ECS Factory Tour
Reviewed by: Kash
Reviewed on: July 3, 2008
ECS Factory Tour:
I was invited by Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) to tour two of its factories. The first factory on tour was the PCB production facility. The second was the motherboard assembly plant. We were shown the many steps a motherboard goes through from inception to final product.
Join me in an in depth look at how the core piece of silicon in your computer is made.
While we first visited the Motherboard Assembly plant as it was closer to the hotel, I will begin with the PCB Production plant as that is where the motherboard truly begins life.
When we first arrived at the PCB Production plant, we were brought to a room with lecture hall style seating and were given a presentation on PCB production and the facility itself. The first part of the presentation provided us with the following information:
- The PCB Production facility was founded in 2005 as the manufacturing base of ECS
- The facility employs 4,500 people
- The facility produced 26 million motherboards in 2007, which accounts for 1 out of every 9 motherboards sold worldwide
- The facility has a water treatment plant on site, along with a campus that features employee and manager dormitories, a man made lake, grocery store, library, an activity center, and a dining hall
The second part of the presentation provided us with information more related to the manufacturing process itself.
- Several statistics were provided regarding production and equipment
- The aforementioned water treatment system was further explained. ECS has invested almost $3 million in its waste treatment system, for which it has won several awards
- The PCB production itself is as follows: Inner layer --> Lamination --> Drilling --> Copper Plating --> Outdoor Layer --> Solder Mask --> Final Inspection --> Product Storehouse
With the short presentation over, we were taken into the facility itself to start the tour. Note that the tour was not in the exact order in which a motherboard is created, which you will notice in comparison to the process described during the presentation.
First up on our tour was the Drilling Area.
This is the section where the middle two layers of a four layer PCB is made.
Next up on our tour was the Hot Press Room. As press, I can assure you, we were quite hot.
Moving along, we were brought to the Plating Line.
Following this was the Inner Layer Printing Material Room
Next up was the Exposure Room.
Which was followed by the Solder Mask Printing Area and Printing Ink Blend Room.
A Clean Room was up next.
The final production room was the Legend Printing Room.
The last leg of the tour focused less on production and more on inspection. The first part of this segment of the tour was the Negative Room.
This was followed by the Micro High Measurement Room and Tool & Instrument Room.
The last step in the PCB production facility was the Visual Inspection Room, with a Testing & Repair room nearby.
That concludes the PCB Production facility part of the ECS tour. Now that we have seen a PCB created from raw material, let's move on to the next facility where these boards are turned into the final products we know as motherboards.
The Motherboard Assembly plant was the first facility we visited, but it is actually the second half in the process of creating a motherboard.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted to a spacious lobby and an iconic red carpet.
The very first thing we had to do upon arriving at the facility was cover our shoes so as not to bring any contaminants into the assembly lines.
Like at the PCB Production plant, we were ushered into a conference room and given a presentation.
The room had a cabinet on one wall which contained several awards that ECS has won over the years. It was quite an impressive display.
Here are some of the highlights from the presentation:
- ECS was founded as a motherboard company in Taiwan in 1987
- ECS has 20,000 employees worldwide
- ECS has manufacturing facilities in China, Mexico, and the Czech Republic, with newly opened offices in Koreo and Russia
- ECS sells approximately 2 million motherboards per month, and is ranked #8 in BusinessWeek's InfoTech 100
- The Motherboard Assembly facility has six floors, three of which are dedicated to production lines
As we walked onto the production line floor, there was a sign that specifically pointed out that the products ECS manufactures are Lead free
Motherboard assembly is essentially like any other product that is put together on an assembly line, such as cars and retail computers. Here is the start of the line looking toward the end.
The PCBs are brought in from the PCB Production facility and loaded onto the assembly line.
First up is the Screen Printing process, where the traces on the motherboard are printed.
Once the traces are printed, the board moves on to the next step, where circuits and chips are added to the board. This was a very neat process, as you can see from the pictures. The chips come in rolls and are literally picked up by a robotic arm and printed to the board. It was the rolls that were most intriguing.
The resulting "chipped" board is inspected numerous times before moving on to the next step. It is first hand tagged as it comes out of the machine, and is then inspected by a computer that checks for visual alignment of all parts of the motherboard. It is then manually inspected by a person once the computer has deemed the board to be perfectly aligned.
The next part is where one really gets the assembly line feel. There are a row of workers who plug in various components on the motherboard - DIMM slots, I/O connectors, etc. - as the board rolls past them. The final person on this part of the line secures the components by tapping all of the parts in.
The board is then fed into a very hot machine, essentially an oven, containing molten solder. This is where all of the components that had been added in the previous step are soldered onto the board.
Once the board is out, it gets cooled and is then inspected and wiped down by hand. A worker then cuts off any excess solder on the bottom of the board.
The next step involves manually installing the Northbridge heatsink and the CMOS battery.
The next step is the one I was most impressed with. Each and every board that ECS manufacturers is tested to make sure it works. Now, the boards aren't simply tested to see if they POST, but are actually tested to the point of booting into Windows itself. I've gotta admit, this is spectacular quality control. It is no wonder ECS is the number one motherboard manufacturer in the world.
The final step in the process is boxing. For OEM boards, they are wrapped in foam, placed in anti-static bags, and then places into boxes. Retail boards get a little more attention, as they not only get the wrapping, but they also get all of the fancy packaging before getting loaded into boxes.
That wraps it up for motherboard assembly. The final leg of this tour brought us to the R&D and Testing section.
Testing and R&D:
Once we were done with the Motherboard Assembly floors, we moved on up to the Testing and R&D floor. It is here that ECS creates and tests new products
The first room we were brought to had several large machines lined up against the walls. They were clearly labeled as to what their functions were.
The next room had several workers manually testing small chunks of completed motherboards.
In a small adjunct to the second room is where the cutting is done. Small squares are cut from the motherboard, baked into plastic, and then sanded down to be viewed under a microscope (as you saw in the pictures above).
Next up was the Function Analysis Lab, where as you can see, actual product testing was being done.
The final room on the Testing and R&D floor was the Reliability Test Area. This is essentially physical testing of motherboards to see if they can withstand events such as falling and vibrating.
That concludes the ECS factory tour!
That was quite a tour! I saw firsthand how a motherboard goes from raw material to a packaged product, with several eye opening steps in between. I never knew how many steps were involved in producing the actual PCB itself, and it was quite evident in the length of that part of the tour. The assembly part was also quite intriguing, with a single motherboard going from start to finish in a matter of minutes. I can see how ECS makes a claim of producing around 2 million boards a month with the number of assembly lines and people working each of them. The testing of each and every was what really impressed me. I was under the impression that only some of the boards would be randomly tested with the vast majority of them going straight into boxes. With ECS, not only is every board tested to ensure it works, but the company also goes ahead and stress tests random boards to verify strict quality control methods are being followed. What was neat about the stress testing was that ECS was running 3DMark, Quake, and other popular tests that we enthusiasts use to benchmark our hardware. Overall, I found myself with a newfound respect for the quality of products coming out of ECS factories.
During the tour, we inquired about the employees working for ECS. Some of the information was quite surprising. The employees work an average of eight hours per day, making approximately $120 USD per month. ECS has on-campus dormitories, which cost only $10 per month to rent per person, with anywhere from four to eight people living in each dormitory, depending on one's ranking. As stated earlier, the campus is essentially a small town in and of itself. When taking into consideration the fact that Shenzhen is essentially a factory town, that there isn't much to do outside the confines of the factory, and that a good portion of the workers are from small towns, this is all a pretty good deal for the employees. Also, while it may seem as though the workers are confined to the campus, they are most certainly free to come and go as they please. Though as I mentioned, there isn't really much incentive to leave unless one is going back home to visit family. A couple of last notes on the employees: the average age of the workers is between 18 and 22, with a turnover rate of only 5-6%. Overall, ECS is a pretty good place to work for the local Chinese.
After having gone through the tour and seen the methods ECS uses in producing its products, for retail and OEM (unfortunately, I cannot divulge for which companies ECS is an OEM manufacturer), I would highly recommend ECS products. Also, the high quality of workmanship can easily be seen in the products produced by companies who use ECS as an OEM motherboard manufacturer as many, if not all, of these companies are well reknowned for their high quality products. With the number one motherboard manufacturer providing the foundation for their products, it is easy to see why.