Behind QNAP curtains: How is it done?

Last Friday, DSA’s senior journalist Satoko Omata was invited for an exclusive trip inside QNAP’s factory in Keelung, Taiwan. This is the second time DSA has been invited for a tour, and I got some insiders info about a new expansion.

Throughout my trip I was accompanied by the Sales Manager of QNAP in Asia Pacific region Arthur Yeh. Along the way Arthur explained that the Taiwan office and the factory were in separate locations. Arriving in the industrial area in Keelung, Arthur directed the driver to stop at an unassuming building at the end of the road. Greeting me at the guard post was Plant Assistant Manager Peter Pang.

It was 10am in the morning and after quick greetings we were first brought into the meeting room, where Peter explained that they were on a 10-minute break. It’s company policy to allow their workers break every 2 hours to ensure they do not get over tired, as well as ensuring the safety standards of work. Being a 24/7 operation, they operate a 7-3-3 rule – 7-day order period, 3 days of manufacturing and 3 days for delivery. He prides in being able to meet the deadlines most of the time, and was beaming when he spoke of his workers willing to put in the extra time for especially busy periods over holiday season. “We have some foreign workers who don’t observe the same holidays we do and they are happy to put in the hours over the holidays. Either that or they are single like me.” he chuckles.

Peter brought a warm cup of tea and some protective clothing consisting of a massive pink coat, a pink cap and blue shoe covers resembling those seen in crime scene dramas. They may have thought I resembled a child in those protective gear due to my rather small stature. I digress.

Jokes aside, Peter was keen to explain the operations in each level of the factory. It was a 6 level building and we travelled between floors in the industrial size lifts. 

Exiting the elevator Peter showed me the systems they have to pass through before entering the production area. There was a machine to the side of the sliding door that records the static electricity of the workers. He explained that because the electronics were really sensitive to static, all workers have to check their static levels before entering, and they have this at every level of the factory.

He first showed me the area where they check the parts that they received from suppliers. Each parts undergo rigorous testing before they are cleared to be installed on to the motherboard. There was a separate room that houses the electronics and another area for the plastic hardware. In the electronics room a red display on the wall monitors the temperature and humidity. Peter showed me a machine where they dehumidify the individual parts.

We then proceeded to another level, where Arthur and I were ushered into a small space with what looks like blow holes on the walls. It’s not dissimilar to ones I’ve seen in videos of food manufacturing factories. Peter told me to just look forward and I was met with a strong force of wind from both sides.

After pushing the glass door into the work area, Peter proceeded to explain the different manufacturing lines. There were 2 lines called SMT – which I later found out to be Surface Mount Technology – essentially a long line where machines print and install tiny parts onto the motherboard. The tiny parts come in a roll like a film reel, and this aids the machines grab the parts easily and accurately. The machines are controlled by a set of computers that are programmed and controlled by humans. Peter told me that workers can customise each operation based on what they’re producing, and they control every step of the machines’ operation. Optical tests are used to ensure each part is up to standard. At the end of that line, sits a lady diligently looking through the motherboard through a magnifying glass to do a final visual check before it’s sent to the DIP – Dual Inline Production.

At the DIP area, workers were sat in a row, in front of them laid motherboards on a rail like line and small parts in trays. Peter explains there are 4 of these production lines working at the same time. In this area, workers manually position the parts following a guide on top of their work station, before sending the motherboard down the rails to the next worker. At the end of the line is the soldering machine, where the parts are treated and soldered in high temperatures. Following the circuit board’s exit from the machine, another army of humans sat in a row ready to put it through more tests. The first section inspects the product under a magnifying glass and does any soldering that the machine might have missed. Moving it along the automated belt, another set of hands are ready to connect the boards to a system to perform more tests and check.

Let me just remind you we are still just looking at the motherboard at the moment. Yes, there has been already 6 checks by my count.

Moving on to the next floor, Peter introduced me to the assembly and packaging line. There are 6 U-shaped work areas, with dedicated workers dealing with each part of the assembly. Each product is again put through rigorous checks. Peter showed me a screen with efficiency and accuracy rates displayed on a system. According to Peter the entire production line is recorded and analysed. Arthur proudly showed me the figures on the screen, saying 99.51%. Prior to my visit to the factory he was explaining about their products being only defective 0.5% of the time, and he showed me with pride saying “That’s where I got the figures, and this is what I was referring to. Our systems are all recorded and analysed.” Peter then further explained to me that each section of the production is clearly documented and on top of that, QR codes are used to digitalise all the information. And being a NAS company, they have plenty of storage for these data – they don’t delete any data, because it could be useful information in the future.

A worker whose name I regretfully didn’t manage to catch, explained to me what each worker was doing and as I was holding my camera, he let me take a snapshot of the documents and systems. However, I declined due to potential sensitive information that could be leaked through the picture consisting the QR code. Continuing on, he was concerned whether I was coping with his rambles while writing notes. I assured him I’ve got it and he continued his passionate speech about burn in test. He led me to an area with racks upon racks of NAS device and showed me a worker working on a computer that monitors readings of the devices. Towards the back of the area, another red display on top of 2 massive beige sliding doors shows the temperature to be 40°C. This was the room for burn in test. When the doors were opened I was greeted with a wave of heat, while rows upon rows of NAS were plugged in and lined up inside the dark room. Towards the left of the door was another area covered with a translucent plastic sheet for stable devices that had passed the test. Most devices take about 2 – 3 days of burn in test and some even longer, up to 5 days I was told.

Finally, the product is ready for packaging. This is another U shaped line similar to the assembly line except at the end of that line was a weighing machine. No it’s not to check whether that pizza over lunch has made you gain a pound. It was to check the precise weight that the device should weigh, to prevent any parts being accidentally left out of the packaging. The weights were accurate to two decimal points, and if there were any anomalies, they check for missing materials or parts and repackage the device. Naturally, these processes are documented as well.

Moving to the last spot is the QA/QC area. Where a sample of the batch is checked yet again, and split into pass or fail piles. A worker inspects each product thoroughly, plugging it to a system to check functionality and with the aid of a magnifying glass does a final manual check. To the side of the QC area is another set of devices that are plugged in to a system, dealing with old devices or older models and data management of those older devices.
Up to this point my check count is 11. We did not go to the storage or loading areas, but I assume it’s a whole lot of boxes.

After the tour we found ourselves back in the meeting room, where Peter was happy to answer any questions I may have. During the discussion, both Arthur and Peter told me about the building of another factory at the empty lot next door. Arthur explained to me that the company was expanding rapidly and in order to meet the demands of the growing client base, they have decided to build another factory. According to him, QNAP prides in being able to monitor all their quality control because they have their own production and manufacturing lines. Peter adds to that humbly stating they may not have the best technology in manufacturing, but he was determined to show that they are just as vigorous in their testing. According to Peter, a QNAP director used to say (and I translate and paraphrase) “everyone else is using first rate technology to make first class hardware. We produce the same top class hardware with third rate technology.” 

I confess that this journalist may not have the most intensive knowledge in technologies used in hardware manufacturing, but indeed if what they claim to be third rate technology can bring them to be one of the industry’s leaders, imagine what first class technology can do?

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