On our third day in Taiwan earlier this month, we left the hustle and bustle of the Computex show floor and hopped on a bus to Hsinchu, about 60 miles from the island-nation’s capital. Hsinchu’s Science and Industrial Park plays host to a great number of technology companiesBenQ, Lite-On, Realtek, TSMC, UMC, and many others. Among the bigger players at the park is Kingston; visiting its factory there was the purpose of our visit.
We arrived at our destination in the middle of the afternoon, dodging raindrops on the short path from the bus to the factory entrance. As we made our way into the big, beautifully decorated lobby, Kingston staffers issued RFID badges and beckoned us past the security turnstiles and into the elevator to the factory floors.
Upstairs, we entered a conference room and were given lab coats and shoe covers to wear. I was slightly embarrassed to be given an XXL garment, and my embarrassment only grew when I realized it was indeed the correct size. (Hey, I’m only a medium back home.) Kingston then gave us some instructions: we were to stick with the group, ask permission before taking photographs, and direct our questions to the tour guide, a company veteran who spoke in thickly accented English.
Our guide took us through several floors, starting with memory assembly and finishing at the ground-level warehouse, where assembled products are packed and shelved. From start to finish, the tour itself lasted about 45 minutes. Almost everywhere we went, workers seemed to scatter out of sightone woman actually ran out when we entered the memory testing area. The guide also didn’t dwell on specifics or the particular order of operations. Nevertheless, we managed to snap a healthy number of photos and gather a fair amount of details, giving us interesting insight into Kingston’s operations.
Before we go on, we should probably take a minute to introduce Kingston to the unacquainted. The company was born in 1987, quickly becoming one of the major catalysts of the transition from plain DIP memory chips to single-inline memory modules (SIMMs). Over the past 23 years, Kingston has grown from a small operation at co-founder David Sun’s home to the world’s biggest DRAM supplier by revenue. Data from market research firm iSuppli suggest Kingston garnered 40% of global DRAM revenue in 2009, while its closest competitor, A-Data, only secured 7.4%.
In addition to its strong foothold in the system memory business, Kingston continues to diversify its entries in the wild and wonderful world of flash memory. Kingston now produces USB thumb drives, SD cards, and solid-state drives, some of which we’ve had a chance to review. The factory we visited produces both RAM and flash memory, so we got to see both facets of the company’s operations.
Head on to the next page to see where the magic happens.
Kingston doesn’t actually manufacture memory chips; it merely assembles memory modules. Assembly begins with bare chips from the manufacturer…
…and some bare printed circuit boards (PCBs).
The boards you see in the photo above will be cut into 12 SO-DIMMs. Before that can happen, however, the boards must go through a solder-paste printer.
That contraption applies a layer of solder paste on top of which components can be mounted.
Once the solder paste is on, the still-uncut boards go through SMT (surface-mounting technology) machines that place the memory chips and other components, like resistors and capacitors. Those resistors and capacitors are fed into the machines by old-school-looking reels, which you can see above. We’re told these SMT devices operate around the clock.
With their components mounted, the boards go through an oven that melts the solder pads.
Then it’s off to the labeling machine, which applies familiar stickers on top of the modules. The circuit boards are still uncut at this stage.
SPD burning, testing, and inspection
After cutting, modules end up in black trays looking pretty much ready to go. But there’s still much to do. Oh yes.
Modules go into an SPD (serial-presence detect) burning machine, which programs information about the module, its rated speed, latency timings, etc. Without SPD settings, customers or end-users would have to configure each new memory module manually.
With their SPDs configured, modules move on to the testing farm. There, real PCs put the memory through its paces to make sure it doesn’t throw up errors or fail to work as advertised.
Not pictured: the high-temperature testing room, where modules are put through the wringer at temperatures of 55-60°C. The guide told us that Kingston tests a staggering 120,000 modules each day at this factory.
Factory workers also examine modules for cosmetic defects. According to our guide, only 0.4% of modules have such imperfections. By the end of this year, Kingston expects to have automatic inspection equipment in place to “assist” employees with this task.
Flash memory and the warehouse
We got a quick look at the part of this Kingston factory that handles flash memory. Here, the company takes care of assembly, inspection, and labeling, all with one machine. Ah, the wonders of technology.
Testing for SD cards happens on a different scale. See the device above? The part with the with exposed circuit boards and cables goes down and plugs into SD cards arranged vertically below, grabbing all of them simultaneously.
Above is a testing rig for solid-state drives. However, our guide informed us that most SSD production has moved to Kingston’s operation in Shanghai.
All the packing and shipping takes place on the ground floor. Here, we have an automated packing machine for micro-SD cards.
Once they’re packed and ready to go, Kingston products are placed on shelves like the ones above. They don’t stay long, though. According to our guide, the company has a turnaround of just four days on flash memory devices.
So, there you have it: the world’s biggest memory module vendor at work. If one thing surprised us during this visit, it was the apparent discrepancy between the size of the factory and the volume of products that goes through it. The place really wasn’t that big. Staffers also seemed somewhat scarce, even in areas outside the immediate vicinity of the guided tour.
We only caught a small glimpse of Kingston’s product assembly business, though. Based on what we heard during the tour, 80% of the system memory production from the factory we visited goes to Kingston’s “OEM” customersPC vendors, in other words. We didn’t get to see how Kingston produces memory aimed at retail sales, like those HyperX DIMMs with their fancy heatspreaders and low latency ratings. Maybe next time.