Inside HP's Ft. Collins Workstation Test Lab - Installment 1

Electron Microscope Investigations

No materials lab worth its salt would be without an electron microscope. And, the HP lab in Ft. Collins is pretty salty, boasting a high energy scope that uses electron beams instead of light to reveal microscopic three dimensional features at very high magnifications. Because many of the components that go into HP’s workstations are microscopically small, such as the capacitors mounted on microprocessor chips, HP relies on the electron microscope to magnify a target by more than 500 times, giving Paul and his team the ability to see where no man has seen before.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth even more. I didn’t have a video camera with me, but did have my cell phone, and I took this video with it. The picture quality is good, but the cinematography is terrible. My bad. But, it does give you the opportunity to see what I saw while Paul was demonstrating the electron microscope.


Using the Electron Microscope

Spectroscopy – Chemical Fingerprints

The Material Lab is equipped with the latest spectroscopy equipment including an Infrared Spectrometer, a gas chromatic mass spectrometer, and a really neat portable unit. These devices focus high frequency or infrared energy on an object, evaluate the bounced energy, and calculate and display the chemical composition, or fingerprint, of the object under study.

Dr. Mazurkiewicz held up the portable gadget and explained that, “This is something we recently got to help us meet environment compliance. We spend quite a lot of time here making sure that HP not only meets legal environmental compliance standards, but that we also meet our own goals which are much stricter than most laws specify. There’s a huge list of materials that HP restricts voluntarily and we screen for them here to make sure that these materials aren’t present, allowing us to deliver the greenest products possible. “

“To use this hand held x-ray spectrometer we hold it up to a surface, pull the trigger, and in about 1 second it displays a compete elemental analysis. We use these spectrographic tools to insure that our products are compliant before they go out the door.”

“The ability to take chemical fingerprints of substances allows us identify unknown material and to verify that the materials being used are the ones that we’ve specified, and that they meet or exceed our quality expectations.”

Mechanical Stress

Besides chemical analysis there’s also lots of mechanical testing going on too. Paul showed us a measurement device that precisely measures the amount of force exerted on an object. And to illustrate his point we watched as the machine inserted memory chips into socket while measuring the pressure it took to accomplish this. Paul told us that, “When inserting memory strips into the socket you want to make sure that it takes exactly the right amount of force. If it takes too much force you could end up twisting and breaking the memory chips or you could bend or crack them. But, if the fit is too loose the memory could pop out of the socket. Not only do we insert the memory chips into the socket with this tool and measure the exact amount of force needed, but once we’ve finished we’ll cut the socket open and look at the physical surface of the contacts under high magnification to make sure it looks the way that we think it should. These are gold contacts, and if the gold is removed you could have electrical problems, so we go the extra step by cutting the sockets open and examining them under ultra high magnification to insure that everything‘s fine inside the connector. “


Case Closed

Before completing our tour of the Material Sciences lab Paul told us a mystery story, with a happy ending.

One of HP’s customers was having issues with systems failing in their environment. This was very mysterious since they were the only ones having a problem with this particular system and the power supplies were failing.

The systems were sent to the Materials lab, and the first thing the lab team did was go through the entire box looking for visual clues. Everything looked fine, so they pulled out their residue test kit and dabbed the power supply area with small sticky studs collecting surface residue evidence, just like they do in a crime lab. They then took the residue-topped studs and analyzed the residue under their electron microscope.

One of the things they found, besides the usual office dust, were tiny flecks of silver inside the box, especially inside the power supply. Using the electron microscope and spectrometer to take a closer look and analyze the silver they discovered that the silver was actually an alloy of silver that also contained a small amount of copper and other metals. They were able to match this alloy to a specific Jewelry silver – the type of alloy used to make rings and jewelry.

Armed with this information, Dr. Mazurkiewicz hopped on a plane and flew to the customer’s site to take a closer look at their environment. He did additional sampling on site and discovered that the systems themselves were in what appeared to be a very clean jewelry design area.

Exploring further he came across a room, not too far away from the design area, where he watched students finishing their silver creations on grinding wheels, and creating plumes of dust. Then, when he observed the students walking out of the grinding room and back into the design lab a light bulb lit above Paul’s head.

Paul said, “What was happening was that they’d be grinding away, get the dust all over their pants sit down in front of a computer that was on the floor beneath their desks, and the computer’s cooling fans sucked all that dust into the system. Of course, you have metal dust and this conducts electricity and it was blowing out the power supplies.”

Solving this problem for good was easy. Paul and his team helped the customer rearrange their environment and their work flow model, and voila, the failure was entirely eliminated. Another case closed!

At the end of the tour Dr. Mazurkiewicz wrapped things up by saying, “Basically we’re the eyes and ears of the support engineering team and help them look very deeply into any kind of puzzle that they’re working on, from simple design problems to solving customer issues in the field. Our mission is to verify that what HP buys and then receives meets our specifications and high quality standards.”

Join me in my next article as we tour the 10- and 1-meter RFI chambers to explore the zappy world of RFI emissions and interference.


David Heller

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