Facebook CEO and all-around wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg can do a lot of things.
But Zuck can’t use the steel-cutting, 60,000 PSI waterjets in Area 404 — Facebook’s brand new, 22,000 square foot hardware laboratory — because he’s not one of the ten or so Facebook employees authorised to even get in the room with them, for safety reasons.
The big idea behind Area 404 is to provide one big space for all of the social network’s various teams, including the still-very-mysterious denizens of Building 8, to apply the “Move Fast and Break Things” philosophy to making real physical objects, not just software.
Rather than rely on outside contractors and far-off factories to build their stuff, with Area 404, Facebook now has the facilities, including those serious-business waterjets, to prototype and build that hardware in-house. Better yet, it’s tucked into a concrete-reinforced bunker nestled right in Facebook’s main Silicon Valley campus.
That’s important, as Facebook moves beyond its ongoing efforts to build better servers for itself and into making 3D virtual reality cameras, flying internet-laser drones, and the experimental Terragraph high-speed wireless internet system.
It also means that Area 404 is going to be the place where the first versions of Facebook’s coolest, craziest, and most world-changing inventions will be made. Once fully operational, the stuff that goes on in Area 404 will be above top secret.
Luckily for us, Facebook let us tour Area 404 ahead of its official grand opening. Here’s a look at the high-tech lab Facebook is using to design its engines of world domination.
Facebook's main business may be social networking space, but it's long since been designing custom hardware in-house. Since the early 2010's, Facebook has been designing its own custom servers just to keep up with demand...
More recently, Facebook has been working on projects like the Aquila drone, designed to shoot lasers that bring internet access to rural areas...
...and the Facebook Surround 360 camera, designed to shoot super-high-resolution video for virtual reality.
But with only 8,000 square feet of hardware space dispersed over the Facebook campus available to them, those teams simply couldn't find the space. And so, the new 22,000 square-foot facility, available to any Facebook team, was dubbed Area 404, in honour of the infamous HTTP 404 error for 'website not found.'
Much of Area 404 is office space, where designers and modelers use computer aided design, or CAD, tools to make 3D models of the parts and tools that they want to build. There's also a big electronics engineering area.
Area 404 is also home to this RF isolation chamber, which blocks out all radio signals. That's handy if you're trying to fine-tune cellular modems or any kind of wireless signal without outside interference.
Area 404 is home to all kinds of nifty lab equipment. This CT scanner basically takes a series of X-Rays, so you can see inside anything. Note the sticker about it being a device for doing alien autopsies. It's joking. I think.
The same room hosts Facebook's electron microscope, which bombards samples with electrons to get visibility at a molecular level.
'Not only is this space good for new things,' explains Facebook Engineering and Infrastructure head Jay Parikh, 'as we continue to experiment and try things out we need to be ready for our failures too.' Which is to say if, for example, a Facebook-designed experimental prototype motherboard totally burns out, they can use the CT scanner and microscope to figure out what happened, without having to wait for an outside lab to get back to them with an analysis.
But the office space and the lab equipment is only part of the story. Much of Area 404 is so heavy-duty, you need to wear protective eyewear while you're present.
In this shop, Facebook engineers who pass a certification program are allowed to work on their own prototypes, in their own time. For hardware engineers, it gives them the freedom to make the exact thing they need, on their own schedule.
The yellow tape is to indicate the safe distance to stand back if you're not using a machine.
But the main event is in the 'How It's Really Made' lab. This laboratory hosts machinery so specialised and potentially dangerous, only around 10 Facebook employees have keycard access to even get in -- and Mark Zuckerberg ain't one of them.
The main event of this lab is this monstrous, custom-built waterjet cutter. Basically, it sprays water at 60,000 PSI, a pressure so intense it can cut through steel, aluminium, wood, glass, and anything else that gets in the way of the stream. It weighs something like 30 tons.
By having one of these in-house, Facebook engineers can design, build, and improve on concepts like the super-efficient housing for its custom servers, without having to contract an external factory and waiting. What used to take months, takes days.
The huge waterjet is complemented by this similarly huge CNC machine, which literally bends the cut metal into shape...
That machine forms the exact right shape at the exact right angle to be useful in a finished product.
Facebook actually has a few of these waterjet machines in stock, of varying sizes and intended for projects of different levels of complexity.
This photo isn't blurry -- that's just the splashback from the massive amounts of splashback as a waterjet cuts through metal.
As guided by a Facebook modeler's skilled hand, the waterjets can make parts that are as intricate as this optical sensor.
This is Facebook's most complex machine in all of Area 404. This 5-axis vertical miller can make incredibly exacting prototypes. This little wirework globe isn't functional, but it's meant to be an illustrative representation of Facebook's mission to connect the globe.
To support all this heavy metal moving around, Facebook had to make some big changes to the space, which originated as a stock-standard office for programmers. A full floor of space was taken out, the ceiling was reinforced, and gantry cranes like this one were put in.
Meanwhile, Facebook rebuilt the floor with 3 feet of concrete, supported by 100 pylons and supported by steel rebars.
Another very important concept at Area 404 is the idea of organisation. Everything has to be in its proper place, explains our tour guide Spencer Burns, because it cuts down on productivity if you have to go digging for tools.
Everything must be in its exact right place. It's good for productivity and safety alike, not to have little bits everywhere. I guess the Allen wrenches are in case Facebook decides to start a sideline business in building IKEA furniture.
As an illustrative example of what Area 404 is capable of, Facebook gave me and the media in attendance on the tour this little business card holder.
Those business cards were made from metal cut on a waterjet, bent by the machine, and buffed to a shine by yet another specialised waterjet machine.
As a nice little easter egg, the business card holder hides on its bottom the logo of Area 404, revealed for the first time anywhere. Expect to see this logo more on some of Facebook's most cutting edge projects.
On a final note, it's important to remember that Area 404 is for prototyping, not mass manufacturing. When these ideas are truly ready for prime-time, they go out to a proper factory to build. Area 404 is just where Facebook is building its future, one sheet of metal at a time.
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