While we were in Taiwan covering Computex, ECS whisked us away for a quick tour of its manufacturing facilities in China and showed us exactly how these motherboards are built. We saw it all, from traces being etched onto individual PCB layers, to the mounting of surface components like DIMM slots and capacitors, all the way through testing and retail packaging. Join us as we walk through ECS’s Golden Elite Technology campus and witness the birth of a motherboard.
Golden Elite Technology
ECS’s Golden Elite Technology center is a brand new facility located in Shen Zhen, China. The facility’s actually only an hour and a half drive from Hong Kong, a location that allows ECS to easily ship products by land or air to the rest of the world.
Currently, Golden Elite has 1,500 employees, but that number is expected to grow to 5,000 by the end of the year and 8,000 by the end of 2007. There’s plenty of room for ECS to expand Golden Elite’s facilities, as well. The campus sits on a lot that measures 372,720 m² roughly the size of 69 football fields. Phase I of the facility is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year and offer a whopping 200,000 m² of floor space, with an additional 180,000 m² of floor space coming online in Phase II by the end of 2007.
With such a massive facility at its disposal, ECS will be able to build everything from motherboards to complete systems in one location. Even motherboard PCBs are manufactured on-site, giving Golden Elite the ability to assemble a complete system from the rawest of components. Component suppliers are close, as well. Travel time to ECS’s PCB and passive component suppliers is about a minute, and its connector suppliers are only 15 minutes away.
In addition to the close proximity of its component suppliers, there are other benefits to the Golden Elite plant’s location. Building in Shen Zhen, China gives ECS access to government tax reductions and exemptions in addition to R&D subsidies. The facility itself is a bonded factory, which allows ECS a level of autonomy for land use planning, construction, and even in-house customs. After the hoops we had to jump through just to get into China, it’s easy to see why ECS wants to handle customs in house.
Golden Elite’s motherboard manufacturing facilities are capable of building four- and six-layer RoHS-compliant boards. Currently, the plant has 16 active lines producing 800,000 motherboards per month. By year’s end, ECS expects to have 32 active lines producing 1.6 million units per month. Production is expected to scale to 2.4 million units per month by the end of 2007, when ECS bolsters the number of active lines to 48.
As one might expect, the facility conforms to ISO 9001 and 14001 quality control requirements. In fact, Golden Elite also meets to the now-defunct MIL-STD-105E military quality control standard.
Perhaps the most interesting part of our ECS factory tour was a walk through the PCB production plant. This is the first stop on the line for a motherboard, where conductive copper traces are sandwiched between insulating substrate layers.
PCB production begins with etching. Here, traces are carved into the first layer of copper to coat the top and bottom of the board.
Automated machines do this to multiple boards with almost frightening speed, and ECS has plenty of them going simultaneously.
After its first layer is etched, the boards are chemically cleaned and rinsed—a process that’s repeated throughout the manufacturing process.
Boards then go to a lamination stage where they get an extra layer of substrate and copper on each side. Then they’re cured, trimmed, and have their edges beveled.
Drilling follows, which is essential for not only connecting some surface-mounted components, but also for linking various layers of the board. You need holes to mount the board in an enclosure, too.
Throughout the process, boards are subjected to numerous automated and manual inspections.
After the boards are drilled, the holes are coated with a thin layer of copper. That’s soon thickened by an additional copper plating process before the boards go off to have traces grafted to their new layers.
Finally, the boards move onto a solder-masking stage. Holes are plugged, the boards are dyed the desired color, and labels and logos are added to the outer surfaces. They then head off to final finishing before being subjected to a last visual inspection and electrical test.
With a motherboard’s printed circuit board complete, the process moves to PCBA manufacturing. Here, the motherboards begin to resemble a finished product.
Boards are assembled in racks and fed through a surface-mount technology (SMT) machine that populates them with components.
Surface-mounted components are stored on massive reels that are fed into automated machines.
Those machines are capable of mounting approximately seven components per second. Mounting TSOP, BGA, and other chips is a little slower; the machines populate boards with those chips at a measly two chips per second.
Once they’re populated by the SMT machines, boards proceed to a reflow oven. From there, it’s on to a visual inspection.
Boards are also fed through an X-Ray machine that examines components that aren’t covered by the visual inspection. Then, an in-circuit test validates roughly 90% of the board. This test probes between 1300 and 1600 test points in about 12 seconds.
Once this automated assembly validation is complete, the boards move onto manual assembly. Here, workers populated the boards with components by hand.
And I’ve never seen faster hands.
Larger components, such as ports, slots, and even capacitors are installed by hand.
Once a board’s component diet is filled, everything’s soldered in place and baked to perfection.
Boards are then cooled before final assembly takes place.
Final assembly is rather short, with only a few components being added after the oven. Next, it’s on to a final visual inspection before boards are run through a number of test stations.
There are three stages to ECS’s testing regime, and each test is applied to every board on the line. First, boards are subjected to a basic power-on test. A functional verification in DOS follows.
After the DOS test comes a more comprehensive Windows XP functionality verification test. If a board passes all three tests, it moves on to final packaging.
During the packaging stage, the board is boxed, bundles are packed, and stickers are applied. This is the final stop for most boards before they’re shipped off. However, ECS also randomly samples 1% of the boards that come off the line for additional inspection and compatibility testing.
Compatibility testing includes loops through 3DMark2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2003. 0.2% of boards that come off the line are also subjected to a 72-bour burn-in test consisting of 3DMark2001 looping in an environment that ranges in temperature from 30 to 55 degrees Celsius. Ongoing reliability tests with more extreme environments are also conducted with select boards. These tests push temperatures from -40 to 150 degrees Celsius with between 10% and 90% humidity. ECS even simulates transportation, including a drop test that examines how well a packed board can withstand physical shock.
We didn’t spend as much time touring ECS’s system manufacturing facilities at Golden Elite, but we did get to see some notebook assembly. More impressive, however, was a burn-in room used to test row upon row of assembled systems.
ECS builds complete systems for numerous clients, and while we can’t reveal the brands of systems we saw, suffice to say we saw a lot of familiar logos.
We also saw a rather curious briefing given by one of the team leaders. Before every shift, a team leader will outline the goals for the day while employees stand at attention, listening intently. I’m used to seeing a fair bit of goofing off in the workplace, or at least some idle conversation, but that was strangely absent from ECS’s Golden Elite factory. Workers performed their duties with an almost mechanical precision, barely taking notice of the dozen or so journalists on the tour. We darted up and down the line taking pictures and asking questions, but not once did our presence seem to slow anyone down.
ECS’s production capabilities are already impressive, and with the Golden Elite campus scheduled to be running at full capacity by the end of the year, production will increase by over a million motherboards per month. That’s a lot of mobos, and if ECS is able to tap successfully into the enthusiast market, that extra capacity will surely come in handy.