Not long ago HP invited a handful of industry journalists to its corporate headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado. The purpose was, of course, to familiarize us with the company’s professional product line and to show us the HP laboratory. Hmmm, a lab at a computer company. I was intrigued before I stepped through the doors.
I had heard “HP Labs” mentioned several times in the past—often when a product manager was providing an in-depth description of a new offering and had slipped in the reference (though I had assumed it was to make the development process sound far more complex). At the time, I pictured a person sitting at a workbench with a tiny screwdriver in hand and several computers in various states of disassembly situated around him or her. Of course, I knew that would not be the case, but some visions are just hard to shake. And that includes the ones I actually encountered at HP Labs.
The official explanation of the role that this section of the company provides is this: “HP Labs conducts high-impact scientific research to address the most important challenges and opportunities facing our customers and society in the next decade.” So what does that really mean?
Not surprising, there was a lot of R&D going on at HP Labs—some of which I expected, some totally unexpected as we progressed in the tour. First, we encountered narrow aisles with two or so people situated within each row. Here they were putting various components—from the motherboard to the electrical connections—through various tests. And all around there were racks and racks of HP equipment (ProLiant Servers, Blade Servers, Integrity Servers, HP Storage, HP Networking switches, and rack and power components) used by all the testers. This is exactly what I thought I would see.
Now, onto the cool stuff. A section of the R&D space was dedicated to temperature extremes—to determine how products hold up in these conditions. I wondered why a facility would let the temperature climb to a stifling level inside a facility. But, as the employee pointed out, sometimes a computer will sit for long periods of time in the back of a delivery truck in, say, Calcutta. Or conversely, in Barrow, Alaska. What happens to components in those exaggerated conditions? HP finds out, as their lab tests items in extreme hot and cold temperatures. Speaking of extreme—last year a video created a lot of buzz when a FedEx delivery person was shown tossing a fragile computer monitor over a gate and onto the lawn of its recipient. Soon other videos of similar incidents followed. In the Hardware Test Center at HP Labs, machinery dropped equipment at measured forces to see how the items held up to such abuse.
Another area that proved interesting was where each product in an HP line is disassembled, cataloged, and packed away for archival storage. In this area, HP has large crates packed with “representative samples” of its various systems from the cradle to the grave. Some of the wooden boxes date back to 2006/2007 with an xw9400 inside. After a certain point, though, the crates are opened and the components are recycled.
HP also has a model shop and machine shop on-site where the employees use various traditional and digital tools (rapid prototyping/3D printing) to generate components, labels, and more. The most exciting area, though, was something that looked as if it belonged in Star Trek. Called the 10 Meter Chamber, it’s a room with specialized foam-like blocks and cones where they test the frequencies a computer gives off to make sure it doesn’t interfere with radio receivers, cell phones, and so forth. A similar but smaller chamber checks the workstation systems to be sure they aren’t impacted by radio frequencies from other devices.
The biggest surprise of all was that there are actual scientists who runs real science experiments. Components outsourced to vendors must be made according to strict specifications and contain precise percentages of materials, including gold. Are the manufacturers living up to these specs? HP performs tests to make sure. There’s all kinds of tools here that I would expect to see in a college science laboratory, from the periodic table on the wall to the super powerful microfocus X-ray microscope for thoroughly examining minute items for, say, finding a crack in a tiny circuit.
So, the next time I hear someone at HP mention the company’s Labs, I will have a much bigger picture in mind and a far deeper understanding of the firm’s commitment to quality and R&D.