Take a tour through MSI’s gaming notebook factory

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Think “gaming notebook” and most mental images are of something big, flashy, and powerful, with a sizeable price tag to account for it all. Head down to any retailer today, however, and you’ll be swamped with options —questions of price and recommendations leading to musings on aesthetics, weight, and even included software.

But what separates each manufacturer from the other? To cut their way through the fog, MSI sent out invitations to one of their mainland Chinese factories, in the hopes of showing just why they call themselves a “true gaming” company.

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The factory in question is situated in Kunshan, a Jiangsu province city home to a modern industrial zone, multiple cultural sites, and a footnote for hosting the 2013 World Cyber Games. It’s one of three factories that MSI operates — the others are in Shenzhen, China and Jung He, Taiwan — and its duties include marketing, research and development, and production for the wide range of products the company carries. The 272,000-square meter facility also houses worker dormitories and recreational sites, though the focus of our visit was solely gaming notebooks.

MSI Kunshan Factory Tour 14Greeting the squad of journalists and content creators was MSI Kunshan’s notebook division director, Ethan Yang, who would double up as our guide for the day. Sporting a low ponytail and black-framed glasses, the lively company veteran veteran holds himself responsible for every product that leaves the factory’s gates, be it from a design, performance, or quality-assurance standpoint. Rather than feel pressured it’s become a point of pride for the electrical engineering graduate, proof of his confidence in both the team — his greatest achievement at the company, he beamingly tells me — and the products. He’s dead serious about his technical involvement too. Point out any component on the factory floor and he’ll readily have an answer, along with any contextual tidbits he finds interesting.

Before plodding around the assembly lines in disposable shoe covers and hair nets, Yang walked us through a brief presentation on what made MSI’s notebooks special.

Test, optimize, and test again

Ask any PC building enthusiast what they’d do with a new system and they’ll probably say, “Overclock it.” And who wouldn’t? There’s plenty of appeal in seeing a component reach the performance benchmarks of its pricier siblings. Yet anyone who’s dabbled in it will know that overclocking is largely trial-and-error, one that’s simply grown accessible over the years.

How, then, does MSI effectively translate a bespoke process to fit mass-production? The answer lies in preparation. Every new model introduced requires detailed research and data collection to find its overclocking limit. They’ll record configuration information, temperature performance, clock speeds, and work load every five seconds, in a test that’s repeated simultaneously by hundreds of other notebooks. With access to more than a million logs, MSI can then data mine to determine the best parameters to use for that model.

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That’s step one. The next phase involves repeating the tests with those determined parameters to see if it passes their profiling. If it doesn’t, they’ll tweak those parameters and back to the testing marathon we go. Only when it succeeds will it be set as the default overclock setting, allowing end-users to have a souped-up system that’s also safe and stable. Yang stresses that last point, as any improper trial-and-error fiddling may wind up damaging the chips instead.

From there it’s simply a matter of running comparison tests. Any CPU or GPU that performs marginally is immediately rejected, a move that ensures each notebook can hit their advertised overclocking potential.

In a similar vein, every single display panel will have been individually calibrated by the time it leaves the factory. Advanced recognition technology and testing allows MSI to spot imperfections of less than 0.5 millimeters, and each panel that passes will be tagged with a unique binary file derived via a color parameter identification tool. Once assembled, this matching binary file will then be installed onto the system.

Yang says that the displays are all calibrated to be “dead center” according to three key areas: color temperature, color gamut, and grayscale gamma; the display tools MSI provides are only there so a user may tweak things according to their personal preferences and lighting conditions. He quotes an actual scenario where a SEA-based user complained about the screen’s color, only for the on-site tech to discover that the user’s definition of “perfect” ended up having a color temperature of over 7,000 Kelvins – higher than the 6,500K standard used for calibration.

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MSI are just as thorough when it comes to their other tests, all of which are conducted over an extended period of time. This not only simulates whether the notebook can sustain its load but also serves to check display burn-in and, most crucial of all, thermal performance.

Yang says that since CPUs and GPUs now dynamically throttle performance to prevent overheating, it would be misleading to judge thermal efficiency on temperature logs alone. Hence, they’ll monitor everything – CPU, GPU, and VRAM clock speeds, power states, fan RPM and of course temperature – to identify any patterns that would help them strike the ideal balance. All of this is, again, recorded every five seconds so that they can detect any minor changes. To illustrate his point, Yang recounts how he intentionally left out a screw one time and, true enough, it affected their readings.

In addition to the regular performance checks and screenings are the reliability ones, to see that every notebook can stand the rigors of daily use. We didn’t get to see these first-hand although MSI did provide the video embedded below, covering everything from parts durability to withstanding extreme conditions. For instance, it needs to survive storage in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius, or to not crumble when exposed to a g-force of 40 – for comparison, Yang says a human experiences about 9 g in a rocket launch.

It’s worth mentioning that MSI designs and builds these rigs themselves, to accommodate for the many different shapes, sizes, and functions of their products. Complementing these automated tests are the user-experience ones, encompassing a wide variety of approaches. One involves a worker physically testing the mechanical keyboards for their tactile response, while on the other end there’s the Out-of-Box simulation to mimic a user’s first experience with their brand-new system.

The latter not only includes basic tasks such as running system updates, anti-virus scans, or video streaming but also compatibility checks with various VR systems. Also of interest is how MSI monitors and reacts to Windows 10’s surprise automatic updates, which Yang says has proven to be a problem for both the company and its customers. Now, they’re able to identify problems early, broadcasting the notice and solution through their various user support and outreach channels.

In all, every system must pass more than 1,900 carefully planned and conducted tests before, during, and after assembly. Depending on the model, some systems may even wind up going through seven days’ worth of testing. And if all this is starting to seem mind-boggling, consider the fact that they load these packed notebooks into a truck bound for a 800km round-trip journey and, 24 hours later, test them again. It’s the only way to be sure, Yang says, as transportation is the most unpredictable aspect in production.

The PCBA Line

Primed from our briefing at the R&D Center, we made the short trek over to building A for an actual peek into production. While MSIK was, in Yang’s words, smaller than most factories, having design, manufacturing, sales, and the supply chain all operating from within the same compound, under the same management, allowed the team to be both lean and quick to react. That combination is also a strength of MSI’s, granting them the leeway to do “unusual” things such as the individual display panel calibration for their True Color branding. Vendors that rely on OEM factories, on the other hand, would no doubt have to fork out extra for implementing such a service. The other plus for MSI here is that they’ll need less time to get a new product designed and ready for the market.

Our first order of business was the printed circuit board line, which Yang explains is quite different from others. As PCBAs for notebooks aren’t conventional due to their small form factor, MSI has had to develop their own set of processes to suit what they were trying to do with advanced components.

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Greeting us by the entrance were a line of young workers patiently awaiting our arrival; the line was still in operation but it was clearly moving at a much slower speed, a fact Yang later confirms.

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The star here was the FUJI NXT III surface-mount technology platform, which automatically places components onto the PCB. It’s the world’s most advanced machine out there, churning out 35,000 chips per hour with an accuracy of approximately 0.025 millimeters. This is what’s responsible for putting the 2-3 thousand components typically found on a notebook PCBA together.

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Immediately after placement, the boards begin the reflow stage starting with this reversed insertion machine, which replaces manual soldering for improved quality and efficiency. Yang highlights this as one of the special processes MSI employs in their PCBA production, with the other called Print-In-Place. Both work together to help accommodate any special components they might use.

As a result, they also had to find a way to strengthen the solder joints. They ultimately arrived at a process they call underfill, which injects UV-cured glue to reinforce the hold.

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Once the boards are through they’ll undergo various testing, such as at this automated optical inspection machine which checks for missing components or defects.

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The PCBs are also subject to manual inspection further down the testing line.

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Naturally, all workers are required to wear a grounding wrist strap to protect the components from any electrostatic discharge.

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Manual tests include in-circuit checks, function tests, as well as QA sample tests.

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Boards that pass are protected with an anti-static bag before being stored into crates for delivery elsewhere in the compound.

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The production line runs for twenty-hours and while only two were in operation during our visit, up to four lines would be online during peak season.

At the end of this half of the tour, the group grew curious about the workers themselves. Yang was more than happy to field our questions, and one answer that stood out was how there were incentives in place to encourage picking up new job licenses. This not only granted the worker a wider skill-set but also meant that management had a more experienced workforce that they could retain and shift around if necessary.

The Notebook Assembly Line

Our next scheduled stop was building C, where the main assembly line featuring the GE63 and GE73 notebooks were. Interestingly, we came across a separate building where MSI produces touch displays for cars. The company also produces touchscreens for mobile devices, which is why they have a Class 1000 clean room for their assembly.

Upon arrival, we immediately noticed that the notebook assembly line was a visually larger and more complex area than the first, and is probably best summed up in the following photo.

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Due to their delicate nature, all notebooks are assembled by hand, from fitting the base components together to sticking labels and packaging it with all the supplementary materials. Those rows of laptops in the background are actually on a moving conveyor belt, running just some of the myriad tests that are in store for them. A persistent chorus of beeps, hums, whirrs, and the occasional pressurized discharge, all accompany the busy scenery.

Assembly kicks off with a notebook’s bottom shell. The workers wear gloves that leave only the index finger and thumb exposed for better dexterity.

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MSI are now designing their internals with easy accessibility in mind, so that future upgrades or a thorough cleaning wouldn’t be excessively complicated.

Elsewhere, the PCBAs are having heatsinks, pipes, and fans attached along a stretch of stations. Yang says that it’s crucial for the thermal solution to be completely flat so that it can touch every component. He also shares that within the copper tubes are small amounts of water — only about 1 CC per tube — that help to transfer heat better.

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While the rest of the notebook is carefully put together with WiFi antennas, memory sticks, and other components, workers further down the line begin assembling the lid and display panel.

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Once the top and bottom halves are paired, all of the notebook’s corresponding labels are applied with the help of a template.

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Keys are also tested for their tactile response.

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Once the notebook is powered on, all ports are tested with this custom hub. Built by one of their engineers, the box is able to simulate various peripherals and devices.

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Requiring a little more time are the user experience tests.

Eventually, notebooks are loaded onto the carousel racks for a series of tests. These include testing wake times from various states of hibernation (session saved to RAM versus saved to disk), checking thermal performance and overclocking under heavy load, as well as running third-party software such as 3Dmark and Furmark

All these tests take anywhere between six to eight hours to complete, yet Yang says they’ll leave the notebooks in for another two hours to idle. This is so they can catch any odd freezes or blue screen crashes that only occur while a machine is at rest.

At the same time, a program runs in the background to collect a ton of data, including phantom key strokes or touchpad detection in event of faulty hardware, or electromagnetic interference from other nearby devices.

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Once out of the testing rack, the notebooks undergo a final round of checks.

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Quality assurance includes ensuring that all logos and labels are in the correct design, language, orientation, and location. The workers aren’t expected to memorize the hundreds of variations available, so they’ll only have to refer to their screen for confirmation.

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Supplementary materials such as manuals, peripherals, and accessories, will have already been packed elsewhere by the time a notebook reaches the packaging station.

To combat the tedium of repeating the same task for weeks, Yang reminds us about the license incentive program they run at MSI. The more licenses a worker owns, the higher their pay, and thus the more varied their duties become. And since other factories do not have a similar program, the workers aren’t interested in leaving either.

At this point, a notebook will have been completely assembled, packed, and loaded into a carton for whatever destination it’s bound for.

Gamers at heart

At the end of the day, Yang says that what makes MSI truly special is how they’re all gamers themselves. It may sound cliché but the ultimate test of a product lies in the hands of their users, and what better way to understand their target market than to be a part of it themselves?

We aren’t talking about corporate-enforced directives, either. Engineers, operators, line leaders, and various other employees all hold a passion for games in one form or the other, so much so that in 2014 the factory formed the MSIK Gaming Club, an official title for what had already been in existence for some time.

And to make the best out of the situation, this is where they take their latest systems for some real-world testing – be it Dota 2, Overwatch, or some new AAA titles. They’ll check for glitches or performance slumps, find out what the optimal in-game settings are, and basically try out anything a hardcore PC gamer might want to do with their system. The feedback received from the Club is considered critical within the company and must be addressed before the product launches.

Still have doubts that they’re gaming for fun? Yang says that the Club hosts an annual gaming event in May, which has somehow grown so popular that employees from other companies started hearing about it too. As for the director himself, his eyes positively lit up when I said I’m familiar with his favorite series: Europa Universalis. Given his field of work, it isn’t hard to see why he loves the grand strategy game.

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We left the tour with a newfound appreciation for the philosophy and methodology behind MSI’s approach to gaming notebooks. They’ve certainly invested heavily in all aspects of production, from attaining the best tools and technology money can buy to developing the best workers they have under their employ. And that’s not to speak of the clear talent and passion of the one man driving it all.

So the next time you run into a MSI notebook at a roadshow, think of the gaming enthusiasts that excitedly huddled around a computer to design it, the massive testing gauntlet it had to endure to get there, or that one worker who made sure the backspace key works and feels just right. It may sound trivial but this obsessiveness over quality definitely grants some degree of comfort when spending all that hard-earned money.

Full disclosure: MSI arranged transport and accommodation for this factory tour.

Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.