As part of its Open Overclocking Championship, Gigabyte gave participants and media an all-access tour of its main factory in Taiwan. Although we’ve brought you motherboard factory tours before, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a peek behind the scenes at Gigabyte’s production line. Read on to see how the motherboard you might be using at this very moment came into being.
Booties and slideshows
Gigabyte’s main factory in Taiwan is located in an industrial area known as Nan-Ping, which is about 40 minutes from downtown Taipei.
As we arrived, the complex looked like, well, any other factory. The building was colorful, though, just like Gigabyte’s famously somewhere-between-blue-and-green motherboards.
Everyone was asked to cover their shoes with light blue slip-on covers to keep tracked-in dirt to a minimum. With our shoes safely encased, we descended into the depths of the facility.
To start, we all were introduced to the products Gigabyte makes via a slideshow and video presentation. There was even a company introduction video, and if you’re interested in seeing it (warning: it’s about as cheesy as a company introduction video can get) I’ve uploaded it to Google Video.
The most relevant part of the introductory presentation was an explanation of the stages a motherboard goes through before it’s shipped out. Gigabyte actually receives printed circuit boards (PCBs) in a partially prepared state, with the traces and drilling already completed. This sets boards up for the SMT stage of the process, which gives boards a solder print job before peppering them with surface-mounted components like resistors.
The SMT floor is filled with machines that autonomously handle most of the steps in this initial stage of production. The first of these machines is the solder paste printer, which prepares the traced PCB for component placement by spreading a thin layer of conductive solder onto the substrate through a stencil.
The next stop is the component gun, which places up to 10 components per second on each board in a dizzying display of mechanical engineering at its finest.
Components are loaded into the gun on reels, just like bullets in an ammo belt. Keep in mind that each of these resistors or microchips is only a few millimeters across; every reel pictured below contains thousands of parts.
During the reflow soldering process, components placed by the rapid-fire gun are loosely soldered into place so basic testing can be done. If you want a good read on the details of this stage of the process, Wikipedia has a nice article on the subject.
After surface-mounted components are loosely anchored, it’s time for the boards to be inspected. The first step of this process is done by hand, with a relatively small group of people performing a visual inspection of each board to ensure that nothing is obviously wrong.
Our tour guide explained that while automation in testing has come a very long way in this industry, there are certain things that humans are simply better at detecting quickly, like a burnt area of a PCB or a component that has been rotated slightly. For this reason, visual inspections are still an integral part of the assembly procedure. Certain machines are used in conjunction with these inspections to minimize defective boards, though.
One of those machines is the optical tester, which takes many pictures of a board and uses specialized optical recognition software to analyze the photos for missing or improperly installed components.
Instead of simply flagging boards as good or bad, the optical tester produces a detailed report of problem areas for a quick diagnosis.
Large testing devices like the Miko-Kings TR-518FE check boards against a given template to ensure that each component is electrically connected.
As the brightly-colored sign indicates, this area handles the DIP stage of the assembly process.
Before anyone is allowed into this area of the factory, they must go through specialized cleaning chambers. Air showers blast about four people at a time for a few seconds to cleanse them of loose debris.
This stage of motherboard assembly tackles larger components like heatsinks, I/O ports, and expansion cards slots, which can easily be fitted by hand.
Fresh from the SMT floor, boards enter the DIP stage ready for all the other components to be placed. A single, long line handles the construction for every board of the same model number. Conveyor belts take each motherboard along the path, while workers place just one type of component on each board.
The workers rotate so everyone gets a chance to take a break, but the constant stream of production never lets up. They also switch stations somewhat regularly to keep from doing the same thing over and over again.
At the tail end of the initial assembly line is the wave soldering machine, in which pin-through components are electrically and mechanically connected in one step.
Wave soldering is an impressive process to watchan entire vat of solder is kept in liquid form and directed to flow such that it just barely touches the pins on the bottom side of each motherboard.
Components mounted to the bottom side of a board have to be put on after the wave soldering process, and they can only be surface-mounted.
Since the solder doesn’t have to be directed to each component individually, motherboards can continuously move through the machine, greatly increasing production rates. Several large fans cool the motherboards quickly after they leave the soldering machine for the final steps of assembly.
While the other components are each handled by a single person, larger parts that require a secure connection through the motherboard are installed by a team of workers.
Our final destination was the testing floor. Here, each motherboard is tested to some degree, with random samples pulled for more intensive examination.
It’s worth noting that every single motherboard is tested both electrically and with a quick POST check with specialized automated testing machines.
These machines are designed to simulate an entire computer being powered on to test, and they probe pretty much every interface on the motherboard to make sure it’s working properly. Large readouts give technicians a visual cue when something is awry.
Automated testing wouldn’t prevent a batch from leaving the factory with a bug in a particular component or process, though, so a percentage of boards are chosen at random for more rigorous inspection. Here, technicians power on a complete system and boot into operating systems (we saw both Windows XP and specialized testing environments) to test extended functionality.
Last but not least, each board undergoes a basic visual inspection before it’s passed on to either the retail box line or direct shipment to OEM customers.
Each retail box begins its journey as a flat piece of cardboard that is shaped in the automatic box makers. These puppies can each churn out a box every couple of seconds.
The empty boxes speed along belts to join the inspected motherboards. This last assembly line of workers simply places all the necessary pieces into each box, including the board itself, manuals, and other accessories.
OEM parts, on the other hand, are packed in shipping crates between slices of foam, ready to be sent off in bulk to their final destination.
Before finally leaving the factory, product cartons are aggregated into large shipping boxes that are individually weighed. The weight of each box is very consistent unless something is missing or included by accident, allowing a final team of factory inspectors to correct any errors before shipments leave the facility.
It was certainly enlightening to see the steps involved in making a motherboard, and I hope you’ve gained some insight on what it takes to build what is arguably one of the most important system components for enthusiasts.
In the front lobby, current models and past flagships are both on display
This particular facility produces more than 400,000 motherboards each month (and over 300,000 graphics cards on top of that), so exacting standards and careful testing are both needed to ensure that products leaving the factory live up to the high standard of quality we’ve come to expect from Gigabyte. We’ve been quite impressed with the last few generations of Gigabyte boards to pass through our labs, and it’s nice to get a peek at how those boards were made.