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A tour of Abit's factory

We watch how a mobo is made

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I toured Abit's factory in Suzhou, China. Located a little over an hour outside of Shanghai, Suzhou has a population about the size of metropolitan Kansas City. Of course, in China, this city of over a million souls is relatively small.

Don't let me get started on the mind-blowing size, scope, and growth of nearby Shanghai. This port city, teeming with nearly 20 million people, is almost incomprehensible. One might think someone had dropped a 200-megaton capitalism bomb on the place at the end of the Cold War, touching off an ongoing transformation. Skyscrapers are sprouting up like dandelions. Cranes dominate the skyline, working in packs, feverishly, as if to complete construction of some unseen plan before some untold deadline. The tens or hundreds of commercial skyscrapers are complemented by an equal or greater number of high-rise apartment buildings to house all the workers. Shanghai is like New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh all jammed together, while construction companies work at breakneck pace to add in Houston and Seattle, as well.

Shanghai's Pudong area at night

Abit's factory is located close to all the action, but far enough out that there's space for this sprawling factory complex.

A model of Abit's factory complex

The complex itself was built for growth, and not all of the available space is yet dedicated to production lines.

Abit built its factory here, of course, for the same reason nearly every major international manufacturing company has established a beachhead in China: cheap labor. From what I gather, typical wages for factory workers run from $80 to $100 per month. At these rates, business is booming. Entire cities are known for specializing in certain types of manufacturing, for everything from injection molding to cut granite. In what appears to be a typical arrangement at a Chinese factory, most of Abit's workers live near the factory, in apartment buildings situated around a residential quad area, as you can see in the picture below. Notice the tennis and basketball courts, as well.

The apartment complexes for Abit's workers surround a common quadrangle

As a Taiwanese company, Abit's ability to invest directly in China is limited by Chinese government regulations. To finesse the rules, Taiwanese companies team up with locals to create Chinese subsidiaries. Abit's China subsidiary is named Rolly, which is why you may see the Rolly name on pictures in the following pages. Just looking at the signs in and around the factory, you might not know this is Abit's facility.

Outside the Rolly factory

Like so many things in and around Shanghai, the Rolly factory is relatively new. Mass production first started there in March, 1999, and a whole stack of ISO certifications followed in the subsequent months. Today, the facility has a total of 1378 employees, and just this year, the factory reached a new milestone with the beginning of lead-free production lines to meet upcoming EU standards.

Building a bulletproof motherboard
If you're wondering what goes into the production of a top-notch board like the excellent KV8 Pro we recently reviewed, the answer is: more than you might realize. Abit took some time during the tour to explain the measures it uses to ensure product quality.

Like a number of mobo makers, Abit was burned pretty badly a few years back when it sourced a bunch of low-quality capacitors for its motherboards. Those capacitors didn't hold up over time; they began leaking, and lots of boards met a premature demise as a result. To prevent a repeat of this scenario, Abit has committed itself to using 100% high-quality Japanese capacitors on its new products.

Beyond sourcing high-quality components, Abit has developed a six-step methodology for testing its motherboards to ensure quality, as well as incorporating quality checks at various stages of its production lines. To give you some idea of the scope of the resources devoted to quality control, Abit says 11% of its workforce in this factory is dedicated to quality.

The six steps in Abit's testing process range from common sense to comical, including compatibility testing with a range of common PC components, burn-in and environmental tests, long-term operational testing, and the dramatic vibration and dropping tests. Each test has a clearly defined methodology and sample rate. For instance, the vibration test uses a "shaking machine" that vibrates the boards from 10 to 60Hz in 10-minute intervals for a total of 60 minutes each. After the vibes die down, each board is checked to see whether it still operates. If failure rates are too high, the factory will tweak the production process to fix the problem. The sample rate for this test is 30 pieces per motherboard model per day. Other tests have lower sample rates because of the equipment invovled. The environmental test, for instance, requires an environmental chamber, so only three samples per model per day are tested.