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Kingston Factory Tour (Hsinchu, Taiwan)

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MAC

Associate Review Editor
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Montreal
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Kingston Factory Tour
(Hsinchu, Taiwan)




Before we begin, for those of you unfamiliar with Kingston, they are the largest independent memory manufacturer in the world, by far. Starting from very humble beginnings in 1987, Kingston is now one of the 100 largest privately-held companies in the world, has annual revenues over $4 billion, and around 4,500 employees worldwide. According to iSuppli, Kingston held a 40% share of the DRAM market in 2009. To put that into perspective, the closest competitor, A-DATA, came in at only 7.4%. They are also ranked second in the USB drive market and third in the flash market. The reason this is so impressive is that Kingston is an independent memory company which means that they aren't affiliated to any of the large memory chip makers (Elpida, Hynix, Micron, Samsung, Toshiba, etc), nor do they fabricate their own ICs. Instead Kingston buys memory chips and assembles various memory products at their four global manufacturing facilities, one of which is the Hsinchu factory that is the focus of this article.


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Early last month during the Computex 2010 expo a group of journalists from Europe and North America got an opportunity to check tour Kingston's manufacturing facility in Hsinchu, Taiwan to see get an inside look at how flash media and DIMM modules are manufactured, assembled and tested. This city is about an hour southwest of Taipei, and it is home to an industrial park hosting some of biggest factories and most important companies in Taiwan such as BenQ, D-Link, Logitech, Lite-On, Logitech, Powerchip, ProMOS, Realtek, TSMC, and UMC.

Regrettably, just as we pulled up the skies opened up and it started raining, so it was not possible to get a proper picture of the front of the building, but here is a stock photograph of Kingston's Taiwan-based Hsinchu factory. Although the factory is not particularly wide it is surprisingly long, and you will see why in the coming pages.


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Kingston had programmed their welcome sign to list the name of all the journalists present or at least all of those who were supposed to be present. Everyone took pictures of and huddled around this sign like moths to a bugzapper, yours truly included.

Next we walked into the spacious lobby where we collected the visitor badges that we needed to wear in order to gain access to the factory area. Once we passed the security check point, we were ushered to a conference room on the second floor where we were given full length white coveralls and disposable booties. Needless to say that cleanliness is imperative in a manufacturing environment. Once we had our new attire on, the group was split into three each with its own tour guide.

In the following pages we'll check out Kingston's memory module manufacturing process, their quality assurance labs, flash assembly & testing, as well as the packaging & shipping floor.
 

MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,086
Location
Montreal
SMT Line

SMT Line



Of the 64 surface mount technology (SMT) lines that Kingston has globally, 12 are at the Hsinchu facility. This particular factory has 90% of production capacity dedicated towards manufacturing memory modules, with the remaining 10% focused on flash memory products.

As the name suggests, SMT is a method by which small electrical components are mounted directly onto the surface of printed circuit boards (PCBs). This is a more modern method than the traditional through-hole technology which requires the electrical components to have leads/pins which are inserted through pre-drilled holes and then soldered to the PCB.


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The production floor that we were brought too had about a half-dozen SMT lines dedicated solely to producing memory modules. Since each fully automated line can assemble approximately 6000 memory modules every 5 hours, and are run 24 hours per day, the overall output is quite impressive.

Although fully automated production wise, there is a healthy number of staff on-hand to help reload the machines with SMT reels and just generally keep an eye on the whole process to ensure that it runs without any unnecessary stoppages.


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Production starts off with the uncut, bare printed circuit boards (PCBs). In this example, we have SO-DIMM boards that will eventually be cut into 12 memory modules.

In the first step, these uncut PCBs go into the solder-paste printer where a precise amount of solder is applied directly to the board.


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Once pasted, the full-size PCBs are transported via conveyor belt to the SMT (surface mounting technology) machines that install capacitors, resistors, SPD EEPROMs, and memory chips onto the PCBs at unbelievable speeds.

The memory chips, resistors, and etc are all fed into the machine by the white SMT reels which can contain hundreds (if not thousands) of tiny electrical components.


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Once all the surface mounted components have been placed on the PCB, the boards are then fed into a oven and baked at 220°C. This hardens the solder and melts the memory ICs solder pads so that all the components are securely mounted to the surface of the PCB.


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Once the electrical components have been properly baked into place, the still uncut PCB is then fed into a scanning machine, which quickly examines the PCB to ensure that nothing is missing and that every little piece is exactly where it should be.


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Next up is the labeling machine, which places branding and specification stickers on each individual memory module on the still uncut PCB.


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After being labeled, the PCB is finally cut into 12 individual SO-DIMM memory modules.


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Last but not least, the individual SO-DIMMs are lined up, ready to be counted and put into memory trays.

The true final step in the production process is when the modules are transferred to an SPD (serial presence detect) machine that will write the frequency and latency timings information onto the modules EEPROM chips.
 

MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
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Messages
1,086
Location
Montreal
QA Labs

QA Labs



Once fully assembled and SPD programmed, the memory modules are then brougth to the Quality Assurance (QA) Labs to see whether they actually work as intended. Our guide told us that Kingston tests an astonishing 120,000 modules per day in this facility, and that the defect rate is a miniscule 0.4%, with most defects being fixable.

Although not visible, this floor also contains a hot room where the memory modules are tested in environmental temperatures of up to 65°C.


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At best guess there are probably 1,000 systems set up in this room just for the stress-testing memory modules. It's a simple process really, the SO-DIMM modules are installed into special adapters and mounted onto a open-air system comprised of a regular desktop motherboard and regular off-the-shelf components. A proprietary Memtest-like utility would then run for approximately 14 minutes (on 2GB modules) and display a PASS or FAIL warning on the LCD displays. As mentioned above, the fail rate is a tiny 0.4% and I don't see any failures while I was there.


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Although testing on open-air systems is obviously the easiest solution, Kingston had a 100 or so notebooks from various manufacturers, where the SO-DIMMs were being stress tested in their 'natural environment'.


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Modules that fail are examined my Kingston technicians who then attempt to repair any cosmetic defects with a little touch-up work. Once the touch-up is completed, the modules are run through the stress-testing gauntlet once again to see if they will pass.

The modules that passed the first time around and ready to be packaged & shipped.
 

MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,086
Location
Montreal
Flash Assembly & Testing

Flash Assembly & Testing




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Since the Hsinchu facility's manufacturing capabilities are split into 90% memory and 10% flash production, the Flash Assembly and Testing floor wasn't quite as bustling as the others, but we still got a good idea of what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to products like USB flash drives, solid state drives, and Secure Digital (SD) flash cards.


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From what I recall, this is a very impressive and versatile machine, since it assembles, inspects, and labels up to 40,000 USB flash drives per day. Flash assembly is not all automatic and machine-based though, there were Kingston workers manually assembling Secure Digital (SD) flash cards. Needless to say that it's a very simple process, the employees take the PCBs with the flash memory on it and then sandwich them between the front and back plastic casings. Once the SD cards are assembled they are sealed shut with a proprietary infrared soldering method.


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This floor was also dedicated towards flash QA testing, and that is where this apparatus comes into play. 24 SD cards are placed on the bottom half of this device, and then the top part is lowered until it touches the metal contact points on the SD cards. This allows Kingston to test all 24 units at once with whatever validation procedure they or a third-party company requires.


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While solid state drives were also being tested prior to final assembly, we were told that the majority of SSD production now took place at Kingston's facility in Shanghai.
 

MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,086
Location
Montreal
Packaging & Shipping

Packaging & Shipping



The last part of our tour was the shipping and package area on the ground floor. This is where all the individual components that are needed to make Kingston's products are stored, and where the fully assembled and tested memory modules and flash memory products end up before being shipped around the world.


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Aside from the people putting things into boxes, moving around boxes and doing paper work, pretty much everything at this level it automated. We were told that this facility had a very high inventory turnover rate, since generally speaking nothing sits on those selves longer than a few days.



Conclusion



This was first time that Hardware Canucks has had to opportunity to tour a facility that manufactures memory modules and flash memory products, and how lucky are we that it was a facility belonging to the most successful player in the memory module market. It is always enlightening to get a first hand look at the factories that make the products that we all take for granted, and from a reviewer's standpoint it was great to learn about the ins-and-outs of the production process. Getting to see how thorough Kingston's testing procedures are was particularly eye-opening, and I understand why they have no qualms offering a lifetime warranty on most of their memory products.

Maybe soon we'll get to see where Kingston's HyperX product line is developed at the company's global headquarters in Fountain Valley, California.
 
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