How Are Computers Made?
By John Papiewski
Your computer is a sophisticated piece of technology containing dozens of parts, each of which may consist of millions of electronic circuit elements. To make a computer, you start with the raw materials that make up the components. Factories assemble components into circuit boards which plug together, resulting in a working computer. Technicians load software onto the computers, start them up, and put them through rigorous quality-control tests before shipping them to customers.
Computers are highly engineered devices; before the factory assembles any parts, engineers and product specialists produce a design specifying how the computer will look, its memory capacity, and dozens of other details. In addition to those who work on the computer itself, many others design the hard drives, processor chips, and other components. All of the computer's parts work together in precise fashion, requiring coordination between component designers and those who use the components in a complete system.
Sand and Chips
Silicon remains an important ingredient in manufacturing computer chips. Chip makers turn sand, or silicon dioxide, into crystals of pure silicon, and then slice the crystals into wafers. Automated systems deposit intricate patterns of metals and other materials onto the wafers, forming electronic circuits. Each circuit may contain billions of transistors, resistors, and other components. Depending on the patterns used, the circuits become microprocessors, memory chips, and many other kinds of integrated circuits. The manufacturer encases the fragile chips inside rugged plastic, ceramic, or metal packages for easy handling.
A circuit board maker takes the integrated circuits produced by the chip manufacturer and solders them onto circuit boards with other components. Each circuit board is a plastic card with patterns of copper foil. Boards used in a computer include motherboards, memory modules, and video cards.
The computer maker procures all the parts necessary to build a working PC: motherboards, hard drives, cases, wiring, and many other components. Workers assemble the computer's parts in a series of steps, beginning with the case, adding the motherboard, and plugging other components into place. Other technicians copy the operating system onto the computer's hard drive; depending on the computer company, the operating system is likely Apple OS X, Microsoft Windows, or Linux. (Note that Google recently began selling laptop computers based on its Android operating system.) Computer makers also load their own custom software as well as trial versions of other programs.
Boot-up and Burn-in
After the assembly process is complete, technicians start the computers and test them to ensure they work properly. This process, called "burn-in," helps computers run reliably for years afterward. If a technician sees a computer with a problem, she can fix it before it leaves the factory. When burn-in is complete, the manufacturer packs the computers in boxes along with accessories and owner's manuals.
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."