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Inside Area 404: A look at Facebook’s new 22,000-square-foot hardware lab

Facebook wants you to know it makes hardware, too.

Kurt Wagner / Recode

Facebook is known as a software company, and rightfully so: It makes a ton of money building software to power mobile apps that sell mobile ads it then shows to billions of people around the world.

But Facebook is also a hardware company, and it now has the workshop to prove it.

Facebook has been building hardware for years, actually, starting with relatively unsexy things like software servers and racks to hold those servers. More recently, it’s ventured into more visually appealing hardware, like virtual reality headsets and internet-beaming drones.

To prototype these kinds of projects, Facebook has built a new, 22,000-square-foot hardware lab at its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters. The lab is called Area 404, a nod to the 404 error message you get when searching online for something that the server can’t find. “Our teams [wanted] a space just like this one, but one wasn’t found,” Facebook wrote in a blog post Wednesday. “Now it’s found.”

Not only did Facebook find it, but earlier this week it paraded the new space in front of the press. The lab was just finished in July after a nine-month construction process, and supposedly even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is restricted from certain areas of the lab for safety reasons. (We imagine he still gets to peek inside with an escort.)

Facebook engineer Spencer Burns shows off the company’s new hardware lab to the press on Tuesday.
Kurt Wagner / Recode

The point of all this is to help Facebook expedite the speed at which the company can build and test hardware prototypes. Having a lab on campus versus sending plans to an outside lab can cut multi-week projects down to just a few days, explained Spencer Burns, a Facebook engineer who led the press tour this week. (Facebook also has labs in the U.K. and Seattle, for its Aquila drone project and Oculus Rift headset, respectively.)

So what does this lab look like? Here are a few highlights from our tour.

Kurt Wagner / Recode

This is a water jet, a computer-controlled saw that uses a mixture of water and the mineral garnet blasted at high pressure to cut through different materials. The water is pushed at 60,000 pounds per square inch (PSI) and can cut through everything from marble to glass. "I don't know what it can't cut through,” Burns said. Facebook uses it primarily for cutting sheet metal.

Kurt Wagner / Recode

This is Facebook’s new machine shop, where engineers can come build their own hardware prototypes with relatively basic tools like grinders, drill presses and band saws.

Kurt Wagner / Recode

This is a five-axis milling machine, which can tilt and twirl prototypes in order to create very accurate and precise cuts. Facebook uses this to build some of the nodes it uses for its wireless internet project, Terragraph. The machine weighs 60,000 pounds, which is one of the reasons Facebook had to tear up the lab’s floor during construction and reinforce it with more than 100 concrete and steel pylons that extend 60 feet into the earth. This globe you see in this photo ...

Kurt Wagner / Recode

... was carved from one of these heavy, aluminum blocks.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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