Consider a modern laptop computer—svelte and portable—and you can easily imagine the expertise and effort that went into its design and creation. But what about its larger desk-bound cousin, the desktop workstation? It might be surprising to learn that building a state-of-the-art DWS—still the workhorse of many an office—is the result of an equally rigorous design and development process. In fact, as Al Makley, director of workstation development at Lenovo, puts it, his engineers know “not to design in a vacuum” when re-imagining a product that is already well defined by its existing architecture. “One trap design and engineering teams fall into is exemplifying their own creative concepts as to how products should look and should be designed, without confirmation from the customers,” he says. In other words, even when developing world-class computers, the customer’s voice matters, and all Lenovo teams know and practice this critical, simple rule.
Here, Makley discusses how he and his team develop Lenovo’s industry-leading desktop workstations, along with the challenges of adapting to fast-evolving technologies, how to keep hot machines running cool, and his take on the computers of tomorrow.
How does product design fit into Lenovo’s business strategies?
Al Makley: It’s at the forefront of the strategy process. Lenovo products are the image of the business. Because we design products for different user-interaction modes, we gather a lot of customer information and data and put that at the forefront of a new product design.
What are the biggest design and engineering challenges facing PC makers that want to stay in front of the desktop workstation market?
We’re facing several major challenges; I’ll talk about two of them. The first is power. The components that we’re putting into our workstations demand increased power to satisfy performance requirements. As component power demands increase, we are finding it increasingly difficult to draw enough power from the wall. So that’s a major hurdle that we have to overcome. Our goal is to design a well-balanced system between energy efficiency, thermal performance and noise emissions.
The other is dealing with ever-evolving technologies. The workstation segment is known for stability. Quicker churn on Operating System releases, driver updates, and on hardware introduction, is becoming more the norm. We need to embrace this while maintaining the solution stability.
Could you walk us through the first steps that Lenovo takes when creating a new desktop workstation?
It starts with our customers. We have a multitude of ways of gathering customer information and feedback—everything from one-on-one meetings to talking to a wide audience from particular verticals at industry events to scouring our channel forums on the internet. And this feedback helps shape the concept—and new features—of our next-generation workstations.
And after that?
Our industrial-design team, usability team, and architecture team will get together for a few months to work on the first-level concept and design. They’ll create prototypes, take them to the customers we’ve talked to, and get their feedback. We’ll iterate two or three times throughout this phase until we have a design that meets both customer and industry requirements.
Industry technology is a big force factor, too. We have to iterate upon developments in graphics or I/O (input/output) or storage or whatever new developments are coming down the pipeline.
CPUs are certainly one example of that. Chips are getting smaller and more powerful. But they are also generating more heat, which is never good inside a computer. As someone with a background in thermal engineering, can you explain how this problem is managed and how it affects design?
Back in the day, mechanical designers and system designers would come to a thermal engineer late in the process and say, “Hey, find a way to cool this.” Now, thermal engineering and design are involved at the beginning stages, alongside the mechanical- and system-engineering teams. They need to be immersed in the design cycles in order to understand locations of devices—whether [they’re] heat-generating devices or devices that will impede airflow. Today, thermal and acoustics engineering is one of the most critical elements in Lenovo designs and we have some of the most strict requirements in the industry.
We’re also innovating by moving away from “forced cooling,” which involves fans, to “calibrated cooling,” a passive system that uses variations in air pressure to create airflow. It’s a more intricate and complex solution but one that increases reliability, reduces failure rates, and is quieter.
What kind of beneath-the-keyboard magic is Lenovo doing that users might not be aware of?
One example that immediately comes to mind is diagnostics. Most customers who use our desktop workstations don’t realize how we are continuously monitoring a variety of different sensors in those machines. They measure everything from voltages to fan RPMs to temperatures.
The idea behind this is to give users a feature like the “check engine” light in their vehicles. If something happens we want to give customers actionable information.
The other is LPT, or Lenovo Performance Tuner. LPT is a software stack that, simply put, optimizes the workstation hardware for the application you are running. It’s a light application that can have substantial performance improvements in workflows.
Is there any “ordinary” component that can have a surprisingly large impact on a workstation’s design or performance?
There’s so many, but I can’t get into them all.. Take, for example, the bumpers on the base of a workstation. We utilize bumpers to reduce vibration and noise. But we also have to look at bumpers as they relate to being able to grab the workstation and slide it out from under your desk. Too sticky, and you’re going to rip these bumpers off.
So, not only do we have to make them pliable enough to absorb vibration, but also slick enough to be able to pull your workstation out. That’s not easy.
In the design process, how much of a line delineates the role and function of the design teams and engineering teams?
One important role of our design team is to carry and maintain our brand image. We need to make sure a “ThinkStation” product carries certain brand characteristics. That is why the black-with-red-accents look is applied on pretty much all of our products.
And this design team works hand-in-hand with the mechanical-engineering team, who are more closely involved with the intricacies of the layout and design as it relates to manufacturing. They’re doing the detailed placements of the motherboard, the power supply, and all of the interconnects.
I would describe the delineation as higher-level brand-image design concepts and usability features compared to the more detailed architecture and engineering work.
In what ways do you think PCs in 2025 will be most different than the ones we use today?
Broadly speaking, I think PCs are going to be smarter and more aware. They’re all going to “understand” how users interact with their systems better and what kind of environment they’re in. And this will be achieved through operating systems tightly integrated with sensor and awareness technologies.