TEAM Group Memory Factory Tour
Last week we were invited to visit the TEAM Group factory here in Taipei, Taiwan. TEAM is a Taiwan based memory company with offices also located in Hong Kong and USA.
TEAM was established back in 1990 and until recently they had always focused on their OEM and value RAM business. Only recently has the company started focusing more of their efforts on producing overclocking RAM for the retail channel, which is why we become more interested in the company. TEAM's overclocking RAM maybe not be as well known as Corsair's XMS or OCZ's high performance memory but TEAM products are popular here in Taiwan and they are quickly becoming well known around the rest of the world.
TEAM produces a lot of different memory products from value RAM modules to flash cards and of course overclocking RAM, which they call "Xtreem Gaming RAM". Their series of gaming RAM includes their entry level Apollo series as well as High Frequency and Low Latency series products. We haven't tested any Xtreem memory yet but we are lead to believe that the performance is good. We'll be testing some in a large memory roundup, which will be posted on our website soon.
Today in this article we'll show you the production stages of a memory module from the very beginning until the point where it is ready to be shipped off to the customer. We'll also show you how memory is tested for stability before testing along with how heat spreaders are installed on TEAM's range of Xtreem memory modules.
We have visited many memory and motherboard company factories in the past years but it's interesting to see how these uber-expensive $400,000 USD (each!) robotic Surface Mount Technology (SMT, for short) machines have improved over the years - especially when you see the new Japanese high speed SMT lines, which TEAM Group use. They pick up and place chips on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board, for short) so fast that it's mind-blowing!
Editor Note: Please note throughout this article we'll be looking at the production of DDR and DDR-2 memory, as that was what was being produced when we visited the factory. Sometimes the photos aren't in exact order, so sometimes you will see DDR and sometimes you will see DDR-2. We'll mostly be following the production of older DDR memory.
First Stage - Programming SMT Computer
Programming the SMT Computer
The first stage of producing a memory module is programming the SMT computer, along with collecting the appropriate chips to be installed on the PCB.
It takes around 20 - 30 minutes to setup the machines for their first test run. In that time, the factory engineers program the computer with all the different settings, calibrate the SMT line and feed the SMT line with all the chips required to produce the module.
Once the machine is setup, the next step is to do a test run. This is to ensure that the SMT computer was programmed correctly and if the SMT line if properly placing the chips on the PCB. Why go ahead and produce an entire batch of modules which may be faulty, if the machine was setup incorrectly?
Once the first quick test run is complete (just a single PCB is tested, consisting of six modules), one of the engineers will remove the PCB from the SMT line and reference it with a document. The document is used as a map to determine whether or not the computer was programmed correctly and if full production can go ahead or not.
Once the engineer is satisfied with the first test run PCB, a full production run can begin.
Second Stage - Applying Solder and Initial Chips
Applying unleaded solder paste and the initial chips
The very first stage of RAM production is applying solder paste to the blank PCB. In recent times, there has been a call for computer companies to start using totally lead-free products and TEAM is one of the many companies to stand up and listen.
Here is a close up of what a PCB looks like without anything installed onto it.
The machine below is responsible for applying the solder paste to the PCB.
The PCB is then sent on through to the next part of the SMT line.
At this point, the SMT will begin to place all of the tiny components onto the PCB.
As we mentioned in the introduction, TEAM make use of "high-speed" SMT lines. That means they are twice as fast as regular SMT lines. Many years ago we visited other memory factories and it's amazing to see how much Japanese robotics have improved over the years, in terms of the raw speed these machines can place chips on the PCB.
With just three high-speed SMT lines, which in theory are equal to six, TEAM Group is able to produce almost one million memory modules per month.
Now that the components are installed on the PCB, the RAM chips are ready to be installed.
Third Stage - Installing RAM Chips
Installing the RAM chips
The third stage in the production phase is installing the all important RAM chips onto the PCB.
In the photo below you can see the SMT line putting the PCB into place, ready to have the RAM chips installed on it.
Next up the robotic "arms" pick up the RAM chips from the tray and prepares to place them onto the PCB.
Here we can see the RAM chips being placed onto the PCB which believe me happens at an amazingly rapid pace. I would say some cameras would have a hard time taking photos of this part of production without at least some type of blurriness. Three RAM chips are installed at one time and then the robotic arm will go back to the tray and pick up another three RAM chips - and so the cycle goes.
With the SMT machines placing the chips so quickly and delicately onto the PCB, it was interesting to find out what precautions TEAM have in place in case of earthquakes, since Taiwan is prone to many earthquakes every year. The SMT lines can continue production through a 2 - 4 scale earthquake without any interruption and usually with no faulty modules as a result - anything higher and the machines have to be stopped and the modules on the line destroyed. TEAM uses a special type of flooring in their factory which is "rubbery" in construction. It is designed to absorb earthquake shocks. Also, the SMT machines have special feet which are designed to absorb the shock as well. Although, nothing can fully combat the power of Mother Nature and sometimes there is nothing any computer company can do to avoid wasting product. I asked if the SMT machines were able to detect an earthquake and then shut off instantly but that type of technology is yet to be developed.
The SMT line is intelligent enough to determine if a RAM chip is faulty or not. That is, if the pins on the back of the RAM chip are broken or is unable to make proper electrical connection with the PCB. Quite amazingly, these chips are automatically dropped into the pink tray you can see below. These chips will then be sent back to one of TEAM Group's many chip suppliers to be replaced.
How long will it be before humans become totally redundant in a factory?
Forth Stage - The Bakery
Putting the PCB into the Oven
Now that the module components and RAM chips have been installed onto the PCB, now it is time for the PCB to be put into an oven - literally!
The oven operates at anywhere from 200c to almost 300c and effectively solders all of the parts to the PCB.
Now the modules are ready to be examined.
Fifth Stage - Examining and Testing the Memory
Examining and Testing the Memory
Now the product has graduated from being PCB to an actual memory module. It is now time for the modules to be examined carefully to make sure that all the components and RAM chips were successfully installed onto the PCB as far as electrical connectivity goes.
Once the two ladies above are satisfied with the modules, they are then passed onto the testing team further down the factory line for testing.
For the memory module to pass and move onto the next stage, it must complete five test program runs set by the R&D team without any errors. Once the memory passes the tests, it is then packed and is now almost ready to be shipped off to customers.
One of the final production stages after the memory module is deemed to be ready for consumer usage is printing the TEAM branding onto the RAM chips along with adding additional TEAM branding stickers and so forth and then finally packing the memory into their retail packaging boxes.
That covers RAM production from start to finish although we still have a little more to tell you about TEAM's Xtreem gaming memory on the next page.
Close look at TEAM Xtreem Memory
Taking a closer look at TEAM Xtreem RAM
As we discussed in the introduction, TEAM's line of high performance memory is called Xtreem. We left the TEAM factory and moved to their R&D room where we could see how the Xtreem memory is tested along with how the memory heat spreaders are installed.
Being a specialized memory product designed for gamers and overclockers, TEAM has a special team (no pun intended) to test the Xtreem memory and make sure it is up to standard on all the latest high-end motherboards.
The employees inside the R&D room have a real nice job - all day they get to play with all the latest motherboards and then determine which memory settings work best - and just how far they can push their Xtreem memory to the limits.
We were interested to find out how a memory company installed heat spreaders on the module. In photos, here is quick summary of the operation. This is just a demonstration; the heat spreader is not actually physically being applied to the memory in this case.
The installation of the heat spreader is quite simple, as you can see. The cooler comes with double-sided tape and that is used as the adhesive to attach the head spreader to the RAM chips.
Now the memory is completely finished and is sitting in the shipping room ready and waiting to be shipped off to TEAM's customers around the world.
We hope you enjoyed this look into memory module production from start to finish. We would like to thank everyone at TEAM Group in Taiwan for making this happen including Harry and Stu.
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