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China’s maker evolution

Known globally as the ‘world’s factory’, China is the largest manufacturing economy on the planet. While the country is famous for manufacturing internationally-designed products, China isn’t widely known for its own creative entrepreneurs. That, however, is changing. A maker movement is occurring. The government is supporting and investing in entrepreneurship and creativity.

Shenzhen city at night
Shenzhen city

The pivot to focus on creation, as well as production, is evidenced by the country’s switch from the ‘Made in China’ campaign, to the ‘Created in China’ campaign. Further, state-run newspaper, Liberation Daily, claims that ‘the future of China’s maker industry will be very competitive’.

In 2017 HardworX, led a group of eleven engineers, entrepreneurs, and startup founders to tour Shenzhen, ‘Asia’s Silicon Valley’. The tour invited hardware professionals to engage with, and understand, Shenzhen, to break down some of the barriers to entry, and learn essential skills for manufacturing at scale.

With many of the tour group members active in Melbourne’s maker scene, participants were curious to learn more about the Chinese maker evolution and immerse themselves into the Chinese startup scene.

One of the tour participants, Hans Chang of FAB9 said, ‘China is going through a massive transformation. It’s moving from an export, manufacture-driven, economy into a service-driven one.’

The Shenzhen Maker Faire––the second largest in the world––provided the perfect place to kick off the tour. Maker Faires, which take place globally, celebrate making, innovation, and creativity. They offer a place for makers across the world to share their products. The philosophy is to openly share, collaborate, and drive forward innovation.

‘Only by collaborating openly with each other, can we gain better synergy. The best way to do that is through show and tell. That’s the meaning behind the Maker Faire’, says Eric Pan, CEO SEEED Studio, Maker Faire partner and organizer.

SEEED Studio’s mission is to make hardware accessible and to lower the threshold for hardware innovation. SEEED does this by providing open technology and agile manufacturing services that support the global development community.

The 2017 Faire was themed ‘Makers Go Pro’. It was designed for professional creators who have developed scalable products, rather than just hobbyists. For the tour group of engineers, entrepreneurs, and startup founders exposure to Chinese thinkers and innovators was incredible.

Maker Faire 2017 Shenzhen
Makers Go Pro 2017

The tour group was able to meet and share ideas with professional makers in the Chinese startup ecosystem. Furthermore, the Faire’s forums with expert speakers helped the tour participants expand their knowledge of scalability and the nuances of Chinese manufacture.

A real standout event for the group was the opportunity to have dinner with well-known hardware hacker and founder of chumby, Novena, and Chibitronics, Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang. Bunnie shared his thoughts on the state of the maker movement in China and his experiences of navigating the complex world of Chinese manufacturers in bringing products to market. (Bunnie's blog

A vast range of technologies and products were showcased by knowledgeable speakers within the ecosystem. With a strong focus on STEM, the inventions included three-propellor drones, sophisticated robots, high-tech lasers, and machine learning technology. One exhibitor created shoes––and an accompanying frame with vents––that allowed him to walk on water. Another designed a toy for children which was able to convey relatively complex programming concepts. Fashion electronics were another highlight; both 3D printing and LED lighting were incorporated into fabrics and clothing.

‘Due to the close proximity of factories, makerspaces, and accelerators, the sophistication of what a maker can achieve here in Shenzhen is much greater. They’re doing things that we only dream of in Australia’, says tour participant Andy Gelme, LIFX.

The Faire was a full immersion into professional making and the hardware startup ecosystem in China. The experience whet the group’s appetite for Shenzhen’s hardware ecosystem and gave them a true taste of what it takes to conceptualise and build products of the future.

Watch the documentary of the tour to the Maker Faire:

The xFactory

The Maker Faire is an annual event that attracts international visitors, as well as makers, from all over China. Much like in the west, the maker scene in China has spawned many maker spaces, including xFactory.

Opened in early 2017––with the support of SEEED Studio and the Chinese Government, and operated by Chaihuo Maker Space––the xFactory is a well-fitted, modern maker space featuring production-grade machines for in-house prototyping and small batch production services. This includes production-quality CNC machines, pick-and-place machines, and 3D printers. The factory is a space where creativity is celebrated. It includes programs, lecture series, and assistance to help makers produce products at scale.

‘It was similar to a coworking space,’ says Sarah Last, Mimitec. ‘It was pitched as a landing pad to learn about manufacturing in China.’

The xFactory is a place where both foreign and local makers could come together to share ideas and develop products.

The XFactory building
The xFactory

Open source

One of SEEED’s key values is maintaining openness in the maker industry. At the xFactory, openness isn’t a goal: it’s at the core of everything they do. The open-source nature is designed to benefit makers and to drive forward innovation.

‘The idea is: you should be able to share your technology because together we make it great,’ says Sarah Last, Mimitec.

Sharing and collaboration are built into the xFactory’s design. Much of the space is open plan, with large creative areas, and inspiring displays. While some areas of the factory need to be separated for safety reasons, (like areas with mechanical equipment) the walls were made from glass. Eric Pan, CEO SEEED Studio, said this is intentional.

“In the xFactory there is a big window where you can see machines in action and that is quite important because humans learn by mimicking others.’

The tour group found the xFactory environment to be inspiring, accessible, and inviting. The factory could make the perfect starting point for startups and entrepreneurs wanting to engage with China.

Watch the documentary tour of the group's visit to the xFactory.

HardworX would like to thank all those who made the tour possible, and in particular:

  • Karl von Möller for his passion and dedication in producing this documentary series. The entire documentary episode list can be viewed here.

  • All of the factories for welcoming the tour group, spending time, and sharing knowledge. To view a list of the factories visited, click here.

The HardworX Shenzhen Innovation 2017 tour group consisted of tour leader Vela Georgiev, participants Andy Gelme, Brian Gilbert, Jon Oxer, Kemal Ajay, Liam Brennan, Noor Magesh, Sarah Last, Tom Partridge, Simon Holmes a Court, Hans Chang, and Karl von Möller.

Related videos

Shenzhen Maker Faire - a different perspective

Tour participant Jon Oxer captured the Maker Fair experience in this video which features on this Superhouse channel.

China Hi Tech Fair

The 2018 HardworX tour to Shenzhen coincided with a visit to China Hi Tech Fair (CHTF) - the largest and the most influential scientific and technological fair in China. Highlights from the Hi Tech Fair are captured below.

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