Facebook may be primarily known as a software company whose social networking service is used by millions of people each day.
But increasingly, the company is working on newer projects that incorporate hardware components, like its Oculus Rift virtual reality headset business and solar-powered Aquila drone project that Facebook hopes will beam the Internet to remote regions of the world.
To help advance these hardware projects, as well as Facebook’s experimental data center initiatives, the social network has built a new 22,000-square-foot hardware lab at its headquarters in Menlo Park.
The facility is named Area 404, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the common error message people receive when they visit a website that can’t be found. Facebook’s hardware engineers wanted a big, new research lab where they can all work together—and now they’ve “found” it, so to speak.
Area 404 has been in development for 18 months, said Facebook mechanical and power manager Mikal Greaves during a Tuesday press event on the new lab. The construction of the lab began 9 months ago.
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The research lab is so new, there’s hardly any debris on the floors or near the heavy-duty drill presses at one of the lab’s offices, like one would find at a typical manufacturing facility. Facebook staff has only just started to use the lab in July, a company spokesperson said.
The goal for Area 404 is to serve as a sort of all-in-one laboratory where Facebook engineers from multiple business units, like its data center infrastructure team or Oculus Rift VR team, can congregate, share ideas, and work on projects together.
Facebook (FB) will occasionally shift different hardware engineers to other business units in an effort to “better share ideas,” said the company’s vice president of infrastructure foundation, Jason Taylor.
One prominent engineer, Taylor said, previously worked on one of Facebook’s data center projects, the Yosemite server chassis, and is now part of the Aquila drone project.
Facebook currently has a dedicated Oculus research lab in Seattle, a drone lab in the United Kingdom, a laser communications lab in Southern California, and several other research labs in Menlo Park, the company said in a blog post on the new lab.
The lab is equipped with several devices designed for engineers to both test their hardware designs and build the actual prototypes.
An electron microscope and an X-ray device called a CT scanner helps Facebook engineers determine what may have caused a computer motherboard or Oculus headset device to malfunction, explained Facebook’s head of engineering and infrastructure, Jay Parikh.
Instead of having to contact outside specialists or vendors to run tests on the failed devices that could take weeks or months to finish, Facebook can “use a heavy-duty MRI machine to see what went wrong,” in just hours or days, said Parikh.
The part of the lab dedicated to building prototypes contains several big machines, like a water jet device that shoots a high-pressure stream of water mixed with abrasive materials that can cut into granite, steel, and marble, said Facebook engineer Spencer Burns.
This water jet helped build the prototype of the outer shell that covers Facebook’s recently announced 360-degree camera, he added.
Another machine, called a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) folder, lets engineers fold large sheets of metal into different shapes and arrangements, Burns said. This CNC folder was used to build some of the prototypes of the components that comprise Facebook’s custom servers, he explained.
Some of the other equipment in the lab includes a lathe, a milling machine, and fabric cutters—machinery so heavy that the ground it rests on is comprised of three feet of cement, and is supported by 100 pylons that were drilled 60 feet below the surface, Burns said.
An indoor, overhead crane attached to the ceiling of the lab helps engineers transport heavy materials to and from different machines.
Facebook did not say how much it spent for the machinery or how much it spent on the entire facility.
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The social network says that it plans to use this lab for a variety of new hardware projects, but that it won’t be a large-scale manufacturing center.
In these projects, Facebook and other member companies share data center hardware blueprints that they can use to build cheaper and more flexible data center gear than what’s commonly sold.