Hardware

Why isn't it a Foxconn iPad? The road from microprocessor to consumer product

Have you ever wondered just how those chips wind up in the branded products you use and where they actually come from? For you curious types, Nick Hardiman has done the research for you.

The low power computer has arrived. Dell is making low power servers, Samsung smartphones have quad-core CPUs and iPads are disrupting the enterprise.

Getting to grips with this new tech world of low power products is complicated. How can ARM chips be in most phones if they don't manufacture anything? Why aren't Apple iPads called Foxconn iPads?

Understanding what is inside a product like an Android tablet is hard enough, let alone understanding how it was designed, manufactured, distributed and serviced. Here's a quick rundown of a few of the building blocks and how they fit together. And, of course, this being a deeply techie area, there are many TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) along the way.

From microprocessor to consumer product

  • The ARM Holdings company designs microprocessors.
  • Semiconductor foundries make SOCs (System On a Chip) using ARM designs.
  • SBC (Single Board Computer) builders make little boards using SOCs.
  • Product manufacturers make finished products using SBCs.
  • Product vendors make branded products using these finished products.

It's a division of labour that passes the buck for the really complicated bit - the microprocessor design - back to ARM.

Microprocessor

Just about all the low power microprocessors in the world follow designs produced by the ARM company. They design microprocessors and license others to build them. ARM have a few ranges for different purposes.

  • The Cortex-A series are the lower power SoC designs for consumer goods. This range of products includes the high-performance Cortex-A15, the scalable Cortex-A9, and the high-efficiency Cortex-A7. Manufacturers love the Cortex-A8.
  • The Cortex-R series is for real-time computing. These chips are designed to be good for cameras, disk drives, and routers.
  • The Cortex-M series are aimed at the control systems found in washing machines, cars, and joypads.

The current Cortex series is based on a high-level architecture named ARMv7.

ARM makes money by licensing its designs. Some companies get an architectural license then design their own microprocessor cores. Others get a license to use one of ARM's microprocessor core designs.

ARM Classic processors (that's the older, slower, and uglier generation) have been an outstanding success. 15 billion of these processors have been shipped. There are three ranges of microprocessor designs, called ARM7 (found in iPods, Nokia phones, and Nintendo games consoles), ARM9 (found in the Squeezebox music player, Seagate storage, and HTC phones) and ARM11 (found in Kindles, iPhones, and the Raspberry Pi). Some of these classic designs are obsolete and others are used in new products.

The chip architecture that ARM based these classic ranges on evolved over time. The ARM7 and ARM9 chips are based on the same architecture, called ARMv5. The ARM11 is based on ARMv6 architecture. It is a naming strategy that's a little confusing.

SOC (System On a Chip)

Semiconductor foundries - the chip builders - could build the microprocessor as one discrete chip, but they often bundle it up in a bigger chip called an SOC (System On a Chip).

The SOC contains the microprocessor and as many other building blocks as will fit.

  • An SOC for a TV may include a GPU.
  • An SOC for a mobile phone may include a radio baseband processor.
  • An SOC for home storage may have Ethernet and SATA interfaces.

Often the company that designs an SOC is not the company that builds it. As with building cars, once upon a time vast factories did everything. Now different processes have been split up between specialist companies.

The Marvell Technology Group designed an SOC called the Marvell Kirkwood 88F6281, using an ARMv5 architecture for the microprocessor part. Marvell didn't build this SOC because Marvell are a fabless semiconductor company. The fabless word means they don't fabricate (or build) semiconductors. Marvell outsourced the build of this Kirkwood SOC to its business partners.

SBC (Single Board Computer)

The manufacturers of SBCs (Single Board Computers) buy these SOCs. An SOC is added to a board along with anything that couldn't be crammed into the SOC, such as even more memory, power management units and interface sockets.

The manufacturer of an SBC has plenty of jobs to do, such as:

  • designing its PCB (Printed Circuit Board),
  • tweaking drivers so it will work with popular operating systems, and
  • knocking up quick prototypes.

The Arduino is an SBC designed to teach electronics to non-technical students, and has caught hobbyists' attention around the world.

The Raspberry Pi is an SBC designed to help teach IT in schools. When websites opened for orders in February, huge demand crashed vendors' servers.

The Cloud Engines Pogoplug storage server contains a SheevaPlug SBC, which in turn contains a Marvell Kirkwood SOC.

Finished product

These SBCs are purchased by product manufacturers. These guys are left with the less technically excruciating work of finishing the consumer product by adding the remaining parts: perhaps some IO connectors, a touchscreen, a battery, and an enclosure.

An ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) manages the whole process of building chips, designing SBCs and shipping the finished product back to the customer. Foxconn is the ODM for Apple, building its iPhone and iPad products.

Branded product

Finally a company buys lots of the finished products, dresses each one in its livery and sells it under their name to a consumer.

About

Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the ...

19 comments
realvarezm
realvarezm

Its a lot more clear the world of hardware. Cheers!

crhend
crhend

That's like asking why the M1A1 Abrams wasn't called the Chrysler Abrams. Foxconn is building the iPAD from Apple's blueprints. The fact that they have to lock in their employees and erect safety nets at the company barracks only means slave labor usage is alive and growing with each Apple purchase.

danbi
danbi

I read the headline, then the article, then tried again.. makes no sense to me. Of course, someone designs architecture (*), someone else mines the raw materials, someone else produces refined materials, yet someone else runs the semiconductor fab (this is, in fact the easiest part -- you just invest some chunk of money and wait for orders -- today it's all automatic black box) to produce chips, someone designs those chips, based on architecture and requirements/needs, then (sometimes) others use those chips to produce PCBs that are generic in nature, then yet others use those generic PCBs adding their firmware and enclosure, their label and have a product. But sometimes the process is not that fuzzy. Take for example Apple and the iPad: Apple designs the iPad from the CPU, up to the packaging and marketing. Apple has licensed the ARM architecture and designed the A1-A5 CPUs. As far as I am aware, they do not design other chips in their devices, but might be possible some of the chips are made to their specification (which is a form of designing them). Then Apple designs the PCB according to their device constraints and wishes. In this process, they have experimented with and selected specific components that will be used. Then they go forward and source the components. From what we know about Apple, they usually pre-pay for the amount they will need in few months, but in return demand very strict quality. When this is all arranged, Apple gives the instructions how to build the thing to their "manufacturing" partners, like Foxconn and they start assembling the device. I have no idea who loads the software, but this is likely either Apple themselves, or strictly controlled group at Foxconn. For the most part, without software what Foxconn builds is useless - except to Apple's competitors. This is more or less the process. Other companies follow very similar pattern. Typically they design their product and send the spec to a factory in China so that it is produced cheap. In many cases, they end up with someone in China stealing their product and starting to produce it. There is yet one story. Many of the "western" companies were lured to build factories in China. The bait is very simple and goes on like this: "You want to build a factory in our country? Good. It is easy. Just provide us with the specifications and we will build it for you. We will then provide you with qualified staff that will do anything you instruct them. If you don't like your staff, just tell the responsible Party officer and you will not see those people anymore. On the next morning, you will have brand new workers in your plant". An offer you cannot refuse, eh? Ok, it's not all, of course, the conversation goes on like this.. "In return, we will build two factories like yours that we will run on our own. These factories will manufacture your goods for the Chinese market. We can assure you, that none of these products will leak outside China!". True story.

Nick Hardiman
Nick Hardiman

Thanks for the comments. Who wants more technical info? If so, what? The new rash of USB sticks you can buy from AliBaba? Embedded Linux support for ARM flavours (I'm English)? Or the new servers stuffed with ARM chips?

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

Do any vendors do a larger chunk of manufacturing than just slapping a label on a product? The Panasonic laptop division claims to build their own products and I know that HP does a bit more than just slap a label on some of their products (such as printers). Bill

edewey
edewey

One of the reasons I'm an IT guy is because I love to understand things and IT is a never ending environment for learning. Your article was an area I have a better understanding of now and thank you for it!

Jay_H
Jay_H

This article is something like you would find in CNN Weekend. Presumably the readers here would like a bit more meat.

Gisabun
Gisabun

"One thousand workers at Foxconns factory in Chengdu in southwestern China rioted on Monday night in a male dormitory. Want China Times reports that workers threw trash bins, paper, bottles and furniture after plant security arrived at the dormitory over concerns about a thief. The workers rioted for two hours and twelve were arrested by police, whom Foxconn had called in. Taiwan-based Foxconn, the largest electronic contract manufacturer in the world and one of Chinas largest employers, described Mondays incident as a disagreement and said that the incident occurred after several of its workers from the plant had a disagreement with a restaurant owner, says CNN."

droidfromsd
droidfromsd

You might even, gasp, get a bit more technical next time in da ARM world.

stevebuck
stevebuck

I am no Apple fan, but I think CNN and other international media should be ashamed for not reporting all the facts, just so they could play on our emotions of what we see as fair play. Foxconn needed to erect those safety nets to keep employees from jumping to their deaths; that part is true. But the reason still is never alluded to in the foreign media: Foxconn's policy provided a huge windfall to a family if an employee suffering a death while on the job. When I say windfall, I mean enough money for the employee's entire extended family (parents, grandparents) to live comfortably for the rest of their lives and never work another day. It was this generous policy that prompted these suicides, not from 'slave labor'. This propaganda continues to be fed by the media. I have lived and worked in Asia for 28 years, and I speak Chinese fluently. CNN and other giant news media always bias news for their own commercial gain or political agenda. We now live in the disinformation age. Sorry for taking this thread way off topic, but it was already going there.

nwallette
nwallette

In many cases, are the employees better off WITHOUT those jobs? Look, life sucks in third world countries. It can suck while making a product for rich Americans, or it can suck while starving to death. I'd love to say that I would boycott products built by companies that subcontract other companies that treat their employees like so much machinery, but I'm not sure it would really help. Things have to change -- more than just which tablet I buy.

droidfromsd
droidfromsd

Since you asked, all the above as time allows and within reason. It may be a bit technical for some to start but I notice there are folks out here like me. I am a hobbyist in my spare time interested in raspberry pi and the like. So the capacity for ARM to do JTAG with ease is important, for example, as is Linux support and speed. Just pick an area and drill down. I predict you will find an audience.

nwallette
nwallette

How about a more in-depth article on the ARM chips themselves? What's the real difference between the A, R, and M lines (heh.. Cortex A-R-M.. I get it)? I dunno how practical that is, and it's certainly something we could find by visiting Wikipedia and some other sites, but as far as interesting (if not useful) pre-digested tech articles, I would dig it. That's just me. Anyway, I haven't seen too many of your articles here. If this is the kind of stuff you do, I'll be watching for more. Keep it up, sir!

nwallette
nwallette

Take Apple for example, with the iPod / iPhone / iPad bit here. Remember, every company listed in the article does a very small part. There's no completed product until the brains behind the operation (Apple) designs a product that will do something (play music), then envisions the UI (capacitive touch wheel and a center button), samples all the various parts (LCD screens, switches, plastics for the enclosure, batteries), and makes a system that fits within the constraints of all the parts and pieces (needs x hours of battery life, drawn at y mA, within a size of z.) Then, they build a supply chain -- signing availability contracts, doing integration testing, working with the fabrication companies to prototype a product for usability testing and internal development -- and then, of course, the software has to be written. When that's all done, there's still packaging design, distribution agreements, marketing, etc.. So, plenty of work still to do. :-)

Nick Hardiman
Nick Hardiman

Despite looking at those A-R-M initials a hundred times, I totally missed what they spell. Can't see the wood for the trees, right? I do some embedded Linux work and can write more, sure.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

I understand it is a collaboration, but I know that HP produces microchips for printers. I worked for a complany that manufactured silicon wafers. They got purchased by a complany that also mined the base materials and made the polysilicate. Are there companies that do a larger portion of their own manufacturing than others?

Nick Hardiman
Nick Hardiman

First thing that springs to mind is Elite and some kind of BBC B add-on. Was that it?

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

Having worked on the development of the first desktop computer based on the ARM, I'd love to know more about the current range of ARM processor designs. Thanks for the introduction. Maybe I should get a job with ARM! I first learned of the ARM processor architecture back in 1986 and was so impressed I applied for a job working with it (and was taken on, even though there was no job advertised). It's very satisfying to know that my opinion of the ARM architecture has been validated by its phenomenal success. A bit of history: ARM originally stood for Acorn RISC Machine (RISC = Reduced Instruction Set Computer) but as Acorn Computers faded into non-existence, its offspring, ARM, reassigned the acronym as Advanced RISC Machine. I think it's a shame when children reject their parent(s) but maybe they thought that Acorn implied "small British company" and might be a hindrance in the future. Whether it would have done we'll never know. I'm just glad I was in there at the beginning.