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A Software Company Making Hardware

A Software Company Making Hardware
by Daniel Payne on 08-08-2016 at 12:00 pm

I’ve been a daily Facebook user for many years now and it keeps me in touch with family, friends, some business contacts and even a handful of high-tech companies. My first impression is that Facebook is a very successful, cloud-based, social platform staffed with software developers and a few marketing mavens. On closer examination I’ve come to learn that Facebook in fact does have hardware engineers doing a variety of mechanical, 3D and electrical design tasks.

Source: Facebook

The first hardware projects that I recall at Facebook were for custom racks, servers, storage systems and network switches used in their data centers. Now Facebook has hardware design teams in many locations:

  • Servers (Palo Alto)
  • Connectivity Lab
  • Oculus (Seattle)
  • Aquila hanger (UK)
  • Laser communications (Southern California)

Island of engineers can be only so productive, so the latest trend at Facebook is to have these diverse teams meet together or even move into shared facilities in order to share ideas and get prototypes into the field much quicker than before. A new, large facility has been created in Menlo Park with 22,000 square feet of space for collaboration and is fondly called Area 404, kind of a play on words as a missing web page is typically called a 404 page. At Area 404 the engineering teams can now do modeling, prototyping and failure analysis in one spot, decreasing iteration times from weeks to just days. Folks that worked in the Connectivity Lab, Oculus, Building 8 and from Infrastructure can now form teams at Area 404 and attack new designs more efficiently.

Test and debug work are done in the electrical engineering labs, while mechanical work is done in the prototyping workshops. Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines at Area 404 include:

  • 9-axis mill-turn lathe, for tight tolerance turning features and milling features on a single part.
  • 5-axis vertical milling machine, used on large, complex and accurate prototypes, like parts for Terragraph.
  • 5-axis water jet, to cut up to 10′ x 5′ sheets of aluminum, steel, granite, stone, etc.
  • Sheet metal shear and folder, dual machines used in prototyping.
  • CNC fabric cutter, to quickly cut 2D designs.
  • Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM), that measures prototypes to make sure they are in spec.
  • Electron microscope and CT scanner, for looking at components during failure analysis.

9-axis mill-turn lathe

Electron microscope

Aquila aircraft for Internet connectivity

The Infrastructure group at Facebook designed an open rack, top-of-rack switch called Wedgeusing parts from their own labs. Engineers in the Connectivity Lab built hardware for the flying Aquilaplatform to distribute network services to un-reached regions around the globe. Finally, the VR group has designed their own hardware for the Facebook Surround 360 camera rig, outer shell, and Oculus prototypes.

Facebook really is quite the diverse company spanning both a social platform and hardware that can help to make us smarter, have better user experiences, all in a more connected world. Their new lab space was the next step in growth for the company to realize hardware designs more quickly than ever before.

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