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Lessons learned touring Chinese electronic factories

In 2017 HardworX led a group of engineers, entrepreneurs, and startup founders to tour Shenzhen. The aim: to demystify hardware manufacturing in China.

The tour wouldn’t be complete without visits to some of China’s leading electronic factories. Some key learnings from the visits included the importance of relationship building, clarity on intellectual property, and the potential to use open source libraries.

Shenzhen city
Shenzhen city

Defond manufacturing principles

Defond, a mid-size electronics manufacturer, was the first factory visit on the tour––and for some participants, their first factory visit ever. Founded in 1978 in Hong Kong as a switch manufacturer, Defond is now a full-service, box build electronics manufacturer. Defond is a full-service manufacturer boasting all the necessary components––including wire cutting, surface mount assembly, and tooling processes––to deliver the highest quality hardware products.

Defond factory Shenzhen
Defond factory

The visit set the tone for the rest of the tour. Walking through the facility allowed participants to see excellent examples of manufacturing principles like lean manufacturing: a term used to describe waste minimisation alongside focussed productivity. At Defond, the production is configured in a cell arrangement to ensure that material flow is efficient and the operators are maximising productivity.

Intellectual property

Besides switches, Defond doesn't manufacture its own products. This means that, while Defond has deep product design and manufacturing expertise, there are no fears that the factory could produce a similar product. Thus, the potential conflict is minimised.

Further, the company uses a number of strategies to protect intellectual property. This includes abstraction between products and key information, ensuring information is kept in a highly secure database, and ensuring data isn’t accessible to those on the production line.

Relationship building

A key learning at Defond was the importance of building relationships. In fact, the group discovered that engagement in China is largely different from anywhere else.

Engaging with companies is not a transaction in China: it’s a mutual relationship. Rather than assuming that a factory will complete the service for you, you must actually pitch yourself to the factory as well. The manufacturing partner is evaluating you, as much as you are evaluating them. Therefore taking time to build relationships in China is essential for manufacturing success.

‘Here in Australia when we approach a service company, we think: ‘we’ll pay you money, and you offer us a service.’ Whereas in China, you pay the money for manufacturing, but the relationship is just as important’, said Sarah Last, MimicTec.

For more learnings from Defond watch the full tour.

SEEED Studio: A company for makers

Later in the tour, the HardworX group visited a smaller-scale electronics manufacturer––an interesting comparison to Defond. SEEED Studios is a Chinese-native company and a global player in the open-source hardware ecosystem. It’s known as a factory created for the Maker community, and the company was integral in bringing the Maker Faire to Shenzhen.

Startups across the world prototype and produce products with SEEED. Its impressive reputation meant that some tour group participants had engaged with the company before.

SEEED’s inception was centred around the founders’ shared ethos around creativity. They were heavily involved in the local maker movement and, after noticing the roadblocks to innovation, SEEED was born. The company became a place to empower makers to innovate rapidly.

In addition to electronics manufacture, SEEED designs, manufactures, and distributes electronics kits for makers. The company is also an ideas incubator and has a hackerspace for innovation known as the X Factory.

Rapid reconfiguration

On the production floor, the team was surprised that the factory is smaller than many of the facilities they saw in China, yet can be reconfigured quickly to complete a large output of short runs. This enables the company to get the maximum use of the machines and space available, whilst supporting a broad product range.

The compact production, made up of an SMT line with selective soldering, boasts advanced manufacturing technologies, and has solid professional processes in place. A digital dashboard on the floor shows live information, including the production status of all the boards in the queue for assembly. This helps to ensure projects run on time and within budget.

SEEED are unique; they have manufacturing best-practice at the core of everything they do and have introduced it to makers.

Open Parts Library

Being aware of open source libraries and making use of them when appropriate was another core learning. SEEED has an open parts library of products that have already been designed and tested. Makers are able to choose these products and use them in their products. Using these parts means a better chance of getting a product completed on time and within budget.

‘SEEED’s archive of open parts is a great idea’, said tour participant Andy Gelme, LIFX. ‘It’s basically a form of standardisation and standardisation helps everyone. It allows you to keep a small amount of stock, there’s less likelihood of mistakes, it increases efficiency, and reduces costs.’

The open parts library is just one way in which SEEED supports the marker community. Co-founder, Eric Pan, said ‘we are facing a new era where makers are uniting to make more important products. These days it should be about innovating with China, not just made in China.’

To learn more, watch the full documentary of the tour of SEEED.

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.

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Highlights reel of See inside some of Shenzhen's leading PCB and STM factories to learn about how PCBs and PCAs are manufactured in this highlights reel from the 2018 HardworX tour to Shenzhen.


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