quantum computing opens new doors to solve problems that, until now, simply were too hard to crack.

Instead of seeking solutions to complex problems by evaluating quintillions of possibilities in turn – as happens with today’s classical computers – quantum computers can instead check every possible outcome of these so-called ‘combinatorial optimization’ challenges, all at once.

Problems that might take days, years or perhaps millennia to calculate, even with supercomputers, can become resolvable in real time.

As we saw with the Mercedes-Benz deployment, there’s a catch, of course: true quantum computers are not ready yet.

The experimental systems using quantum bits that currently exist are limited in scope, temperamental and hugely expensive to own and operate.

The Digital Annealer – bridging the gap to deliver benefits today

However, our new report shows that a significant proportion of senior executives in the sector believe the sort of breakthroughs promised by quantum computing are now in reach, by using a new quantum-inspired business solution based on digital architectures – the Fujitsu Digital Annealer.

The radical implications of this breakthrough are underlined by 81% of business leaders across all sectors, who believe the optimization of their business processes can help them to tackle digital transformation and to remain competitive in a fast-changing market.

This included 87% of manufacturing business executives – a higher percentage than from any other market.

Let me take just one example: we are currently working with a premium European auto Original Equipment Manufacturer to apply combinatorial optimization with the Digital Annealer to robotic welding.

In the ‘paint shop’ (one of the costliest processes in car manufacturing, contributing to an average of 40% of the total cost of manufacturing), PVC seam-sealing by robots has been a special focus of optimization efforts. Currently, prototype quantum computing solutions addressing this challenge can compute optimization routes for about seven seams.

The Digital Annealer is already fully handling 64 seams today, with even higher capabilities already in sight. This increase from seven to 64 seams isn’t just nine-times the number of seams. The number of possible trip combinations increases by a factor of 10100, far beyond the assumed number of atoms in the whole universe.

Naturally, this manufacturer was immediately able to see the huge potential in identifying the optimum welding round-trip for seam-sealing using Digital Annealer – and fully handling 64 seams today is resulting in the manufacture of more cars, without investing in more resources or additional time.

Give us business outcomes - not new technologies

It seems clear to me that what people don’t want is just another new computing technology. They are looking for business solutions for the optimization of business, logistical and industrial processes.

Our findings back this up. Close to three quarters (71%) of business leaders say optimization services are far more relevant and real to their current requirements than quantum computing.

The significance of quantum computing in this regard: it could make it possible to find the optimal way to configure engineering design, warehouse management, robotic welding sequences, logistics and supply chain processes – in fact, just about any business operation.

Drilling down, some 39% of executives find it easy to imagine specific processes in their organization where optimization would be immediately beneficial.

This includes 43% in the manufacturing sector and highlights a clear case for investment in optimization today, particularly in tackling the challenges highlighted in product development and supply chain management.

And there appear to be plenty of optimization opportunities to target.

In the manufacturing arena, only 12% of business leaders claim their product development processes today are currently fully-optimized, and only the same handful believe they have even gone as far as they can with existing technologies in eliminating efficiencies in their supply and value chains.

Breaking through the limits

The realization that optimization drives disruption, and the awareness that only quantum-like capabilities are going to get us there, go a long way to explain the pent-up frustration we found among business leaders.

The large majority (89%) believe that insufficient computing power from today’s technology is holding their business back from taking full advantage of combinatorial optimization in order to revolutionize business processes.

Nor are they confident that true quantum computing is the solution.

Businesses are frustrated with the slow pace at which the technology is developing, with a full 50% of respondents skeptical that quantum computing will develop far enough to go mainstream in the next decade, and 9% believing that will in fact never happen.

This caution would explain why close to two thirds (65%) of all participants want optimization solutions today, rather than experimental quantum technology sometime in the distant future, with the desire to move ahead now the strongest in the manufacturing sector (80%).

Quantum-inspired solutions - today

Frustration at quantum computing’s slow pace of progress is matched by excitement at today’s availability of the Fujitsu Digital Annealer – a bridging technology able to solve intractable problems at speed, and therefore capable of bringing transformative benefits to businesses right away.

According to the study, seven in ten organizations – a figure that reaches 73% in manufacturing – recognize the Digital Annealer’s potential to accelerate their journey to a quantum-computing future.

While it can sometimes seem as if everyone is talking about the fear of disruption, the Fujitsu Digital Annealer is already commercially available, has demonstrated tangible results in sectors such as financial services, manufacturing and automotive, and is already being deployed today by forward-thinking businesses aiming to become a disruptive force.

For manufacturers, who have been among the fastest to see the disruptive possibilities of quantum – and the most frustrated at the lack of real-world solutions today – Digital Annealer offers the master key to new disruptive possibilities.

Read more on our research.