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Inside HP Labs of Destruction!

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HP labs Houston

When Hewlett Packard invites a team of tech journalists out to Houston to look at their laboratories there are a few things you expect. Scientists with Christopher Lloyd’s demeanor and pristine lab coats for one, but once you get to HP’s behemoth campus in North Houston you realize that the HP labs are far bigger than you could dream up.

Compaq sign

The sheer scale of the complex is slightly mind boggling, with around 10,000 employees driving in each day. To handle this they have created an airport like structured system; – glass spherical walkways to let people access different parts of the building. Every wall is adorned with some reference to the company, be it chirpy corporate slogans; “Did you know, the infrastructure of 550 corporations is based on HP,” or retro Compaq signs that hark back to the HP/ Compaq merger. But we are not here to wax poetic about the company, nor to have retro flashbacks to our chunky college laptops. We are here to look at how HP Labs assemble their laptops, from a user testing standpoint. To put it bluntly, “How much sh*t can you kick out of them before they fail?” To test this premise, the whip smart team of HP engineers literally take that statement as gospel. We were taken through a series of labs with interesting names to see the ways they try and destroy the equipment. It’s humans vs. machines – but the machines don’t fight back. Instead they get squeezed through clamps exerting intense pressure and thrown into water tanks so the engineers can test how quickly they rust.

“We do destructive testing here,” said Bryan Van Alstyne, manager of the Environmental and Mechanical engineering support center . “Nothing passes. We want to know how things will work in different places, it’s a bit of shake, rattle and roll.”

Rattle and roll were not an overstatement as his laboratory had some hardcore testing measures. In recognition of your potential of glazing over, we have re-named their test names from science-speak to real life.

Drop test

The Drop test

The computer monitor measures the force of impact. They use the pulley to lift up the PC and then slam it down.

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The Vibration test

Clamps hold down the laptop and it’s shaken… HARD. The vibration machines vary from a giant plate on the floor, to a smaller surface which is reached by climbing up a ladder.

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Yes, those clamps to hold the product down are SERIOUS.

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Hinge test

This test the laptop’s hinge around 27,000 times. “This represents a certain of amount of life cycles,” HP told us. “It might be 5 years, 10 years. We typically go from minimum angle to maximum angle.” Many of the machines in the lab had labels affixed. bearing names such as “Cottonmouth” and “Golden eye” . We were privy to an in joke by the HP engineers, who called the various robotic machines after Texas snakes.

The Salty bog test No picture, so just imagine a very wet laptop. Thanks.

This measures corrosion on the computer. “We scratch the specimen, throw it in and take it out 100 hours later,” the HP spokesman said, slightly gleefully. “We want to see a tiny bit of rust but no bubbling.” The idea is this test would emulate about five years of use. “We hurry the process to see if it will have five years of life.” This can take 4 months. “That’s already a long time,” the spokesman said, “We don’t have 5 years.”

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The Lightning bolt test

This took place in the Electrical Discharge lab and involved sending high level electrical shocks into computers. These were done with gun like sabers – and all lights were turned off to see the sparks fly.

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Temperature testing

Yes, that’s a giant freezer and there is a laptop inside it. Environmental chambers like this are used to speed up months of testing to be able to get results about longevity quickly.

Typist test

Black box test

This test was very interesting to me, as a slightly violent typist. Here a small machine rigorously runs across the print to the keys to test their life – and estimate how long it would last.

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The X-ray radiation chamber

Here laptops gets scanned. Note the radiation sign – but we were promised this was ultra secure.

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You can view its insides (see pic above) on the computer screen in real time as you move it around to check certain issues with it.

Strain test

Strain testing

This looks like red silly string but is actually used to discover how much strain a laptop can take – for example, when you put pressure on it by grabbing it by the screen, one handed, what are you REALLY doing to it. This is where they figure that out.

Packaging test

The Surprise Cardboard Box test

HP test how sturdy their packaging is in a giant crushing machine. We hope UPS would never treat our babies like this though!

Audio chamber 1

The Audio test

One room was used for testing acoustics- the audio chamber. Nothing actually gets destroyed here- other than a PC’s eardrums (and we really aren’t sympathetic) but the room itself was very beautiful. It’s a standard semi-anechoic chamber which means that you experience almost total silence inside it (the floor was not covered) , something that’s rare nowadays. Five refracting surfaces – the walls and the ceiling create a vacuum of sound and are used to check that notebook sounds – such as drives, and fans- are an acceptable level. We also saw a second audio chamber, this one ten meters long that looked like it had come out of a Star Trek prop cupboard.

They treat the software badly too– think bugs, overloading and more. Pam Stout, Software Validation Manager at Hewlett-Packard told us that nothing gets to market without having gone through this process. “We take 133,000 hours for testing,” she said. “We test all components separately then together as a system.”

Term of the day: HALT

I normally hate jargon and avoid it as much as I can, but HALT is a term that actually makes sense. It stands for Highly Accelerated Life Test and it’s why HP do so many of their tests. It’s an umbrella term, for testing outside the machine’s limits, for subjecting it to ridiculous wear and tear in hopes of discovering why something might fail – and pretty much MAKING something fail in the process.

Conclusion

HP Labs offered an interesting dive into what the daily life for computer testing engineers is. It offered far more entertaining than I expected and suggested that it’s a career for those with both smarts and a penchant for smashing things up. I might treat my laptop with a little more respect from now on now I know what goes into creating it.. or perhaps I’ll know expect it to be able to survive deep sea diving and will be outraged on the customer support line. Note: I have no firsthand experience of any of their competitor’s testing facilities, and I am sure that Samsung, Apple, etc. all do something of this nature. This was my firsthand experience of such an atmosphere and is accounted as such.