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What Quantum Computing Could Mean for Manufacturing

Over the past twenty years, quantum computing has evolved from a speculative playground into an experimental race. The drive to build real machines that exploit the laws of quantum mechanics, and to use such machines to solve certain problems much faster than is possible with traditional computers, will have a major impact in several fields including manufacturing.

An Introduction to Quantum Computing

There are a few concepts to keep in mind with regards to quantum computing. Understanding these concepts requires a certain level of suspension of belief:

  1. How information is represented: Traditional computing technology (such as the device you are using to read this) represents information through a huge series of ‘bits’. Each bit has binary states so can be either 1 or 0. In a quantum computer, information is represented through quantum bits (qubits) – and each qubit can be in a virtually infinite number of states between 1 and 0, including both 1 and 0 at the same time! This concept is called superposition.
  2. How information is processed: In traditional computing, information is processed sequentially; similar to the way a human would read a book. However, a quantum computer will process the entire contents of the book at once, instantaneously.
  3. How bits are interconnected: In a quantum computer, qubits can be interconnected to each other such that they can influence their particular states instantaneously – and this is the case even if the qubits are large distances apart. This concept is called entanglement.

At the risk of oversimplification, one can conceptualise a quantum processing unit as a series of interconnected coins that are spinning – i.e. each coin (or qubit) is in multiple states until it has been measured, at which point it settles into one state (either heads or tails) – and coins (or qubits) that are entangled will influence each other on the states that they settle into.

Put simply, quantum computers (through entangled qubits that can be in superposition) have the ability to simultaneously process an exponentially larger range of values at the same time, when compared to classical computers. As a result, quantum computers will:

  1. Solve some of the most computationally intensive problems of today thousands of times faster than classical computers
  2. Solve problems that we know of today, but we cannot solve optimally because we simply don’t have the computational capabilities to do so with classical computing.
  3. Solve a whole new class of problems that we haven’t even imagined the use for today

“It’s important to remember that comparing a classical computer to a quantum computer is essentially like comparing a candle to a lightbulb or bicycle to a jet plane. Quantum computing is a completely new paradigm shift that opens up a range of possibilities” says Vishal Shete, Head of Quantum Value Creation at Sia Partners.

Within manufacturing, when quantum computing’s predicted capabilities come to fruition, industries like aerospace and electronics could benefit from:

  • Batteries that offer a significantly higher energy density
  • Materials with more advantageous strength-to-weight ratios
  • More efficient synthetic and catalytic processes that could help with energy generation or carbon capture.

Quantum for Design

Today, computer simulation plays an important role in the design and pre-testing of products. Hardware components in many industries are routinely 3D-modeled with individual engineering safety margins. However, problems arise when these margins accumulate, resulting in products that are overweight, over-engineered, or higher cost than necessary. This potentially hampers all commercial viability.

In future, quantum computers could simulate component interactions within complex hardware systems. IBM predicts that this intervention could enable load paths, noise, vibration, and system loads to be calculated in a more precise and accurate manner. This kind of integrated analysis can optimise the manufacturing of individual components in the context of the overall system, reducing the cumulative impact of numerous individual safety margins and improving cost without sacrificing system performance.

Quantum for Control

Manufacturing control processes can be extremely complicated, often testing the limits of advanced analytics. This is particularly the case when employing machine learning and needing to analyse multiple variables.

Quantum computing, combined with machine learning, could impact manufacturing in the following ways:

  • Enabling faster optimisation runs by allowing production lines to perform optimisations more dynamically. This would be particularly useful for production flows and robotics scheduling of complex products where simulation and optimisation are computer-intensive.
  • Allowing manufacturers to go beyond the current limitations of the classical computational wall. While semiconductor chip fabrication already integrates simple multivariable analysis and machine learning into its processes, classical computing has hit a computational wall. Quantum could help overcome this bottleneck by analysing additional interactive factors and processes to increase production yields.
  • Offering the capability to analyse more complex software systems than classical computers could evaluate today. Software development relies on sophisticated software validation, verification, and fault analysis. Visual Capitalist notes that a high-end car could have 100 million lines of code, further highlighting the need to explore the potential for quantum.

Quantum for Supply Chain and Logistics

Quantum computing could potentially transform the supply chain landscape to optimise vendor orders and improve accompanying logistics using dynamic real-time decision-making.

Supply chains are evolving at rapid rates. The shift from linear models to a more responsive organic model based on real-time market demands and availability of key components creates real potential for quantum computing. Used alongside other technologies in the supply chain toolbox, quantum computing could accelerate decision making and enhance risk management, resulting in lower operational costs and a reduction in lost sales because of out-of-stock or discontinued products.

Speedel, a UK B2B courier firm, is one company already excited about the impact of quantum for logistics and supply chain managers.

“Quantum computing may offer logistics teams an opportunity to plan more sustainable and financially-savvy routes,” says Shiraz Sidat, Operations Manager at Speedel.

“Where a company plans to ship orders using a large number of vehicles across multiple possible routes, classical computers can become overwhelmed with the quintillions of options. Quantum’s ability to solve much larger problems means that logistics planners can quickly determine the best routes using less energy and in a shorter time frame.”

“Operations managers need not become overwhelmed by the science, but rather identify the real-world application of quantum and its ability to streamline the logistics and supply chain landscape” he adds.

What Should Manufacturers Do Today?

Understanding how quantum technologies may or may not change the world is like trying to assess the impact of the internet back in the early 1990s. Enormous numbers of possibilities come to mind, and many potential applications haven’t been imagined yet.

The quantum landscape can seem intimidating at first. But rather than getting lost in rabbit holes, it is important to:

  • Keep the focus on the problem types that can be enabled by this technology in the short, medium and long term, rather than getting overly tied up in the underlying technicalities.
  • Keep an open mind to imagine and develop new use cases that can be made possible with this technology. Identify your highest-value problems and explore the potential applications of quantum for your specific industry.
  • Work with partners to accelerate your knowledge, capability and results in this space. You could identify like-minded research labs, quantum technology providers, quantum application developers and coders, or educational groups. Association Quantum is a great example of an organisation committed to raising awareness and boosting knowledge around quantum computing. The non-profit organisation comprises many industry figures and academics in North America and Europe.

While the quantum road ahead may be long and winding, being late to the party may mean that organisations may have missed out on some of the gains that are possible. Value can be extracted today by applying early-stage quantum technologies to solve the appropriate real-world problems faced by manufacturers.

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