Inside a British PC Maker

Two images spring to mind when you picture a PC manufacturer’s factory: hundreds of Chinese workers on a production line, diligently assembling the latest gadget, and hi-tech robots creating components without a human in sight.

The reality is different for British PC makers. We took a tour around Hampshire-based Novatech’s factory to find out what happens when you place an order for one of its PCs – and to assess whether UK computer manufacturing can survive the shift to tablets, pricing pressure from overseas OEMs and economic challenges.

Where are the robots?

Despite the summer heat outside, Novatech’s Portsmouth factory is cool and quiet. Although the warehouse is stacked full of cardboard boxes containing PCs, components and peripherals, it feels empty; there’s no sign of any amazing gadgetry, but there are a few people.

Half a dozen employees in the support department are fixing customers’ PCs – good-naturedly laughing at the minor problems they’ve been asked to solve, and pointing out the incredible amount of dust inside one machine – and a few more near the shipping door are packing pallets of products for delivery, attaching labels warning of the perils of leaving the boxes outside in rough weather (it’s happened, apparently).

The production area where PCs are assembled is tucked away at the rear of the building – past the rows of boxes and a secure cage for high-priced components –and it’s bright, insanely clean and devoid of robots.

“It’s surprisingly straightforward,” says Tim LeRoy, Novatech’s head of marketing, and my tour guide for the day. “A lot of people think there’ll be people in white suits, and lasers and robots, but it’s [done] much more by hand. And while there’s a lot of skill and a lot of craftsmanship, it’s a production line.”

assembly line

A conveyer belt snakes through the department, lined with large desk fans to keep staff cool. Work often begins from a base machine – say, Novatech’s standard Core i3 desktop – and while half of Novatech’s PCs are customised, this customisation can be as basic as removing a graphics card or optical drive, or opting for a cheaper component.

The process is started by placing a case on the belt. A list is affixed, detailing for whom the PC is being made and what components it will feature. When a big order comes in, the team will do tens or hundreds of the same machine – otherwise, every PC on the line could be different.

The chassis rolls along to the next station, where components are doled out and tucked into the case. The PC then rounds a corner on the conveyer belt and assembly begins. Each employee installs a different component, meaning they’ll spend their day installing only motherboards, for example, squeezing in cables as they go.

When each worker’s task is complete, the PC is rolled to the following bay for the next installation. Once the physical assembly is complete, it’s passed to the software installation and testing team.

“We have 80 test bays down there, and now we have an automated test system – once you’ve plugged up, you can simply start up the test system and it will do all the testing and diagnostics on the machines for you,” says operations director Steve Longmore. Then, USBs and other ports are approved. “Every single socket is checked,” Longmore adds.

Machine testing

He admits assembly errors can occur, but that’s why an emphasis is placed on testing. “We check and double-check, then we check again,” Longmore says. “The essence is, if we make a mistake, we make it in-house. What we don’t do is make a mistake the customer sees.”

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