Had the former Hewlett-Packard company not split into two in late 2015, its world renowned research arm, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, would have been 50 years old this year. However it too was rent asunder: The part that went to the new HP Inc is now HP Labs and, rather confusingly, the part that went to the new HP Enterprise is called Hewlett-Packard Labs.
A major focus for Hewlett-Packard Labs is HPE’s vision for a radically new computer architecture dubbed ‘The Machine’ (featured in Computerworld earlier this year). According to some reports, prior to the split, 75 percent of the former Hewlett Packard Laboratories’ staff were working on it.
Deprived of that priority, HP Inc’s HP Labs has had to align its priorities to the business of HP Inc: PCs and printers. However, HP Labs’ director, Shane Wall — also HP Inc’s CTO — says the Labs’ focus is well beyond the next generation of HP products.
“Most of the work of the labs is long term,” he told Computerworld. “We purposely set our vision way into the future. We try and set a 30-year vision.”
The aim, Wall explained, is to identify the major societal shifts that will drive technology demands and from that determine the technologies HP should be investing in.
“We look at where we think the world is going in 30 years and we do that by looking at socio-economic factors, demographics, sociological change. Based on those we then pick what we think will be the key technologies we should invest in,” he said.
“We use that research to anchor us on a handful of investments in what we think will be important in the five to ten year range, maybe as long as 15 to 20 years.”
Four major long-term trends
Wall said HP had identified four major shifts that determine its investment strategies: urbanisation, the aging population, hyper-globalisation and the speed of innovation.
“In 1991 there were only about 10 megacities — those with populations in excess of 10 million. By 2030 we expect there will be over 40. And people are living longer. In 30 years time there will be more people over 50 than under 50 and they will expect technology to solve their problems, keep them healthy, help them live longer.”
Hyper-globalisation, Wall explained, refers to increasing rapid global dissemination not only of ideas and information, but of manufactured goods, thanks to the evolution of 3D printing. “The distribution of manufactured goods will be at the speed of the Internet: they could be designed anywhere and printed anywhere else on demand,” he said.
Four focus areas for HP Labs’
Within these megatrends, Wall said HP Labs tracked some 40 different trends and from these has determined four areas to which it directs its investments: fully digital manufacturing, the Internet of all things — where every physical objected will be tagged and communications enabled, immersive augmented/virtual reality and microfluidics.
Digital manufacturing, said Wall, is “hard to comprehend and a bit ‘out there’,” and goes well beyond additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing. With digital manufacturing, every product could be unique, according to Wall: crafted to meet the requirements of its user, or to use materials locally available, or to disappear after it had fulfilled its purpose.
Microfluidics, he explained has its origins in inkjet printing and is about moving very small amounts of fluids in a very controlled way.“We are looking at how we can apply this to healthcare, to lower the cost of diagnostics, to manufacture unique drugs.”
A different perspective
Wall said HP Labs had staged “a huge event” in September to mark its 50th anniversary. “It was a great way to celebrate the achievements of the past but more importantly it was a chance to look to the future.” he told Computerworld.
That look appears to have produced a shift in emphasis. A rather different perspective on HP Labs was given by deputy director, Keith Moore, in a June 2016 blog post. He said about 10 per cent of the Labs’ budget went on fundamental research, about 60 percent was directed towards existing business units and the remaining 30 percent into “stuff that likely will become a new business (ie, very unlikely to sell through our existing channel or business units).”
According to Moore, “We don’t usually start here, but many ideas end up here. This part of the portfolio is incubated to decide whether to spin in or spin out the business.”
He summed up the Labs’ approach to research by saying: “Our research portfolio of projects intersects with the business wave approach from HP chief executive Dion Weisler.
“As he describes it, the first business wave is about the current landscape. Business wave two is about emerging businesses – you can see companies entering but no clear leader (3D print is such an example). Business wave three is about markets that don’t yet exist. This is where breakthrough technology is needed. Technology innovations are key to all three waves, but we generally focus HP Labs resources on waves two and three.”
Moore said it was never obvious where a great idea would come from: “As such, we don’t plan research like a product roadmap. Instead, we establish areas that we think have longevity, and create checkpoints for deciding to continue investment or shelve the idea. History has shown this approach works well…”