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Value Engineering of Supercomputer fan from Aluminum to Plastic Saves Project

Case StudyCase StudySupercomputer Cooling Fan 17" Diameter

Value engineer a single computer cooling fan that would replace 400 standard box fans, allowing large data processing environments to operate without the infrastructure required by a liquid cooling system. The client’s design required a creative use of nonstandard materials and the development of rigorous production methods to produce the desired results.

We were asked to work with a major computer manufacturer to build a first-of-its-kind air cooling system that would make it possible for mid-sized organizations to employ significant processing power without constructing specially designed rooms and pumping systems to house it. These new supercomputers fit in a space about the size of a closet, and require only electricity to operate.

This project posed significant challenges, and required our team to develop and implement unique solutions.

  1. Although the original intention was to manufacture the fan from aluminum, the limitations of metal forced us to rethink the material. To maximize air flow, every blade would need to be produced within ± .001 of an inch of the design. These tolerances were so tight that they could not be achieved using investment casting or die casting - the most accurate metal fabrication techniques available - so we proposed changing the blade material from aluminum to glass-filled nylon.
  2. The parting line location was carefully evaluated and positioned to make the molding process easier and more precise.
  3. We used stainless steel to create the center hub of the fan. We then inserted the center hub into complex tools and injection molded both the blades and housing from glass-filled nylon. Together, these materials provided the product stability and manufacturability required by the design.
  4. We CNC machined and precision balanced both the fan and the hub to maintain a tip clearance between the fan and the housing of ± .005 inch.
  5. The manufacturing processes were developed at our facility in Austin. Final production was performed at our facility in China. Our ERP system allowed us to maintain the rigid quality standards required by the project, regardless of location.

The market for midrange supercomputers is estimated to be about three times the size of the market for high-end systems. The cooling fan design has helped to open up the market to many companies that would not otherwise be able to afford this level of computing power, including universities, banks, energy companies and others.  In addition, the cooling fan provided a more robust and reliable solution that was previously unmanufacturable.


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