Get ready for the third chapter in the book of Silicon Valley. During the first chapter, innovation in Silicon Valley was about atoms, carving up silicon wafers into the electronic transistors that started the computing revolution. The second one, more ethereal, brought the triumph of internet services like Facebook and Google.
To be competitive now, a company must blend both approaches. That’s the view of HP Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel, who rose through the HP Labs ranks over 30 years to secure 151 patents and become the company’s chief engineer.
“The 21st century will require Silicon Valley to be a cyber-physical valley,” Patel said.
He’s not the only one with the idea. Tesla Motors is designing self-driving cars. Google is testing self-piloting stratospheric balloons that deliver internet access to humans below. Amazon is automating fast delivery to build instant gratification into e-commerce. And with the internet of things, computing power could spread to just about anything that uses electricity.
In his three decades at HP and HP Labs, Patel has seen massive changes. One was the 1999 separation of the Agilent division that made the kind of test and measurement products Bill Hewlett and William Packard did when founding Hewlett-Packard in 1939. And exactly one year ago, the company split in two again — into consumer-focused HP and into Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which sells IT products and services to business customers.
But the fundamental job of HP Labs, founded 50 years ago, hasn’t changed. Its staff does everything from researching basic physics research to developing prototypes that can be handed off to HP’s product teams.
There’s nothing wrong with building a social network for football fans or an app to review rock bands. But HP Labs works at a more fundamental level. Focus areas include new user interfaces for computers, the internet of things, computing security, biotechnology and 3D printing.
Toward the Diamond Age
HP rose to fame selling printers ranging from home inkjets costing less than $100 to hulking $500,000 Indigo machines that print four full-color pages each second. HP Labs has helped improve print speeds and is working to transform components that wear out today into ones that last ever longer and eventually never have to be replaced. But the really radical transformation will be to move beyond ink on paper.
One idea: printing “2.5D” objects that are mostly flat but that have some texture or structure — electronic circuit boards or oil painting reproductions, for example. Manufacturing with full 3D printing promises even grander changes.
In March, HP announced 3D printing technology that’s 10 times faster, 10 times cheaper, and produces materials 10 times stronger than what was previously available, according to Keith Moore, the vice president leading HP Labs’ 2D and 3D printing work.
Sci-fi fans may remember Neal Stephenson’s book, “The Diamond Age,” with devices that assemble products molecule by molecule. That’s far beyond today’s technology — but it’s where HP is trying to go.