Let’s start with step one: the laser cutters and hydraulic presses.
Lian Li uses a laser cutter for defining wide-sweeping shapes in thicker aluminum paneling. Examples might be rounded borders of a 2mm thick aluminum panel, cutting out panels from raw sheet metal, or even cutting their Bora fan aluminum borders, which are made on this very laser cutter in Taiwan. Lian Li’s desk PC case is also largely made on the laser cutter. The laser cutter is attached to a liquid nitrogen tank that’s the size of a conversion van, used primarily to boost the cutting power of the laser for dense metals, with a byproduct of cooling the equipment for continuous use. Each of these machines costs right around $1,000,000 USD, but there’s an ongoing maintenance cost for refilling the nitrogen tank. Lian Li uses two full tanks of this size per month, requiring routine recharges.
Alternatively, and directly across from the laser cutter, case manufacturing can also use hydraulic presses for functionally stamping-out the shapes in the panels. These presses are configured to punch holes in the case and in several locations simultaneously, making them significantly faster than a laser cutter for complex designs. An example of a design more suitable to a hydraulic press than the laser would be a mesh ventilated panel. Mesh ventilation requires dozens of small holes. With a laser cutter, you’d have one laser cutting a full circle to exclude the unwanted metal for each individual hole. It’d take forever to do, and manufacturing cost would skyrocket as a result. Although fundamentally similar in concept, a hydraulic press makes the most sense here. These particular units cost approximately $1,000,000 USD each, and Lian Li uses several of them to keep the factory operating efficiently.
Just behind these machines is a large washing machine for cases. Case panels and other metal components, like drive sleds, need to be individually washed before progressing in production. This is because the previous machines all use lubricants, mostly oils, to keep the presses running. That lubricant can get onto the paneling, which could eventually be made into a permanent blemish if allowed to continue without a wash. This giant washing machine uses a conveyer belt and a pressure washer. On the far end of the conveyer belt, a worker straps case componentry – like drive sleds – down to the belt for washing. As it progresses through the washer, the parts get pressure washed by internal hosing, with a waterfall forming underneath to filter and recycle the water where possible. This reduces waste of water and also reduces cost. At the other end of the line, the pieces are spat out into a container and then moved to the appropriate assembly area.
The next machine is the grinder, which is a simple, but interesting two-step process for finishing aluminum pieces. Several grind stones are positioned along this machine and are used for ridding of sharp imperfections on the panel edges. This smooths down the panel to perfection. A panel is fed in by workers, grinded down, and fed out the other end. The workers then begin step 2, where they restart the process, but use a non-woven cotton spool to create hairline brushes in the aluminum. The result is that ever-noticeable brushed aluminum faceplate. Water is used for lubricating this machine, and is recycled to reduce waste and cost. The machine goes through tens of tons of water per hour, and does so at a relatively high pressure.
Next, a panel can be taken to the automatic welding machine to arc weld the panel clips onto cases. These are an iconic Lian Li design, and are socketable balls that clip into the chassis frame. In this example, Lian Li is manufacturing the Ncase N1 side panels, where each panel takes upwards of 30 seconds to outfit with just the mounting joints – it’s no wonder the N1 is so expensive, when considering that machine time carries significant cost. Every second extra spent making the N1 is time that could be spent making a mass volume case, and so that time must be paid for somewhere. For this machine, a small ball joint is first secured to the panel via impact, where a Lian Li-exclusive pin solution ensures security. Once impact hammered into place, the panel is ready to get zapped by the welder. It’s a satisfying “pop” and burst of light, and the end result is a secure mounting joint for side panels. The machine works autonomously, but has personnel oversight. Each weld runs off of 300,000 volts, but we’re told that it doesn’t need much current to secure these pins to a flat side panel, and so is relatively low amperage. Once the panel exits the welder, the technician manually grinds down the edges of each ball joint to achieve smoothness, finally concluding with a double-check versus a reference panel to ensure consistent production runs. As for why Lian Li goes to such overkill to manufacture a side panel, we’re told that the company’s spec for connection cycles is 3000 – meaning that you should be able to remove or socket this panel 3000 times prior to possible failure. In other words, if you resocketed the panel twice a day for 4 years, you might eventually encounter a weld joint failure.
After this, the same technician can take the panel back to another hydraulic press, this one capable of exerting 1.1 million newtons of force. This is used for the same punching process as described earlier, but might be useful if a panel needs a second pass. Some panel designs require multiple passes to ensure structural integrity of the metal during manufacturing.
A folding machine is also used nearby, deployed for exactly what its name indicates. Stamped or laser cut metal sheets are set nearby, and can be fed into a folding machine to bend case paneling to spec. This is useful for unibody designs or for more traditional designs.
For the last part of this factory, a customized, world’s only thread boring solution exists near the exit and entrance. This final machine drills threaded and unthreaded holes into the metal panels. The machine can drill up to an impressive 60 holes at once, but the drill bits have to be kept lubricated and cooled somehow. Rather than spraying a solvent onto the bits, as done in many factories, Lian Li custom-made its own solution. Brilliantly, the bits drill into the panel, pass through it, and enter an oil tank for cooling and cleaning. This allows for an efficient solution that doesn’t require more moving parts, and enables total customization of the panels made on this machinery.
Next, we venture across the street to visit Lian Li’s other factory. The second factory is back in the main office, and is shared with designers, engineers, and executives. This factory is only in use for 5-10 days per month, but Lian Li is hoping to ramp-up production soon to put the factory into heavier use. The first machine in this factory is a flattener, almost like a giant roller, that workers feed punched sheets into to flatten. In the demonstration they gave us, a sheet of raw aluminum was used, but the machine typically works with punched-out materials to counter the chance of multiple locations of applied force warping the metal. The flattener has a limitation of 3mm sheets, but this is plenty thick for aluminum and Lian Li doesn’t need more. Once flattened, the sheet is ready for anodizing and is near the end of the process; however, this factory also has several additional machines that get used before the flattener.
One of these is another line of hydraulic presses, which were punching out drive sleds during our visit to the factory. The presses have motion sensors for safety and will stop instantly if they detect what might be hand movement nearby, but otherwise will operate largely autonomously from raw sheet metal to produce small components that get used in cases. Unused raw materials can be recycled to reduce cost and waste. Lian Li has 8 of these automatic shaping machines, as they call them, and an additional 11 SNC-110 presses, with SNC2-220 presses on the other side. The SNC presses jointly process 350 case components per hour, with 10 days’ worth of processing per month. Each press can apply 200 tons of pressure, some can apply 250 tons of pressure, and will work in two rounds of pressing. This line wasn’t operational during our visit, but they typically work autonomously, press a sheet, and then use suction cups to automatically move the metal to the next machine for another round of pressing. Multiple rounds are used to increase the distribution of applied forces such that warps are less likely to occur.
Each of these machines uses a “tool.” You’ve likely heard us talk about “case tooling” before, and this is where that comes into play. Tools are made as one-offs, or very limited runs, using a CNC. One tool that we saw in particular was for the A75 case, and cost upwards of $12,000 to make the particular tool that we were shown. Typical tooling cost is $2,000 to $10,000 per tool, and an individual case can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the past, other companies have shown us cases that had tooling costs exceeding $600,000 USD. Raw material cost is only a few hundred dollars, but the CNC time is expensive – every minute used on the CNC, especially for multiple revisions, is time that could be used making a sellable product. Lian Li’s engineers spend about a month on revisions of the tools, which also has a cost, and that’s not counting the initial design period. Tools are mounted to the underside of the hydraulic press machines and are used to stamp-out panels and, despite being made of steel, these can still be fragile. The tools have to be grounded and have static charges removed prior to use, as a static charge can suck-up the panels and break the tools.
After all of this, Lian Li sends the panels upstairs for anodizing, assembly, and shipping, at which point consumers can buy the finished product.
That’s how cases are made. This is all done in Taiwan, but additional facilities are being made in China.
Editorial: Steve Burke
Video: Andrew Coleman + Keegan Gallick