Nippon Steel tested quantum computing to help improve plant scheduling

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The global steel manufacturer collaborated with Cambridge Quantum Computing and developed an algorithm to run on a Honeywell Quantum system.

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Nippon Steel, one of the world's largest steel manufacturers, is testing how quantum computing can help solve supply chain disruption—a problem that has become the norm as of late.

The company said it collaborated with Cambridge Quantum Computing and Honeywell to develop an optimal schedule for enhancing efficiencies in the products it uses during the steel manufacturing process. The companies developed an algorithm and tested it on Honeywell's quantum System Model H1.

Consumers experienced firsthand what happens when supply chains are disrupted. The past several months saw shortages of toilet paper, canned foods and hand sanitizer, which were scarce early on during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, other goods stacked up at ports and in storage as nonessential businesses closed and millions of people quarantined.

SEE:  Honeywell Quantum Solutions, Cambridge Quantum creating integrated company  (TechRepublic)

While extreme disruptions are rare, it highlights the complexity of managing global manufacturing and supply chains. Manufacturers constantly juggle supply and demand, availability of raw goods, weather and other factors.

The Tokyo-based company, which manufactured over 50 million metric tons of steel products in 2019, is looking to change that.

"Scheduling at our steel plants is one of the biggest logistical challenges we face, and we are always looking for ways to streamline and improve operations in this area," said Koji Hirano, chief researcher at Nippon Steel, in a statement.

Complexity in manufacturing steel

The multistep process involved in manufacturing steel has changed very little in decades. Plants begin by processing iron ore, coal and other material into slabs of steel that are then converted into products.

It is a balancing act to figure out if a plant has the right amount of raw materials and intermediate products on-site to complete orders, Nippon said. Couple this with factors such as multiple orders, order type (grade of steel) and size, production count, deadlines and other specifications and the complexity of operating a steel plant significantly ratchets up, the steel company said.

Due to the number of variables, streamlining or optimizing the production process and scheduling is challenging. But it also represents an area in which to make significant gains in efficiency and reduce operating costs.

This challenge is not unique to steel manufacturing, Nippon noted. Similar optimization problems are ubiquitous throughout global manufacturing, transportation industries, and distribution systems in which goods and services move through several steps.

Even with today's supercomputers, it is difficult to find optimal solutions. Quantum computers harness certain quantum physics phenomena to represent multiple solutions at once and find the best one, the company said. This makes them "uniquely suited to tackle such optimization challenges."

However, today's quantum systems are still nascent and cannot yet solve for all the variables present so CQC and Nippon Steel experimented by formulating a representative problem. The Honeywell system was able to find the optimal solution after only a few steps, the company said.

"The results are encouraging for scaling up this problem to larger instances," said Mehdi Bozzo Rey, a quantum expert at CQC, in a statement. "This experiment showcases the capabilities of the System Model H1 paired with modern quantum algorithms and how promising this emerging technology really is."

Tony Uttley, president of Honeywell Quantum Solutions, said such collaborations demonstrate how companies can start using quantum computers to tackle complex, real-world problems.

 "The results Nippon Steel and Cambridge Quantum Computing were able to achieve indicate that quantum computing will be a powerful tool for companies seeking a competitive advantage," he said in a statement.

Joining forces

CQC and Honeywell merged in June, forming what they touted as the largest standalone quantum company in the world.  

Both Ilyas Khan, CEO and founder of CQC, and Uttley said the project with Nippon Steel illustrates the type of global challenges the new company will focus on solving.

"An efficient and effective supply chain is critical to society and any interruption in the chain can have vast repercussions down the line," Khan said in a statement. "Honeywell and CQC are eliminating such interruptions via quantum computing and we look to apply this work across industries as we continue our work together as one company."

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