It’s a beautiful day in Redmond...and that’s odd. Seattle is widely renowned as the rain capital of the US, with 266 out of the 365 days of the year bringing cloudy skies. But not today: it’s a postcard. But despite the conditions, the residents of Studio B on Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond campus couldn’t care less about the weather: they’re busy inside; printing, sculpting, moulding and lasering all the new products Microsoft is about to release. This is the Model Shop.
"Welcome To The Model Shop"
Bing bong! goes the doorbell of the Model Shop. It’s hidden in the bottom rear-corner of Studio B on Microsoft’s Redmond Campus, and for good reason: it’s full of secrets.
The door opens to reveal Vince Jesus, shop manager here at Microsoft. Vince is one of the few Microsoft staffers lucky enough to see every piece of Microsoft kit from its inception, right through to the final build as he manages a team of builders, painters, designers, architects and their wonderful machines.
On our way in, we pass a shelf full of prototype hardware: from an Xbox One controller, through to the Arc Mouse, right down to a Sidewinder Joystick, mint in box. Looking inwards from the door, the Model Shop is a room not much larger than a woodworking shed at a high school. But other than pimply-faced teens building a box and smoking weed, it’s full of geniuses and packed to the rafters with anything someone wanting to mock up a new consumer product could ever want.
“We have really skilled guys here who do a bunch of creative stuff with Microsoft,” Vince explains. “We help designers develop products, and increase the design and engineering iterations three-fold because of our presence,” he adds.
You see, before the advent of 3D printers and other rapid prototyping gear, it would take the folks in the Model Shop a few days to develop a mock-product for designers and marketers to get their hands on. Now, the team churns out multiple product prototypes per day for the consideration of the designers upstairs in Studio B and in other buildings scattered around the Redmond campus.
In separate rooms off the main floor are the precious machines that the Model Shop team use to make that blistering pace possible. To the left as you walk in, there’s a room crowded with three 3D printers, ready and waiting to spit out new, resin-based prototypes for designers and makers alike.
Not only are the Objet printers able to print out gadgets in a handful of hours, they’re also able to extrude multiple colours in one printing session so that rudimentary colours can be developed to give designers an idea of what a product would look like without it having to be specially painted.
Meanwhile, off to the right is a woodworking shop with all manner of saws, sanders and acrylic pieces to create rudimentary models to see how corners and product sizes would come out in the real world.
Microsoft even has six (count ‘em) CNC cutting machines for shaping, lathing and cutting out metal parts for prototypes.
Microsoft’s Model Shop is where all the confidential new designs for new products are being built so that designers can play with them, so security is high.
I’m being flanked by two Microsoft staffers who want to make sure I don’t see anything I’m not meant to as I walk through, eyes-wide, pointing at different machines. There are windows in the Model Shop, but the blinds are down. Nothing can compromise the security of the Model Shop and its precious contents.
At one point as I attempt to enter the Paint Shop, filled with a custom colour-mixing station and a walk-in paint booth, I’m stopped so that cloth and butcher’s paper can hastily be thrown over something that’s currently in development by one of the Model Shop team. After a moment, I’m allowed in, and spy the rectangular gadget under the cover, as well as one of the most intricate paint rooms you’ve ever seen. Your local Bunnings wishes they had something as good as this.
“Designers will always come in here and ask us to match colours,” Vince explains. “They’ll point to something,” he adds, while holding up a piece of blue sticky tape as an example, “and say, ‘can you give me something like this?’”. Eventually, the colour team whip up a shade sheet with the different colour variations, and eventually they bring in a piece of hardware to be painted so that the design and marketing teams can see what it will look like in the real world.
On the interior of the Paint Shop’s door is a palette of Windows 8-specific colours, meant for inclusion in the Surface’s Type and Touch Covers. During the build of the Surface Pro 3, designers would send down prototype files for construction, and the Model Shop would 3D print them overnight. Once the prototypes were cracked out of the printers, the Paint Shop would apply 15 different shades of paint to give the effect of what it would look like once constructed. The debate was then on which colours should be selected.
No matter what the product, however, there’s always something to do in the Model Shop.
Endless March Of Progress
With all the gear built inside the Model Shop, it’s a popular place for designers, artists and marketers around Microsoft. This is no 9-to-5 operation.
Back when the Xbox One was in development, the Model Shop was churning through product mock-ups like nobody’s business. The controller team, for example, would always start their day in the Model Shop to pick up the new product mock-ups from the Model Shop, before taking it back to the drawing board and making the changes that they thought should be implemented, before sending the new designs back to the Model Shop to be printed all over again.
The 3D printers inside the Model Shop take around five hours to extrude an Xbox One controller prototype, and around six to eight controllers were being built a night when the new console was being developed.
One controller might have an error in the bumpers to see what that would look like. Others would have triggers moved around. Another might contain lead weights so that the designers could feel exactly what it would be like when a gamer wrapped their mitts around it for an intense session of shooting giant robots in Titanfall or taking the perfect corner in Forza 5.
At times, it wasn’t even a full controller that was being built: designers were interested in the minutiae of the console, asking for new controller faceplates or just the laser-etched grille of the new Kinect to have a look at.
The Future Of Making
This isn’t the first time a journalist has been inside the Model Shop, but it might be the last time for this particular space, Vince tells me, as he unfurls a massive blueprint document.
“The company is investing in a whole new space for us,” he said, showing a blueprint vastly larger than the garage-sized space the team is in now. Because Microsoft is investing heavily in design and consumer devices, the company is building a new space on the Redmond campus within the next five months to dramatically expand the team. The new space? A breezy 20,000 square feet, or 1858 square metres.
Not a single square metre will be wasted space, either: all of Microsoft’s prototyping teams will be brought together, from the Xbox designers right through to the Surface team, and every accessory and peripheral designer in-between.
As I go to leave, I can almost feel covers being removed from prototypes that prying eyes like mine aren’t ready to see yet. Windows are likely being maximised back into position, revealing some new Touch Cover for the Surface or a smartwatch or a robot that you can have sex with (although probably not that last one).
“We’ll see you soon,” Vince cries as I leave. While that might not be true, his work certainly will see all of us sooner than you think.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Seattle as a guest of Microsoft.