HP Labs: Breaking PCs to Build Better Systems

Hewlett-Packard recently gave a tour of its Science Labs to show how their engineers break down the systems in order to make them better.

HOUSTON, Texas—Hunt Hodge, a distinguished technologist with Hewlett-Packard, paced in front of more than three-dozen journalists and analysts. After few minutes of talking, Hodge walked a few feet to his left, stepped on an ElitePad tablet and stood there.

Hodge said he could do this because, after the brutal testing that HP puts its systems through before they hit the market, he was confident in the ruggedness of the device. Making sure that HP's PCs and tablets and servers can hold up under the most extreme conditions "is just part of our culture," he said.

"Nobody wants their creation to be a problem for their customers," Hodge said.

Thus started a recent day-long tour of HP's Science Labs facilities here, where HP technicians and engineers put the company's systems—mostly PCs and tablets, along with some servers—and their components through a range of intricate measurements and grueling tests designed to find their breaking points, examine their construction and materials, and ensure they meet various regulatory, compliance and certification requirements.

In these various labs spread throughout several building in this sprawling campus—which once was the headquarters of Compaq before HP famously bought the company in 2002—these systems and components are pulled apart, crushed, dropped, shaken, exposed to extreme heat and then extreme cold, placed in machines that simulate high altitude and coastal fog, left in a room filled with dust, zapped with electricity and bent in different directions. The boxes they're shipped in are vibrated and compressed.

"You want to make sure the box at the bottom [of a shipment] has the structural integrity of support the weight of the boxes on top of it," said Floyd Privette, environmental mechanical technician at HP, as he operated a compression machine capable of exerting up to 25,000 pounds of force that ended up crushing a shipping box.

Robots constantly drag "fingers" across their keyboards, while others poke the displays for days. Still other robots open and close laptops as many as 25,000 times or more over a seven-day period, while another tested the fittings in the water-cooling system that will be used in HP's new Apollo 8000 supercomputer. Systems are monitored and tested for the amount of noise they put out, how they run particular applications, how they work with new technologies like the Thunderbolt interconnect, and how good the components are, from hard drives to memory. They're X-rayed, poked, prodded, manhandled and—at least by Hodge—stepped on.

"It's a little bit of shake, rattle and roll," Bryan Van Alstyne, manager of HP's Enviromental and Mechanical Engineering Support Center, said about some of the work the technicians do during the testing. "We abuse stuff."

More than 10,000 employees work at the HP campus here, a massive complex that includes more than a dozen buildings, most of which are connected by a series of enclosed walkways that workers refer to has "habitrails" that protect them from the heat and humidity that characterizes Houston's climate during some of the year. Of those employees, about 5 percent of them are dedicated to the various labs—form the Multimedia and Software Testing labs to the Environmental, Reliability, Materials and Electromagnetic labs—which are there to ensure that the systems will work under any conditions, hold up under most common scenarios and comply with whatever regulations or certifications are required.

It's a lot of effort and money for a company that has seen its share of financial struggles in recent years and is undergoing a multi-year restructuring that includes cutting as many as 50,000 jobs. HP officials wouldn't comment on the amount of money the company spends every year on these labs, but Hodge noted that high-quality, reliable systems will create a good experience for users, who hopefully will often buy again from the company in the future.

"You really want to develop the best products," he said. "Anytime anything goes wrong in the field, it costs us."