The Kingston California Factory Tour
This editor was invited to tour one of Kingston’s five factories, their world headquarters in Fountain Valley, California earlier this month. Here is the account of the visit. We were not allowed to take any video and our still shots were limited to production of RAM and flash drives. Kingston is quite sensitive about security and goes to great length to protect their intellectual property and the privacy of their customers – some of which are major OEMs that would prefer you to think they use their “own” memory. Part of Kingston’s incredible increase in sales to over 6.5 billion dollars last year came from massive OEM orders; OEMs who find that Kingston can produce quality RAM for cheaper than they can.
Kingston Technology Company, Inc. is the world’s independent memory leader. Many people think that it is a small company. It is not. Perhaps the Kingston website gives that impression. They manufacture system-specific memory for OEMs including Dell, they have their own branded ValueRAM and enthusiast HyperX RAM, and they specialize in all kinds of flash drives including a value-SSDNow series that uses theToshiba Micron controller that is excellent bang-for-buck for corporate users and for those wishing for a better computing experience over the relatively slow mechanical hard drive disk (HDD).
A tale of a corporation lost in the woods who needed the exact right size SSD for their employee’s notebooks found that 60GB was just too small and 128GB was too large as their employees tend to store their own videos and pictures on company notebooks. So they came to Kingston with a special request. And as baby bear found, 96GB was “just right” for corporate users. Since it is a great size, Kingston has now made them generally available to regular users including this Goldilocks. Expect a review on this product as we compare to our 128GB (not “+”)SSDNow V Series and also do a complete notebook “makeover” as we dump our slow 5400 rpm HDD for a speedy SSD and upgrade our system memory from 2 to 4GB.
Founded in 1987 with a single product offering, Kingston® now offers more than 2,000 memory products that support nearly every device that uses memory, from computers, servers and printers to MP3 players, digital cameras and mobile phones. In 2010, the company’s sales reached $6.5 billion.
With global headquarters in Fountain Valley, California, Kingston employs more than 4,000 people worldwide. Regarded as one of the “Best Companies to Work for in America” by Fortune magazine, Kingston’s tenets of respect, loyalty, flexibility and integrity create an exemplary corporate culture. Kingston believes that investing in its people is essential, and each employee is a vital part of Kingston’s success.
Kingston serves an international network of distributors, resellers, retailers and OEM customers on six continents. The company also provides contract manufacturing and supply chain management services for semiconductor manufacturers and system OEMs.
At the Forefront of Memory: The History of Kingston
Kingston Technology grew out of a severe shortage of surface-mount memory chips in the high-tech marketplace in the 1980s. John Tu and David Sun were determined to find a solution. They put their engineering expertise to work and designed a new Single In-Line Memory Module (SIMM) that used readily available, older technology through-hole components. A new industry standard was born — and, on October 17, 1987, so was Kingston Technology.
Kingston hit a high of $4.5B reported revenue for 2007 before slipping into the worldwide recession. Let’s look at just the last two years:
2010 – In 2010, Kingston reported revenues of $4.1B for 2009, the third-largest in company history.
iSuppli ranks Kingston as the world’s number-one memory module manufacturer for the third-party memory market with 40.3% market share, up from 32.8% in 2008 and 27.5% in 2007.
In August, Inc.com’s “Top 100 Inc.5000 Companies” ranks Kingston #6 in Private Companies by Revenue and number 1 in the computer hardware category.
In November, Forbes lists Kingston as number 77 on its list of “The 500 Largest Private Companies in the U.S.”
iSuppli reports that for the first half of 2010, Kingston now owns 45.8% share of the third-party memory market.
2011 – In 2011, Kingston reported record revenues of $6.5B for 2010, the highest in its 23 year history.
The “Mystery” of the Kingston red-half-head.
Many people confuse the Kingston logo with the Easter Island statues. It may be metaphysical but it is not mystical.
Actually the first Kingston ad that this editor remembers is one of a hinged head with memory being poured in which would have also been the late 80s. Now that is a memorable ad. Their business manager confirmed its existence but we have yet to find it.
The Kinsgton Red Head Timeline
1987 Kingston is founded; no redhead yet in sight.
1989 Ad agency develops “Improve Your Memory” ad that features hands installing memory into a partial head.
1990 First Kingston logo is developed. Using the ad for inspiration, it features a line drawing of modules going into an opened head.
1992 An artist named Fraser is commissioned to create a simple yet powerful version of the head that also reflects technology. He creates three or four comps; the one with a single head surrounded by computer equipment is chosen for the logo.
1993 – present His forehead has been modified and the computer equipment in the background removed but the Kingston Redhead, or “Rex,” as he is known to his friends, hasn’t changed much over the years. People everywhere recognize this icon as the symbol of the world’s independent memory leader.
Well, we have reached our destination at Kingston in Fountain Valley. It’s a nice Southern California day with typical Springtime cloudy coastal weather. Let’s take the tour.
The Kingston Tour
Kingston Headquarters is located on Newhope Street in Fountain Valley and it includes 5 large buildings – two on one side of the street and three on the other. It is where they began in 1987 in one building which demonstrates the owners keeping true to their roots although it would be much more profitable to relocate (outside California). Kingston is Fountain Valley’s largest or second largest employer. It is a brisk 5 minute walk from building A (below) to the factory buildings (above) across the street. We see Kingston’s logo – Rex, the read head – proudly displayed in front of two buildings. We are heading into the building on the left.
We toured just one factory building and there is far more that we saw then we can show you. We are not able to bring you photos of their engineering, their development and general business centers. One thing that they are especially proud of – for a company that puts out a million pieces of HW a day – is that they run light. In fact, the Kingston RMA staff is tiny; less than a dozen people handle all the worldwide calls from the USA headquarters; we saw 4 techs on duty at noon on Wednesday taking calls – and not all of the phone lines were busy. And when the USA plant shuts down for the night, another call center opens up at another Kingston factory.
After a short visit to Kingston’s headquarters where we got our visitor’s badge, we walked across the street to meet PR Manager David Leong and Jonelle Faria from PR as well as Mark Tekunoff, Kingston’s Senior Technology Manager. We had met Mark before at an overclocking event in Las Vegas during CES 2010. We all put on white lab coats as we began the tour of their manufacturing factory. This facility is where they research, develop, fabricate, test, package, and ship Kingston’s DDR3, older RAM modules, flash drives and other related products such as SSDs.
The first section that this editor got to visit was on the second floor of the manufacturing factory. We were not allowed to take photos in this area which is where they house their technical support team and quality assurance labs for RAM, PCB design, and other engineers who create the Kingston product line. We also visited some of Kingston research and development labs where they pre-test their prototype modules for compatibility before sending the modules into production. Inside these labs, Kingston engineers test PC as well as Apple platform products.
They also proudly showed us their 4 three million dollar (each) super computers that are probably working on DDR4 (shh!) among many other products in development. Since there is no hardware for DDR4, for example – e.g. no production motherboards – everything must be simulated and even the specifications must be developed and agreed upon long before actual production of prototype modules probably begins in a year or two.
There are several main areas of the factory -the offices, the OEM and surface mount technology (SMT) product manufacturing and testing, and product storage and shipping. When Kingston receives their raw electronic components, they have to go through testing before they can go into production. Once it gets to the SMT line, there are rows of machines set up to produce DDR3 memory modules. Kingston does not use prebuilt memory modules; instead they begin with RAM PCB blanks where the memory chips, circuitry and other hardware parts will be installed. According to Kingston, they have the capacity to manufacture about 5 million memory modules, flash drives, SSD and related hardware pieces all across the world every week – that is an amazing potential to produce and ship 1 million units every business day!
And here is where it all happens. Remember that this is one of Kingston’s smaller factories. This one has four production lines. The one in China is 5 times larger! We hope to visit that one for a future tour and ABT article.
There is a relatively small space for the offices downstairs – most of the process of actually making the product is done with robotic machines; humans oversee the process and do some of the actual RAM testing in motherboards and for several stages of Quality Control.
Incoming raw materials, including PCBs and memory chips, are received and tested for compliance with Kingston’s specifications before beginning the manufacturing process.
Here is a brief outline of how Kingston creates their RAM modules as we shall see detailed in photos that follow this description:
- Apply solder to the PCB followed by a robotic optical inspection.
- Using Surface Mount Technology (SMT) called pick and place, the small parts are inserted on the PCB and then inspected by machines.
- The modules go into an oven to solder the components to the PCB
- Visual inspection – some human, some robotic
- Module testing
- Functional testing
- Heatsink attachment if applicable
Now we can see the A-2 line – one of four – with many automated machines and we shall follow the RAM modules fabrication from start to finish.
Kingston uses a highly efficient straight line manufacturing process. It appears that the chip PCB blanks come into the Kingston manufacturing process with the data paths installed and lines pre-etched on the PCB’s but without the RAM chips. Of course, they are inspected and tested before they are used for manufacturing RAM modules.
Let’s go ahead and follow the machines along in their tasks as we start with the raw RAM chips and PCBs and end up with finished RAMs module which will be packaged and shipped to the end users. Each one follows strict quality control and many testing steps along the way as you will see.
Here is one of the plates that Kingston uses to fabricate their DIMMs. A machine using a metallic stencil applies the solder paste to the memory modules.
The manufacturing process has to continue though and go through many inspections before it gets to the test-bench where they can go through further stress tests that each memory module has to pass. Just like before, we see machines working in 4 long rows producing RAM that we use in our PCs. The first machine applies the solder. The PCBs move from one machine to another on rails without any human intervention.
The first machine (above) is applying solder paste on a panel while the second one is an automatic inspection station. The light above each station alerts the technicians as to the machine’s status. These are very specialized machines that were either purchased and adapted or designed in-house by Kingston engineers who hold many patents in their field.
The third machine – “Pick and Place” – inserts the small components directly onto the PCB in precisely the right location one after the other in an incredibly fast sequence that is hard to follow with your eyes. It is also not very quiet as it goes about its tasks. The next picture shows the machine inserting one part after another.
Inside the Pick and Place, what looks like a Gatling gun is the head that spins to install the small parts such as transistors, resistors and integrated circuits. Each PCB takes about a minute from start to finish and then a module comes out the machine – one after another – and down the assembly line as they are automatically fed into the next machine.
The chips move on to the next process before going into the oven to bake the solder. Kingston uses a cold soldering process where the solder is installed on the PCB before to coming into the manufacturing section. Inside the oven, the chips are heated and the solder melts and makes the connections. As the PCBs leave the oven and move down the line another robotic machine places RAM chips on the PCB.
This is the second Pick and Place machine and it is perhaps taken from not such a good angle, but as the tour guides point out, it is wise to keep your hands away from the moving parts. Here it is placing the DRAMs on the PCB.
The set of soldering, inspection, insertion machines, plus the oven and the cutting machine makes up what is called a line. There are four of them in this factory; we are photographing line A-2. And this is one of the smaller factories when compared to the Kingston factory in Shanghai which has many times the manufacturing capacity of the Fountain Valley plant.
After passing robotic inspection, the panels move to a machine to be cut. The memory modules that until now were stuck together are separated by the depanelization machine and the excess is trimmed off.
After depanelization, the modules go though another machine inspection. Finally, the modules move to a tray that now has to go through human inspection. If they pass inspection, then the modules can then go to another stage where they will be stress tested for stability; server modules go through additional heat stress testing. Every single Kingston module is fully tested and passes many stages of human and robotic quality control prior to leaving their factories. This is one of the reasons for their incredible success – obsession with product quality and testing.
Kingston has several burn-in chambers for testing their server modules. They have calculated that a 24 hour test at extreme temperatures simulates – without any damage – the first three months of their RAM’s life – the most likely time it will fail, if it is going to fail at all.
After the memory modules pass all of the testing stages, they have their heatsinks attached (if the module has one), packed and shipped to Kingston customers. We are now in the shipping department and our incredible journey following the RAM modules from raw PCBs and components to final product has been amazing. Let’s head for lunch, it is just after noon.
After the Tour – Lunch
After the tour, we were invited to a favorite Japanese restaurant of Kingston employees. While Kingston’s Technology manager and both of Kingston’s PR people politely listened to my big surf stories, we had a great meal. These people are completely down-to-earth although they are among the most knowledgeable people in their line of work anywhere. They were very candid and we also discussed international marketing which included a discussion of how the Japan earthquake and tsunami directly and indirectly impacted the chain of supply of hardware in the world and how Kingston used their knowledge, experience and strategy to keep supplies and pricing normal in the fight against hording.
They were able to answer this editor’s questions including one that asked when we would see breakthrough pricing of $1 per GB of SSD storage. Although we have seen mail-in-rebates and severe discounting occasionally reach this price point, it isn’t likely to occur regularly for another year or two. Also, SSDs are just tiny part of Kingston’s overall business – evidently there is still a lot of room for growth.
We also discussed the life of RAM – how it is super-expensive when it is first introduced and how it’s overclocking performance is at it highest closer to the beginning of the manufacturing process. As the process matures, the prices drop and it’s extreme overclocking ability also tends to diminish as the shrinks occur and the wires get closer to each other. Finally, at End of Life (EoL), the RAM is again super-expensive and hard to find. What is also amazing is that Kingston is still supporting PC-100 – many years after you would expect support would be dropped for it.
Kingston is clearly a great place to work! All throughout the tour, this editor was impressed with the hard-working staff – it is described as “lean” – the 800 or so people working there are obviously long-term (no, they are not hiring) and they appear to love their work. It reflects Kingston’s owners who are described as still down to earth and unchanged by their incredible success. In fact the owners don’t have their office segregated from the other workers – they work in cubicles on the main floor like everyone else. Only the engineers have private offices with doors.
Throughout our tour we were impressed with the professionalism of the Kingston staff, the automated manufacturing process, the incredible number of machines, and the overall experience. Then you realize that there are several of these facilities worldwide and this one is quite small compared to the one in Shanghai.
Kingston’s PR is unlike most other companies that consider PR “entry level” and a place to start and to get promoted away from. It is recognized that PR is crucial to their company and you will deal with the same Kingston PR people for many years – unlike other mega companies that change their PR people yearly like clockwork. Regarded as one of the “Best Companies to Work for in America” by Fortune magazine, it is not surprising that Kingston’s PR and management still has incredible enthusiasm for promoting their company and they work hard to coordinate Kingston news.
I asked PR Manager David Leong about Kingston and the emerging social networks and he told me:
I think as a company, we are seeing the importance of social media growing. . . . We are currently focusing on Facebook and Twitter mainly as additional ways to communicate. Our target markets vary from the Fortune 500 companies to prosumers to the DIY crowd and of course, enthusiasts. Social media will be more effective in some target markets over others. I would say we are in the ‘experimental phase’ still but all signs point to it being here to stay.
While Kingston is international in nature they have a factory in California and that is impressive. California has become unfriendly to business and there are many places where their manufacturing can be done with far less expense. However, Kingston evidently remembers where they got their start and they headquarter their company in the USA. Admittedly, it is far more logical to continue to expand in other countries, but they assure us that they will never leave the USA.
You can count us really impressed – with everything. From Kingston’s history, to their owners, to their philosophy; it is a great model of an independent mega-business. Every step of their manufacturing is a model of efficiency and extra-ordinary quality control. Machines track the product, people manage the machines, and each and every piece of hardware passes quality control with 100% testing prior to leaving the Kingston factory. That means you the customer will likely have very rare issues with any Kingston product – and if you need help, you will talk to someone in the USA.
No wonder Kingston has grown! This editor wants to give special thanks to Kingston’s Senior Technology Manager, Mark Tekunoff as well as PR Manager David Leong and Jonelle Faria, PR for arranging the tour and guiding us through the factory and for the excellent lunch and their time. We hope to visit Kingston’s other factories for future ABT articles.
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