Western Digital Seems to Have a Real Winner on its Hands

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With the commodities boom still in full swing you are probably aware the advantages of owning stocks related to gold, silver or other hard assets.

But when was the last time you heard someone extolling the investment virtues of helium?

And I'm not talking about helium as most folks think of it – in those giant (and comically overpriced) party balloons.

You see, a unit of disk-drive maker Western Digital Corp. (NasdaqGS: WDC) says it's discovered a way to help pump up the corporate computer networks around the world.

It'll debut later this year.  And helium will be the active ingredient.

Helios … the Greek God of High-Tech Profits

Named for the Greek god Helios, helium is created by the sun's nuclear power plant (by fusing hydrogen), and is vital for life on earth.

If you're finding it tough to make the mental jump from Greek gods and life-giving forces to life on the Nasdaq, that's understandable.

So just focus on another "life force".  It is the force behind the one key challenge that businesses all around the world confront each and every day.

I'm referring to "Big Data."

A full 90% of the digital data that exists in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.

And with all the new videos, song files, photos, blog posts, business records and Websites that continue to be created, we're producing an additional 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each and every day.

Think about biotech research into gene therapies, social networks with billions of photos, and Web search indexing. Ditto for the millions of electronic transactions that major global retailers conduct per hour.

All those bytes have to sit somewhere.

And Western Digital says it's developed a new device that can really help – with a big assist from helium.

Helium-Filled Drives Are a Blockbuster Breakthrough

The Irvine, Calif.-based company's product is a new disk-drive architecture that's aimed at computer networks and data centers.

Filled with helium gas, the drives can deliver the faster speeds that become more critical each day – and can boost storage capacity by as much as 25% to 50%, Western Digital says.

The firm extolled those features as key to lowering overall ownership costs but declined to estimate how much clients will save by adopting this platform. Western Digital says it will debut the drives by the end of this year.

The helium hard-disk drives – which have already been christened as "Helium HDDs" in tech-sector shorthand – are a major milestone in the rapidly growing field of materials science. It's the first time computer engineers have put helium to this use (conventional hard drives are now filled with air).

And some experts are already predicting a blockbuster breakthrough.

Taking the whole market into account, the tech-oriented research firm IHS predicts sales of 100 million helium-filled hard drives by the end of 2016 – that's just three full years of sales.

Direct comparison of sales rates for new products in the business class computer market are hard to come by. But if the IHS forecast turns out to be correct, then the new helium-drive technology would be a blockbuster – on par with the iPhone.

Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) released the trend-setting smart phone in June 2007. Since that time, it has remained in the vanguard of the mobile wave and continues to earn rave reviews.

According to a recent story in Popular Science, Apple has sold more than 228 million units of the pioneering smartphone worldwide in the five years since its launch.

Now then, Western Digital almost certainly won't have the whole helium-drive market to itself.

In fact, I would be surprised if archrival Seagate Technology PLC (NasdaqGS: STX) doesn't at least announce a competing design by the end of this year, or in early 2014 at the latest.

After all, the two firms remain in a disk-drive dogfight. With 48% of the hard-drive market, Seagate holds the top spot. But Western Digital is close on its heels, coming in at 45%.

IHS didn't estimate the value of the overall market; but the two firms have total combined sales of roughly $28 billion.

Technological challenges, patent protections and manufacturing costs (the drives are more-complex – and thus more costly – to produce) could augment Western Digital's head start and allow it to extend its lead, at least for a time.
Indeed, IHS believes the new technology could give Western Digital the lift it needs to take over as the industry leader: A Computerworld story that appeared just as we readied this report for you was topped by the headline: "Helium-Filled Hard Drives May Lift WD to the Top."

Right now, that's just conjecture. But here's what we can say: Western Digital's growth strategy is paying off.

That's because the helium array is the brainchild of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, or HGST. Lured by Hitachi's high-tech portfolio, Western Digital bought the firm in March 2011 for $4.3 billion in cash and stock.

Fast-forward two years and we can see that helium-filled hard drives offer several advantages. Because helium is one-seventh the density of air, the gas lessens the drag on the spinning disk stack. That's also true of the arms that position the heads over data tracks.

The format also allows disks to be placed closer together. In this array, seven discs will now fit in the space that formerly held only five. And because helium conducts heat better than air, the new drives will run cooler and emit less noise.

Add it all up, and Western Digital seems to have a real winner on its hands…

As science fiction is transformed into science fact, the world advances at warp speed. And by uncovering the innovations that are fueling that transformation, we can discover and offer to you the cutting-edge opportunities to profit – here in the Era of Radical Change.

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About the Author

Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.

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  1. Dan D | January 16, 2013

    While helium will allow WD/Hitachi to pack discs more closely together, and potentially increase HDD rpms, you fail to note the one downfall of using helium in hard drives: the potential for helium shortages and price boosts as demand exceeds supply.

    Helium is widely used in medical and scientific equipment. I have a feeling that helium hard drives and party balloons will be the first hit if current global shortages continue.

    Reference: New York Times, 12/20/12, "A Helium Shortages Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky."

  2. Eric J. Redemann | January 16, 2013

    This disk drive idea is over a decade old with USA patent applications dating back into the late 1990s. To my recollection, Seagate, West Digital, and IBM among others have played with this at times. The obvious technical skill-difficulty is sealing the housing to keep the helium inside. Hydrogen will work even better than helium but is even harder to seal since it goes right though many metals. The benefits come from using gases having lower viscosity and higher thermal conductivity – even methane would be an improvement over nitrogen or air.

  3. Tony | January 16, 2013

    Time will tell if this takes off and how the market compares this to Solid State Drives (SSD) where there are no moving parts and storage is treated like RAM.

  4. Rick Ricketts | January 17, 2013

    I am a seal specialist and I work in the San Jose area and with several disk drive companies. Helium is so small that it permeates through the seal. Slowly but surly. there would have to be a double seal with the draw in between going back in the box or maybe the box is sealed up tight with epoxy and it's a one time use. I will be interested to learn how they seal these drives

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