On the factory floor
Oh, right, the factory tour. There isn't much to say, really. We saw a series of graphics cards and Zbox systems being built by an army of men and women clad in matching anti-static smocks. Some were tasked with installing parts like output ports and heatsinks, which are better attached with human hands. Others performed visual inspections of products fresh from the SMT machines or solder ovens. If touch-up work is required, workers are ready with soldering irons. Each product that passes through the line also gets an automated inspection, and temporary RFID tags are used to cut down on human error. The factory even has an X-ray machine that can inspect products on a much deeper level.
According to Zotac, the factory has a failure rate of less than 100 parts per million, or 0.01%. That doesn't take into account failures attributed to defects within individual components, though. Zotac does claim that dedicated production capacity gives it better batch-to-batch consistency than competitors whose cards are built by contract manufacturing firms. Being able to piggyback onto PC Partner's bulk orders for components like capacitors helps to reduce costs, as well.
Every product that rolls off the line gets a full battery of functionality tests. For Zbox nettops, that includes everything from system diagnostics in Windows to popping an SD card into the associated slot. Graphics cards get 3D, 2D, and video playback tests. High-end cards also get burned in with an hour of 3DMark.
In addition to the standard gauntlet of tests, Zotac pulls samples off the line for more intensive scrutiny. Using giant incubators, these quality assurance tests cycle through different combinations of high and low temperatures and voltages. Parts are also subjected to varying humidity levels, and there's an accelerated five-year test that runs graphics cards in an 85°C environment with 85% humidity for six straight days. Steamy. The factory even has a shaker table to test how well packaging cushions products during shipping.
Our tour was cut short before we had a chance to tour the motherboard wing, but at that point we were all high on solder fumes and dripping with sweat thanks to layers of anti-static gear. Besides, the workers had already been kept on shift past their usual lunch break to serve as subjects for the staccato of DSLR snapshots that ensue when you let journalists loose in a factory filled with fancy machinery and half-built PC components. You can find more than 40 shots of the factory in the associated image gallery below.
AMD founder Jerry Sanders once famously stated that "real men have fabs." The chipmaker has since spun its fabrication business off as GlobalFoundries, but there's still something to be said for owning one's production capacity. Not every graphics card or motherboard maker can make that claim, putting Zotac in a rather exclusive club. If the company can put its R&D department to good use and continue producing unique and desirable products, it may not be long before PC Partner needs to fill the compound's fourth warehouse with additional SMT lines.