Just before we embarked on a journey to Zotac’s production facility in Dongguan, China, Senior Vice President of Latin American Sales John Engle explained his absence from the tour with this tasty nugget: “When you’ve seen one SMT line, you’ve seen them all.” Amen. SMT, of course, refers to surface-mount technology—a term used to describe the production of motherboards, graphics cards, and pretty much everything riding on a circuit board. Regardless of what’s being made, the machinery and methods are pretty similar.
Having seen my first SMT line even before I began reviewing PC hardware and having witnessed a few others since, I can tell you Engle is right on the money. What makes Zotac’s SMT lines different is the fact that, well, they’re Zotac’s. Unlike some graphics card and motherboard makers, Zotac doesn’t contract manufacturing firms to put its products together. Zotac has production capacity of its very own by virtue of being a wholly owned subsidiary of manufacturing giant PC Partner.
Formed in 1997, PC Partner says it’s one of the top five contract manufacturers in the PC business. The Zotac brand is a relatively new endeavor, having been created just four years ago. This “premiere” brand was designed to make PC Partner less reliant on its, er, partners, some of whom compete with Zotac directly.
Zotac is perhaps best known for reinvigorating the market for Mini-ITX motherboards. The company’s nettops have been pretty good, too, and we’re particularly fond of the barebones models that come sans hard drive, memory, and operating system. We’ve also been impressed by a number of the company’s graphics cards.
During the brief presentation before our factory tour, Zotac was keen to point out that its business is growing all over the world. The brand is most successful in Europe, but it’s experiencing rapid growth in India and China, with the latter particularly fond of Mini-ITX mobos. Japan and Australia have also proven to be fertile ground for Zotac’s midget motherboards, the company says. While enthusiasts may scoff at low-end Mini-ITX boards and Zbox systems with lowly Atom processors, commercial and industrial clients are apparently snapping the things up for digital signage and other applications.
As PC Partner’s crown jewel, Zotac doesn’t stoop to offering OEM or “whitebox” products. Everything comes in full retail packaging, and Zotac realizes customer support and warranty coverage are essential parts of the equation. If you didn’t happen to register for your graphics card’s lifetime warranty within the first 30 days, as required, Zotac will still try to take care of you. There are also plans for customer support to be available 24/7 via phone, chat, email, and even text messaging.
The Zotac brand has become so popular for PC Partner that it commissioned a new factory specifically to handle expanding production. This facility was built 2.5 years ago, and we were the first North American journalists to get a peek inside.
The factory itself spans four warehouses, only three of which are currently in use. One building handles graphics cards, the other does systems, and the final one tackles motherboards. Of the 45 SMT lines in operation, 10-15 are dedicated to Zotac products at any given time. 6,000 workers man the lines, which are capable of cranking out two million units per month. Employees commonly work 10-hour shifts (two hours are paid overtime) six days a week. According to PC Partner, the workers would seek employment elsewhere if they were restricted to just 40 hours a week. Wages range from 1,800-2,000 RMB (around $300 USD) per month, which is claimed to be competitive with similar factories in the region.
While the Dongguan facility is responsible for manufacturing, Zotac maintains offices in Hong Kong and Shen Zhen, China. These locations house over 230 R&D engineers who Zotac believes are essential to remaining competitive. Most of the engineering talent comes from China, largely because new university graduates there are cheaper to hire than those from other countries.
We quizzed Zotac about what those engineers might be working on and were told to expect more GeForce graphics cards. An exclusive agreement with Nvidia on that front gets Zotac preferential pricing on GPUs. As an added bonus, building Radeon-based graphics cards for other companies hedges PC Partner against a particularly dominating round of AMD GPUs.
Although its graphics card lineup may be doused in green, Zotac’s motherboards and nettops use silicon from several chipset vendors. CPUs from AMD, Intel, and even Via make appearances in the Zbox line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something with Nvidia’s upcoming ARM-based Project Denver CPU, either.
Apart from a brief flirtation with Intel’s X58 Express chipset, Zotac has largely confined its motherboard efforts to the Mini-ITX realm. That’s set to change in “the very near future,” though. Zotac is looking to expand into enthusiast-class ATX boards again, and the upcoming Intel X79 platform looks like a prime candidate. Taking on perennial enthusiast favorites in their natural habitat will be a stiff challenge, and Zotac will need a full-featured UEFI implementation to run with the big dogs. The BIOS on its X58-based board was woefully inadequate for the task, and Asus has set the bar of expectations high with its latest UEFI implementations.
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.