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Facebook opens Area 404 - A giant hardware lab to build its future

Facebook just opened Area 404 (yes, a play on "site not found"), a massive 22,000 square foot facility at its Menlo Park headquarters that will handle the brunt of Facebook's hardware "modeling, prototyping and failure analysis." Unlike some labs, it's not segmented into product-specific divisions -- instead, there are only electrical engineering and prototyping workshop sections. It's designed to encourage cross-team collaboration that could lead to discoveries that might not happen in an isolated group.

The prototyping half includes some heavy-duty equipment that you'd be more likely to see in a factory than an internet veteran's campus. It touts lathes, milling machines, water jets and other devices that can cut or shape everything from metal to stone. There's also a CT scanner and an electron microscope to detect miniscule flaws.

The lab consists of two main areas: the electrical engineering labs and the prototyping workshops. The electrical engineering labs provide space and equipment for the various teams to test and debug their designs. Much of the work in these labs is very specialized, with equipment setups that are custom to the products being developed. The prototyping workshops are stocked with a variety of machine tools, including multi-axis computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, that enable teams to quickly iterate on complex problems. Some of those machines are:

  • 9-axis mill-turn lathe, used for making complex components that require tight tolerance turning features and milling features on a single part, like our custom-designed, two-axis gimbal for air-to-air and air-to-ground laser communications. With this machine, we can make these parts in one setup and in low volume production; without this machine, parts would have to be machined in multiple setups on multiple machines, which is slow and error-prone.
  • 5-axis vertical milling machine, capable of producing extremely large, complex, and accurate prototypes by machining with all five axes simultaneously. This machine allows us to create large and extremely complex geometry — like parts associated with Terragraph — rapidly.
  • 5-axis water jet, capable of cutting full 10' x 5' sheets of material, including aluminum, steel, granite, stone, etc. The jet is powerful enough to cut through a sheet of one of these materials that is several inches thick.
  • Sheet metal shear and folder, two machines used for sheet metal prototyping. The folder is a CNC machine that can be programmed to bend complex sheet metal components, such as the components making up our custom-built server racks.
  • CNC fabric cutter, used to cut any fabric quickly and accurately based on a 2D engineering design.
  • Coordinate measuring machine (CMM), used to inspect prototypes to ensure they are within specifications that are calculated by the engineer. The machine is also capable of reverse-engineering a part and turning it into a 3D computer model.
  • Electron microscope and CT scanner, used for examining components for failure analysis and can produce 3D, X-ray images for inspection. During prototyping, it's important that we can pinpoint where to make improvements.

A lab like this was really just a matter of time, since Facebook only has so much room to develop hardware in its existing facilities without looking for outside help. Still, it's a telltale sign of how much the company has changed. The days of Facebook focusing strictly on social services are long gone -- this is a general tech company where physical products are equally important to its future.

Source: Facebook Code

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