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Facebook's new hardware lab is built for Oculus and internet drones

Facebook's new hardware lab is built for Oculus and internet drones


Welcome to Area 404

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A 5-axis vertical milling machine at Facebook's Area 404.
A 5-axis vertical milling machine at Facebook's Area 404.

Facebook, as one of the largest and most popular sites in the world, has a healthy amount of physical infrastructure to manage its various mobile apps and web services. Now, that collection includes a new 22,000-square-foot lab at its Menlo Park, CA headquarters, where the company plans to do fast prototyping and modeling of new hardware products and components. The space is filled with massive and expensive machines you'd typically find at a manufacturing plant — a sheet metal-cutting water jet and a 5-axis milling machine, for example — all tucked away in a central building of its main campus. Facebook calls the facility Area 404.

For those wondering what Facebook physically makes, the company does in fact have rapidly growing infrastructure and hardware needs. The new Menlo Park space will support Facebook's Connectivity Lab, which, as part of its initiative, focuses on bringing internet access to developing countries and remote parts of the planet through drones, satellites, and lasers. It will also be used by virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR, Facebook's expanding data center operations, and the company's new secretive Building 8, a skunkworks team led by former Google exec and DARPA director Regina Dugan.

Area 404 will serve Facebook's VR, data center, and connectivity divisions

The company first began building Area 404 about nine months ago, starting with a repurposed mailroom in Facebook's Building 17 located at the appropriately named 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park. According to Spencer Burns, a CNC model maker who helped oversee the lab's construction, Facebook was looking for a way to cut down the time it takes to conceive an idea, model that idea in software form, and produce a physical prototype.

The company's various teams have for years been making smaller, more limited advancements in the way they perform this process, mainly to design servers, racks, and other data center hardware Facebook began building in-house back in 2011. Yet now, with Area 404, every aspect of Facebook that involves a physical product or system can make use of the latest and most capable equipment the market. Beyond milling machines and water jets, the lab has fabric cutters, metal folders, and even an electron microscope. "Normally you would send these out to third-party vendors," Burns told a group of reporters on Tuesday. "Now we can do that in the course of hours or days instead of weeks or months."

Facebook's Spencer Burns gives a press tour of the company's new Area 404 hardware lab.

Area 404 is nearing completion, and it's now mostly operational. In a tour, Burns showed off various sections of the facility in which employees in goggles operated massive machines designed to precisely produce complex parts like data center racks, drone rotors, and even 360-degree video camera housings. Area 404 is not the company's only facility of its kind. Oculus operates a hardware lab near Seattle, while its arm works on the Aquila internet drone out of a hanger in the UK. There's also a laser lab in Southern California. But every group can now make use of the Menlo Park equipment to speed up testing and prototyping.

Facebook's grandest ambitions all involve custom hardware

This is all part of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's ambitious 10-year road map. First outlined to the public at the F8 developer conference in April, Zuckerberg's vision for the social network is to build out the core Facebook service over the next three years, and then focus on its ecosystem of mobile apps in the next five years. Ten years down the line, he wants his company to be more deeply invested in forward-thinking markets like VR, internet connectivity, and artificial intelligence.

Those far out initiatives all inherently involve hardware, whether its a headset made by Oculus or an AI training system sitting in a server rack in the company's Prineville data center. And Facebook's connectivity ambitions rely, more than anything, on figuring out how to transition its sprawling expertise from software to the logistical complexities of keeping a solar-powered drone flying in the sky. "It’s not something you necessarily expect Facebook to do — because we’re not an aerospace company," Zuckerberg told The Verge in an interview last month. "But I guess we’re becoming one."