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How Are Computers Made?

Cheap Products Need Cheap Resources

Whether it’s a svelte tablet or a full-size desktop computer, many natural resources and a lot of human labor go into making your high-tech digital toys.
Whether it’s a svelte tablet or a full-size desktop computer, many natural resources and a lot of human labor go into making your high-tech digital toys.
Courtesy Lenovo

Computer manufacturing requires a ton of resources. Actually, it requires a couple of tons. In fact, a United Nations University study found that it takes about 1.8 tons of raw materials to make one desktop PC, meaning each computer requires about 10 times its weight in materials and chemicals before it's ready to go to work. That means computers are more demanding in terms of materials than say, a much bigger appliance, such as an oven or refrigerator, or even an automobile, which require roughly one to two times their own weight in materials.

A single computer chip, for instance, requires a significant number of materials for successful product. Fossil fuels that power the energy needed for all of the production processes are vital. And for each chip, around 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels are necessary.

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Before it can leave the production line, each chip must be cleaned carefully with water. This flushing procedure for one chip can consume about 9 gallons of water [source: EnviroLiteracy]. It's no wonder, then, that more than 400 gallons of water are needed to make the entire computer.

Your computer also requires significant amounts of aluminum. Aluminum is great for devices, such as laptops and smartphones, which required rugged but lightweight cases or framework. In order to obtain aluminum, we have to mine for bauxite, which is then converted into aluminum oxide through an energy-intensive process.

Manufacturers could reduce the energy need to make one laptop, for example, by around 90 percent if they would use only recycled aluminum. However, in the United States, only about 30 percent of aluminum is recycled, meaning there's much less of this material to go around to various companies that want to use it.

The list of resources needed for electronics construction goes on and on. That's a primary reason that this organization encourages consumers to upgrade outdated computers instead of discarding them [source: InfoWorld].

It's definitely worth noting that there's also a human cost to massive production levels. As with all high-demand products, companies vie for price advantages by finding inexpensive labor wherever possible, even if it means using foreign workers. Sometimes those employees work intense hours at meager wages and in poor conditions [source: PCGlobal].

So long as our hunger for computers, tablets and smartphones grows, so too will the resources and labor needed to make them. It's a testament to the ingenuity and hard work of electronics makers that so many millions of devices make it retail outlets around the world every month of every year.

Author's Note: How Are Computers Made?

I landed my first job out of college at the headquarters of a major computer manufacturer. As part of my orientation, the human resources manager took me on a tour of the entire facility, including the factory floor. It was there that I first began to understand the sheer enormity of the tasks involved in computer making.

Hundreds of people scurrying to and fro, gathering parts, assembling components, in a ceaseless hum of activity designed to sate our desire for digital tools and toys. It's almost hard to believe that the end result of all of that labor and material cost, at most, maybe a couple of thousand dollars. Seeing it up close not only helped me appreciate the materials that go into each machine, but also the sweat and hard work of each person on the factory lines.

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Sources

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