After raw materials are built into finished components, the computer is far from complete. Someone must put all of those components together in a finished product that can be shipped straight to consumers or to a retail outlet.
Of course, you already know that manufacturers build computers in mass quantities in factories. Economies of scale mean that constructing many machines at once pushes down the price of a product so that they're easier to make and cheaper to sell. Companies such as Dell Computers are constantly searching for ways to streamline product construction so that they can maintain solid profit margins.
When you order a Dell computer online, you can specify various components, such as a larger hard drive or more RAM. After you complete your order, it's logged into the manufacturing facility's order system.
Then, employees pull the parts necessary to build your machine, placing them into a tote on a conveyor belt. In the last step of this process, workers select a chassis that matches the number and size of parts in your order.
With all necessary parts gathered together, a technician builds the computer by hand. As she does so, she scans the serial number of each individual part (such as the optical drives and hard drives), which associates each part with the service tag on your machine. By doing so, the company knows exactly which parts are in your computer, and thus, can offer better technical support when necessary.
The completed computer then travels to the software installation area. Most companies pre-load an operating system, along with other basic software onto the hard drive as a matter of convenience. Once the installation process is complete, the machine undergoes automated testing to ensure that all of its parts are present and working correctly. Then the product is boxed and shipped to its destination.
And a lot of this process is automated, in order to make it even speedier and more efficient. That said, there's still a lot of manual labor required to assemble both individual parts and final working computers.
That's a lot of work for a device that has an expected lifespan of perhaps 18 months to two years. On the next page you'll see more about why computer manufacturing is such an intense process, and how it affects us all.