2013-01-27 The End

Well, that was an epic tour of the Shenzhen industrial complex. I think I've talked a lot about the different processes we saw and my feelings about the factory tours. This trip was a lot more than that though. I got to know a great group of people as we navigated our way through the complex markets, vast industrial factories, language miscommunications, and various other obstacles that we hit on this trip. Everyone pulled together and helped each other out and for an industrial tour of this scale, I think it was a huge success.
Bunnie outdid himself in planning all the tours and this trip will undoubtedly leave a heavy mark in everyone's lives and careers. Even though I'm been in the engineering industry for a long time, I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to experience this much condensed manufacturing knowledge at one time. There's no way I could ever return to being the same designer I was one month ago. I'm pretty sure everyone else feels the same way.
2013-01-26 Generator Conference

My final day in Shenzhen and also the final event on the itinerary is the Generator Conference. This is a conference put on by Cyril Ebersweiler and Seeed Studios for the hardware startup scene. It was a little bit crazy for us because the previous night, we had a big BBQ party on the top of Rapscallions and invited a bunch of people including AQS, HAXLR8R, Dangerous Prototypes, PCH, and others. It turned into a huge bender and most of the group had some degree of hangover today. Bunnie had the worst of it and I think it was the final few rounds of vodka or whisky last night that did him in. Bunnie is also one of the speakers at the Generator conference which is going to be interesting.  
The Generator conference was right next to Seeed Studio which was located far away from us. We took two taxis out there but ended up getting lost along the way. We finally were able to meet up at a subway station near the place and walked to the conference from there. At the entrance to the venue, Cyril greeted us with his custom "Hardware is a Bitch" shirt and wearing NekoMimi neural cat ears. I can see why traditionally VC-averse people like Zach and Mitch Altman like him. I can see myself getting along with him too.
2013-01-24 PCH

Although the factory tours had ended, that didn't mean the events had ended. As usual, the schedule was still packed and today, we had the chance to visit the headquarters of a large contract manufacturer and logistics company called PCH. According to rumors I overheard, PCH was named by the founders, a group of Irishmen, as they were traveling down Pacific Coast Highway in California. They needed a name for their company and figured PCH would work.

PCH is the parent company of the logistics company we visited, CTS. They also handle manufacturing for many Apple products and accessories as well as various other brands. They run a technology accelerator to help smaller companies get to manufacturing and provide services and consulting to the companies in the accelerator. Darragh Hudson is one of the heads of the accelerator and he also owns a popular restaurant in the Coco Park district called Rapscallions. We've been going there regularly so we've met up with Darragh a few times already.
2013-01-22 AUK Connectors

For the final factory tour, we visited AUK Connectors. Bunnie wanted to show us a connector factory because connectors are the pinnacle of plastic injection molding technology. Making connectors is orders of magnitude harder than making things like injection molded enclosures because the tolerances are so tight. Any type of flashing occurring due to tool wear will drastically affect the connector and hence somebody's design. A good connector manufacturer needs to constantly check and test their tooling to make sure it's always within spec.

Before I saw the AUK manufacturing operation, I did not realize that connector manufacturing was so difficult. The tour started off in their sample room with them showing us the various connectors they make and also showing us a short PPT intro of their company. One of the things that caught my attention was that one area they focus on is customized connectors. Of course I started asking a lot of questions about it. I was curious what it took to make a custom connector. The tooling fee varies but it is in the area of around $30k for a custom connector. In my opinion, it's worth it after seeing what they have to go through with the tooling. The per connector charge also varies depending on the composition and complexity of the connector, but in general, it sounds like the NRE for the custom connector is the big hurdle.

Today we went on one of the most interesting tours of this trip. It's something that I've always been interested in but didn't really know how to approach. The tour was of a chip-on-board bare die bonding assembly house. For those that don't know, one interesting technique used for very low cost, high volume products is bare die bonding. In this process, the bare die is used rather than a die packaged in a lead frame and epoxy resin. This has two benefits. The first is that the form factor is decreased since only the bare die is used. The second benefit is that its possible to save cost since packaging materials usually add cost to a chip.

There are headaches with doing a bare die process. You'll have to negotiate with a vendor to purchase bare die rather than packaged die and you'll also usually have a rather high minimum order quantity. The minimum order quantity can vary depending on whether the manufacturer is set up to do bare die sales, but the general rule of thumb I've heard is that the MOQ would be one wafer, which for something like a simple ARM or AVR microcontroller would be in the thousands.
2013-01-21 Okano SMT and Speaker Factory

The same day we went to the sanitary napkin factory, we also went to two other factories. I broke them up into two parts because there were too many factories to write about and it would have turned into a huge post.

After lunch we headed to the Okano PCB Assmembly house. Okano is a joint venture between Okano in Taiwan and AQS so it was easy to set that tour up. Unfortunately, Okano didn't want pictures being taken inside the factory because one of their large customers was Nintendo and they didn't want the PCB pictures and assembly process for them to get leaked on to the internet. I was only able to take pictures of the initial setup to go into the factory. By now, we're all pretty used to the gear needed to go into an SMT assembly factory. All PCB assembly houses are paranoid about ESD since they result in soft failures that are difficult to diagnose. For Okano, we had to get dressed up in the standard ESD frocks, hair nets, and shoe condoms. This was the first picture I got of all of us geared up to go into an assembly house though since Huawei wouldn't allow cameras.

Today we got taken to visit a diaper and sanitary napkin factory. Bunnie had AQS line this one up because he wanted everyone to be exposed to a non electronics manufacturing operation. The factory was actually quite with only three lines total and one line in operation. The line in operation was a diaper line and we were able to see in detail how diapers were made. I'm not familiar with the exact details of what was happening throughout the process, but the general idea is that paper napkins were being layered on top of each other to form a sort of paper sandwich. Along with that, there were other operations that needed to be done such as adding the elastic bands, some cotton filling, and spritzing the diapers with perfume.

The factory was quite young at only one year old. The owners were formerly paper based product distributors and ran a trading company in that industry. They eventually got to the point where it just made sense for them to own their own factory. What I'm now understanding about Shenzhen is that this is not a difficult undertaking. There is a company that sold them the whole machine as a finished product. Technically, I guess it'd be called something like a "modular paper layering machine" but you can buy one for about $300k USD. This machine can be configured to be used to make diapers, sanitary napkins, or likely any other paper based product that requires layering on paper and there are technicians available that can teach how the machine is used, configure it, and repair it.

Yesterday and today are free days that we had to work on our own stuff, but David organized an optional trip out to OCT (Overseas Chinese Town) which is kind of an artist's district in Shenzhen. The name comes from the company that created the area. It seems the people that made the area are overseas Chinese and wanted to create a place that reminded them of the artsy districts in other countries like the US. It's in a slightly wooded area and has a indie shops, book stores, restaurants, and coffee shop. It's a refreshing break from the hustle of Hua Qiang Pei, the electronics district here in Shenzhen.

David organized a talk with Cyril from HAXLR8R about what HAXLR8R is and how incubators work so the media lab designers could get a better idea about it. The talk was going to be held at the ChaiHuo Makerspace, a makerspace started in Shenzhen. I actually brought some things to work on for the Makerspace, mainly because I wanted to get an idea of what it's like to try and do projects at a hackerspace in Shenzhen.

Today our destination was a motor manufacturer called Lotus. This manufacturer is used often by AQS and so they were able to set us up with a very hands on tour. As opposed to the Huawei and CTS tours, pictures were allowed and we were able to get deep into the process and parts. One of the things I've taken a liking to is working with the small and medium sized manufacturers rather than the larger ones. At a smaller size, customized designs are much easier and the processes are flexible enough that changes can be made sometimes on the fly. The larger manufacturers are much more rigid in their processes and methodology. Although they're more polished, it usually comes at a price so it's difficult to make changes or do small batch test runs.

Lotus is a medium sized motor manufacturer and the facility we visited manufactures DC motors. They have a separate facility to manufacture stepper motors as well, but we were not able to go to that factory. Once we arrived at the factory, they took us to the sample room to talk a little bit about the types of motors they manufacture. After this, we went to a small room where they put together customized sample motors. These are custom DC motors that are requested by their customers and the initial sample quantities are handmade.


This post is out of chronological order because I wanted to wait for the custom clothing to be finished before posting it.

It's the weekend so Bunnie offered to take us on a fun trip to the LuoHu fabric mall. It's a place where you can get raw materials and also contract tailors to make custom clothing. The fabric mall itself was an impressive collection of stalls selling all kinds of fabric like denim, linen, cashmere, etc. Walking through the place was just floor to ceiling fabrics of all types. In the back, there were a bunch of tailors that would custom make the clothing for you from the available fabrics. All you had to do was go to a tailor, specify the clothing you wanted, either from the available magazines, a picture you have, or even a sketch. Then an assistant goes with you through the fabric stalls and helps you find the fabric that you want to use. Once it's done, then you negotiate the price of the fabric and the labor. Once the pricing is settled, you take your fabric back to the tailors shop, get the measurements, pay for the labor, and your custom made clothing or bag will be available in approximately one week.


Today's tour destination was Huawei. For those that don't know, Huawei is a gigantic Chinese communications equipment provider. They're also an MIT Media Lab sponsor so the tour could be lined up through the mutual relationship with the lab. In the first part, we'll be meeting with the R&D engineers, they'll be demonstration what they're working on, and the students will be giving a presentation on what they're working on in the lab. In the second part of the tour, we'll go out to Dongguan where HuaThe wei is establishing a new manufacturing facility. Over there, we'll be able to see their SMT, test, and final assembly lines for their cell phones. They are a major manufacturer of cell phones in many countries except the US from what I understand. Unfortunately, Huawei also has a strict no camera policy and we weren't allowed to bring any type of camera, laptop, or memory stick to their R&D and factory areas.

At first, they gave us a tour of the exhibition area and explained what Huawei does. There was a lot of infrastructure communications equipment down there and it was kind of nice getting back in contact with my communications background. Bunnie and I were geeking out over a lot of the big iron rack mount communications equipment there, while Jie and Pip were geeking out over the designer furniture they had there. Engineers versus designers.

Ha ha ha.


It's Monday and the factory tours are starting up again. Today's destination is a logistics facility called CTS that works with big brands like Apple, Beats by Dre, etc, and suprisingly, Little Bits. The security was extremely heavy at this facility and we needed to provide passports and go through security clearance before we entered the facility. Cameras were unfortunately not allowed since Apple products are housed there so there are no pictures of this facility. 

The first area we were taken to is the packaging department. For mass production, most people including myself only consider the production of the actual product. However there are also separate assembly lines for the packaging. We were watching one popular consumer product getting packaged up and there were eighteen people in the assembly line. It starts with an empty acrylic box. Paper inserts were put in the front and back with the company logo and product picture. A molded insert was then added to hold the product, labels were added, barcode stickers, documentation, accessories, styrofoam bag to encase the main device, and then the final product was put into a shipping box. 

Day four of the Shenzhen trip and the destination was a contract manufacturer called Eagle. They had both a plastics injection molding side and also an electonics assembly manufacturing side. Bunnie chose this site to provide a contrast to Colinda which is the injection molding factory we saw earlier.

For the injection molding side, it's our third plastics factory we visited so there wasn't a whole lot that was new to us. However it was interesting to see how their process differed from the others. It was obvious that Colinda was a smaller factory, Kunda was specialized in huge automotive tooling and specialty plastics, and Eagle had more of a polished operational process.


This is day 3 of the MIT Media Lab organized Shenzhen Trip and it feels like it's already been an eternity. I can feel a lot of my attitudes towards design changing by seeing the manufacturing flows and factories. Previously I would unconsciously limit myself to different possibilities because things like doing an injection molded enclosure felt outside of my reach in terms of cost and volume. After seeing and talking to the people here, many are willing to take on all kinds of projects and offer a lot of help. It all depends on the relationship you have with them. It's a very Asian thing.

Today we're taking a break from the factory tours and going to the South China Market. This market is kind of in the middle of nowhere about an hour's drive outside of Shenzhen. It's a huge market spanning probably a few kilometers on each side and rather than small stalls, each manufacturer occupies a proper shop space. The storefront is just a showroom and you go into the shops to discuss business with each manufacturer.


 Okay, I think there were some issues with the old pages that I put the original journal on. I've just moved them to some new pages that should be faster. Sorry about that.

Anyhow, on with the story. Today, we went on a tour of a bag and luggage factory in the Dongguan area. It's really nice because it's a change from the decidedly tech nature of the trip. Many of the Media Lab members are interested in textiles and soft circuits, and Bunnie and I have pretty much seen a lot of electronics assembly lines.


The first day of tours started and it was an amazing experience. I've never been really super interested in the process of injection molding but after seeing how things are done, I found the subject fascinating. We started the day off taking the van to an injection molding factory. The owner of the factory welcomed us with open arms and surprisingly allowed us to take pictures inside the facility.

Our first stop was a meeting room where the owner brought out samples of injection molded devices for us to examine. Coleman, an injection molding expert from AQS (a contract manufacturer that's helping us organize the tours) and Bunnie were explaining how the parts were made, the materials, finish, what decisions went into making the mold, defects, and identifying the markings from the different parts of the mold. I was impressed how much information could be had just by looking at a plastic enclosure. They were able to reverse engineer the design tradeoffs that the designers had to make, some bad decisions, and were easily able to approximate the cost of the tooling and cost per part.

2013-01-06 - The Beginning

It started out with me, Bunnie, and some other members of Tokyo Hackerspace on one of his trips to Tokyo about six months ago. We were talking about possibly doing a summer hacker train trip across Northern Siberia using the TransSiberian Railway or the Baikal Amur Mainline which runs parallel to it to tour the back country of Russia. This actually turned into an active project and one of the (crazier) girls in Tokyo Hackerspace is organizing the trip for this summer. Here's more info.

Of course we were also getting buzzed off of beers at the izakaya we were at when Bunnie casually mentioned that he might do a month long workshop in Shenzhen for MIT Media Lab. The purpose was to teach the grad student designers about how to take their designs to manufacturing. My immediate reflex when I heard "month, shenzhen, manufacturing, bunnie" was to force myself into the project. 

So here I am, prepping to leave for Hong Kong today, then take a bus up into Shenzhen to meet up with Bunnie. He's arranged living apartments for all the participants including myself and Sean Cross (formerly of Chumby) as mentors. The MIT Media Lab students are grad student designers and this is technically an (independent activities period (IAP)) study project.