Inside “Area 404,” Facebook’s New Hardware Lab

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If you’re a frequent user of Facebook, Messenger, or Instagram, you would probably never guess that on the first floor of one of the building at the internet giant’s Menlo Park headquarters, behind a high-security keycard access door, lies a vast collection of incredibly high-tech devices, such as a scanning electron microscope.

This equipment is of the sort that one might find in a high-tech university science lab, or maybe even a top-secret government lab doing complex scientific research. But, what is this kind of equipment doing at the Facebook headquarters?

Well, there is very good reason. This equipment is part of a very expensive, high-tech hardware lab, Facebook’s brand-new Area 404 division. At over 22,000 square feet, the laboratory is dedicated to aiding the company to design, prototype, test, and build hardware for various projects Facebook is heading up. Some of these include its Aquila Internet connectivity drones, its Oculus VR devices, its data centers, and many other projects.

Facebook’s new hardware focus

For a while now, Facebook has had a hardware lab dedicated to building and developing different projects. However, it was no more than just an old mail room at the social media giant’s original offices in Palo Alto. Area 404 is a completely different space.

According to Facebook’s head of engineering and infrastructure Jay Parikh, the idea behind Area 404 is to provide engineers from all sectors of Facebook a place to come together, work, share ideas, and help each other get results quickly on various projects.

What does Facebook physically make, one may wonder? The company actually has a quickly growing need for infrastructure and hardware. The new lab in Menlo Park will support Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, which will focus on providing internet access to developing countries and remote parts of the world through the use of satellites, drones, and lasers.

Additionally, Area 404 will be used by Oculus, Facebook’s virtual reality company, as well as the company’s rapidly expanding data center. The company’s secretive “Building 8” project, a “skunkworks” team led by former Google exec and DARPA director Regina Dugan, will also make use of the space.

Started from the mailroom, now we’re here

Facebook initially began construction on Area 404 around nine months ago. Beginning with a repurposed mailroom in the company’s Building 17, located at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park. The idea behind Area 404’s construction was to find a way to improve efficiency in conceiving an idea, changing that idea into form, and creating physical prototypes of that idea.

Facebook hasn’t divulged how much Area 404 has cost the company, but considering the type of equipment and machinery the lab contains, one can only assume that it cost several millions of dollars.

Among the high-tech machines that Area 404 houses are the previously-mentioned scanning electron microscope, a 5-axis vertical milling machine, a sheet metal shear and a sheet metal folder, a 9-axis mill-turn lathe, a coordinating measuring machine, a CNC fabric cutter, and a CT scanner.

“With these state-of-the-art tools, testing equipment, and expert model makers, we can collaborate in-house and enable faster and more innovative hardware development,” said Mikal Greaves, Facebook’s mechanical and power manager, and Spencer Burns, a CNC model maker, wrote in the blog post announcing the project. “We’re working hard to make the world more open and connected, and as shared in our 10-year roadmap, that includes building next-generation hardware – hardware that creates smarter, more immersive experiences and systems that will connect the world.”

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