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ECS Production Tour 2005: How to build a mainboard, ECS style

by Ryszard Sommefeldt on 24 June 2005, 00:00

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You know the mainboard in your PC? Yeah, that's right, the component that you plug everything else into that's screwed to your case. Have you ever thought about how it's made and put together? If not, sit and have a think for a couple of minutes before you carry on reading. Done that? It's pretty logical if you think about it, right? You need a PCB, then you need holes in the right places on that PCB for all the components, hopefully with labels so you know what goes where. Then you simply need to place the components on the mainboard and solder them on. Provided that's all be done properly, you test to make sure it works and if it does, sell it to someone.

I sat and pondered the same things when Elitegroup Computer Systems, known to most folks that read HEXUS as ECS or Elitegroup, invited me to their PCB and mainboard production facilities in China. I knew instinctively how you'd make a PCB, and then the full mainboard based on a PCB design and layout, but after thinking about it, post-invite, I was intrigued to see the details of production. How much would be automated? How much would humans have to do? I've made rudimentary two-layer PCBs at university before, as part of my CompSci course all those years ago, but how's a complex six-layer mainboard PCB produced? They surely use something a bit more advanced than acid baths to produce the solder mask and joining the layers surely takes more than a couple of G-clamps? What about drilling the holes? There's a few thousand on the average desktop mainboard, so how are they drilled?

Lots of questions that the factory tours would hopefully answer, so that I could come back to the UK and let you know how it's done. In many ways, an article about mainboard production makes much more interesting reading than something on a new graphics chip, or a new CPU, so I looked forward to the trip, the tours, and this subsequent collection of keystrokes moreso than I've looked forward to writing about anything at HEXUS in a long time. Tired and jaded old hacks need something to spice up their tech lives every now and again.

And the questions were most definitely answered, digicam shots of the plants were taken, mainboards were seen being made, PCBs being born were witnessed and I've done my best to wrap it all up so you can see how it's done. Before we start, a bit about ECS the company.

Elitegroup Computer Systems

Did you know that ECS make more mainboards than anyone else? Thought ASUS was the biggest mainboard vendor on the planet? Well they are, but only in terms of sales of their own branded boards. If you were to add up all the sales of all the boards ECS make for themselves and for their customers, ASUS would look a wee bit weak in comparison. The chances are that you've sat down at a PC with an ECS-produced mainboard in it more than once in your life, whether you realise it or not.

Capacity for production is over two million mainboards per month, and ECS regularly make that many. ECS respectfully request that we don't name their customers, since those customers don't even know who else uses ECS for manufacture, but rest assured that it's a veritable who's who in the PC mainboard game, with a couple of vendors on the list that you might be shocked to learn don't produce all their own products.

Nearly 100% of ECS's mainboard production happens in the ShenZhen economic district of China, a stone's throw from Hong Kong. In days gone by, ECS's Taiwanese mainboard production facility did a fair chunk of manufacture, but these days it's limited to bringing up prototypes of new products and one-off runs of various things, before mass production is handed off to ECSM (ECS Manufacturing) and the various plants in China.

ShenZhen provides ECS with manufacturing capacity close to Taiwan, with the financial incentives that come from working in a special trade zone within China. They've got offices all over the world, including the U.K. (hi Andrew!), Taiwan, Japan, Germany, Canada and the U.S., working to provide ECS with a world-wide sales presence for the mainboards and other products produced in Asia.

In terms of square feet, ECS are aiming for production capacity that exceeds 3,000,000ft² (if they're not already there) which includes anything from 4 to 14-layer PCBs and makes them the largest global supplier of OEM PCBs into the computing sector.

The businesses within ECS, including ECSM, are all separate entities. For example the ECS PCB production company is an individual entity worth some $45,000,000, selling PCBs to ECSM to turn into mainboards. That lets the PCB manufacturing company have its own OEM customers outside of ECS, while still retaining ECS as its biggest customer, without compromising the privacy of those OEM customers. If ECSM are making OEM mainboards for another company, they can do that without the larger parent company having to organise or finance things, and they don't have to use PCBs provided by the PCB company, if the OEM customer doesn't require it.

All in all, a seemingly well organised group of companies that work together under a large corporate umbrella, making more mainboards and more PCB area than anyone else in the PC business.

With all that said, want to see how they make a mainboard?