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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

Kingston is the largest memory manufacturer in the world, with a 27% worldwide market share, according to iSuppli. It is the beast on the memory market: its 2004 revenue was 231.08% greater than the second largest memory company, Smart Modular Technologies, which has a market share of 8.10%.

Kingston has several factories around the world, and we visited its smallest factory in Fountain Valley, California, USA. On the other hand, in this factory is where research and development is conducted and we had the chance to visiting some of their R&D testing labs.

Kingston production capacity for memory modules is:

  • Fountain Valley, CA, USA: 550,000/month
  • ShenZhen , China: 700,000/month
  • Penang, Malaysia: 800,000/month
  • Hsin-Chu, Taiwan: 1,300,000/month
  • Shanghai, China: 2,500,000/month
  • Total capacity worldwide: 5,850,000 memory modules per month

The numbers above exclude flash memory business.

Even though Fountain Valley factory is their smallest facility, we were simply surprised by its size: so far it is the largest memory manufacturing facility we’ve been to in the USA. In Figure 1 you have an overall look of part of the facility. For you to have an idea of its total size, its packing and shipping department takes a warehouse almost the same size, plus the research and development area and the RMA area that were not shown on the picture below.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 1: Overall look of part of Kingston manufacturing facility.

Memory module manufacturing process is quite simple and we have already explained it several times. But we will explain once again in case you didn’t read our previous articles on the subject.

The memory module manufacturer can buy the memory chips as a final product from a memory manufacturer like Samsung, Hynix, Infineon, etc; can buy them untested (a.k.a. UTT chips) and test (usually for speed grade) and sort them in-house; or can buy the memory wafer, cut the wafer and pack the integrated circuits by themselves.

Kingston falls in the first option.

The memory module manufacturing process is quite the same for all memory module manufacturers:

  • Apply solder paste to the memory PCB.
  • Put the components on the PCB using a technique called SMT, Surface Mount Technology. This process is also known as pick-and-place.
  • Send the modules inside an oven, where the solder paste will melt, thus soldering the components.
  • Visual inspection.
  • Remove the memory modules from their panels (before this process the memory modules are stuck together in a panel, each panel holds five or six memory modules), a process also known as depanelization.
  • SPD programming and quick manual testing (SPD, Serial Presence Detect, is a small EEPROM chip located on the memory module that stores the memory module parameters, such as timings).
  • Memory module testing.
  • Functional testing.
  • Heatsink is attached to the module (if applicable).
  • Labeling.
  • Packing.
  • Shipping to customers.

[nextpage title=”Research and Development”]

During our tour we could visit some of Kingston research and development labs. We’ve been to two testing labs were they test their prototype modules for compatibility, so they know that the modules are compatible with motherboards available on the market before sending the module into production. On these labs they test desktop, server and notebook products, as well as Apple platform products (you can see a Mac in Figure 2).

Kingston Factory TourFigure 2: Prototype compatibility testing.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 3: Prototype compatibility testing.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 4: Prototype compatibility testing.

[nextpage title=”Applying Solder Paste”]

Let’s see now how Kingston memory modules are manufactured.

A machine, using a metallic stencil that has holes in the exact positions that the manufacturer wants to apply the solder paste, automatically applies the solder paste to the memory modules.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 5: Metallic stencil. Solder paste will be applied where the holes are.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 6: PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards) come from the PCB manufacturer in panels.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 7: This machine is applying solder paste on a panel.

[nextpage title=”Putting the Components”]

Next the components are added to the PCB in a process called pick-and-place. Kingston uses two steps for this process. First, a machine install small components like capacitors on the memory modules. Then the panel goes to another machine were the memory chips are installed.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 8: Panels exiting the machine that applied the solder paste and entering the machine that installs the small components.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 9: This machine is installing small components like resistors and capacitors.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 10: These machines are installing the memory chips.

After the components are added to the memory module, the modules go to an oven where the solder paste is melted, thus soldering the components. The set of insertion machine plus the oven is what is called “line”.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 11: Oven.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 12: A panel coming out of the oven.

[nextpage title=”Visual Inspection and Depanelization”]

Exiting the oven the modules go through a visual inspection, where the manufacturer looks for errors on the memory module manufacturing. At Kingston this step is totally automated, contrary to other factories we’ve been to.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 13: Visual inspection machinery.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 14: Visual inspection machine looking for errors.

Passing the visual inspection, the panel goes to a machine to be cut, i.e., to separate the memory modules that until now were stuck together.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 15: Depanelization machine.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 16: Leftovers from the depanelization process.

The modules exit the depanelization machine and go to a labeler, where a robot also organizes the modules.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 17: Modules being organized in a tray just after being labeled.

[nextpage title=”Testing”]

The testing process at Kingston is really different from what other manufacturers are doing. They have the two required steps, SPD chip programming plus quick test and then full functional test on a real-world environment. But these two steps are fully automated; we’ve never seen this before.

Kingston developed a machine for doing this. A mechanical arm gets a memory module, insert it in the SPD chip programmer, and after the SPD chips is programmed and a quick test is performed, the mechanical arm installs the module on a motherboard for a full functional testing.

SPD (Serial Presence Detect) is a small chip located on the memory module that holds working parameters for the memory module, like timings.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 18: Kingston testers.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 19: One of the testers.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 20: Tray inside the machine containing the memory modules to be tested.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 21: Mechanical arm getting modules to be tested.

The SPD programmer and quick tester is located on the center of the machine. As you can see, there are four memory sockets, so four modules can be tested at the same time. As you can see in Figure 22, failed modules are separated from the good modules.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 22: SPD programmer and quick tester.

After the SPD programming and quick test, the modules are installed on real motherboards by the mechanical arm, as you can see in Figure 23. Below each steel cover there is a real motherboard. If you pay close attention, you can see a display controlling the temperature of each module.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 23: Functional testing.

[nextpage title=”Traditional Functional Testing”]

Kingston also maintains traditional functional and compatibility testing on their factory, as you can see in Figure 24. That’s because it takes a while to program the tester to test a different kind of memory module, so depending on the volume is faster to use traditional testing.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 24: Traditional functional testing.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 25: Close-up of one traditional functional testing module.

Also, Kingston has several burn-in chambers for testing their modules.

[nextpage title=”Final Process”]

After the modules pass all the testing stages, they have their heatsinks attached (if the module has one), packed and shipped to Kingston customers.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 26: Overall look of Kingston’s packing and shipping warehouse.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 27: Kingston’s inventory.

Kingston Factory TourFigure 28: Shipping department.