Thanks for the memories

March 1, 2000
Every time you turn around, the disk drive industry seems to be doing something innovative. This time it's Seagate

Every time you turn around, the disk drive industry seems to be doing something innovative. This time it’s Seagate. As reported, the drive maker has developed a new line of hard drives featuring fluid dynamic bearings. Essentially a film of oil, the new bearings replace metal balls in spindle motors, dramatically reducing vibration, noise, and positioning error.

If history repeats itself, fluid bearings will find their way into all sorts of motion systems, making life easier for engineers in just about every industry. It happened with sensorless motors and magnetoresistive sensors, and it’s now happening with giant magnetoresistance. And there are other examples.

You have to wonder how they keep doing it, though. How do disk drive engineers continue to turn out one technological innovation after another?

It’s not as if they have life handed to them on a silver platter. They’re given a few motors, some sensors, and assorted pieces of metal and plastic, and from these meager components they’re expected to produce a mechanical memory box that can keep pace with an Intel microprocessor. Last time I checked, the only moving parts on one of those things are electrons, and each new chip is faster than the one before it.

If that’s not enough, they must also deal with the constant threat of competing storage technologies. In the backs of their minds, disk drive engineers have to figure that someday optical or solid-state storage is going to overtake their magnetic technology.

Even if they manage to stay ahead of the competition, they will eventually run into a wall. The problem is that each time the engineers clear one hurdle, the next one gets higher. These people know better than anyone else that you can push design constraints only so far before you’re pushing on the fundamental limitations of physics itself — and they don’t budge.

So the disk drive folks just keep postponing the inevitable. It would be understandable if they quit, but they seem to thrive on challenge. The more impossible the task, the more resourceful they get.

When pinched by servo-bandwidth constraints, for example, they come up with fluid bearings to give the servomechanism some relief. And when they’re not getting enough signal energy from the narrower recording tracks, they develop a new type of micromotor that holds read heads closer to the action.

When the end finally comes, chances are there will be an industry waiting in the wings to take over where our heroes of innovation leave off. I just hope these other guys can thrive on challenge and adversity, too.

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