Did you know that there is a place in this earth where electronics and product development is not a weird thing that can only be found in engineering firms, universities and some smart but awkward dude’s garage?
During October 2018, Developpa had the opportunity to experience this reality by visiting the so-called “Silicon Valley of Hardware”.
About the trip
Business or leisure? Always both! Developpa got invited to Shenzhen in order to provide technical assistance and insight to one of its on-going development and design projects from client Stak Engineering.
This meant that the first motive and priority of the visit was to source electronic components, buy the required tools for the development project, provide feedback on the manufacturing process and explore further commercial opportunities.
In your average business trip, people would normally “do the job” and then scape to do some sight-seeing or eat local food.
What was fantastic about this Shenzhen visit, is that the business trip itself was an interesting and opening mind experience where most of the things to do and see where an intrinsically part of the work. This, of course, taking into account the electronics engineering background (anyone else will probably not have enjoyed much).
Shenzhen is a city with a population of around 15 million located at the south of China, literally behind Hong Kong.
From a small town in the 1970’s with a population of 100,000 to the current gigantic metropolis, Shenzhen is the fastest-growing major city of humanity.
It is also the HQ of many tech companies such as Huawei, BYD and ZTE.
If you want to know more info about Shenzhen check this Quora post.
Just moving from the airport to the hotel, a lot of interesting little details started to pop-out.
The first “wow, that’s different, interesting and kind of cool” moment was on the taxi from Hong Kong to the Chinese border. For some reason, the taxi driver had 6 different smartphones in front of his face. We inquired the driver with the question: “is that to talk with all of your girlfriends?” But got no reply back, therefore the reason for so many smartphones it is still unknown.
Although this first impression seems silly and irrelevant, it reveals how there is an “electronics culture” in this society.
there is an “electronics culture” in this society
Smartphones are generally not cheap, but this guy has six. What does that mean? That technology is cheap and available to everyone, even for a low-income worker such as a taxi driver.
Keeping six smartphones charged from a 12V car battery output is not a common situation. Therefore the driver had to do some modification to the taxi or hired someone to do it. What does that mean? That there is a spirit of “technology is here to adapt it for your needs”. This mentality fosters innovation and the creation of better products and services.
Although these are just assumptions, you will see from the rest of the article, that there is a good chance that these interpretations are right.
Shenzhen on-ground transportation
Although I do not agree with totalitarian states, in some situations, when they enforce the right policy, it can actually be better than in a democratic/bureaucratic country.
In Shenzhen, you can only see electric taxis and electric public buses. A combination of government mandate plus the fact that the cars and buses are designed and manufactured by BYD, a Chinese auto manufacturer, made the quick adoption and implementation of the electric vehicle fleet possible.
Although electric vehicles are not the ultimate solution for climate change, as the Lithium batteries and the rare metals used in parts such as the electric motor are very resource intensive, it definitely helps to reduce the air and noise pollution of the city, which is quite a problem in busy urban areas such as Shenzhen.
If you have never been to a big east Asian city, you really should.
In the west, we think that New York, Paris and London are big. However, once you experience a big Asian city, your standard of big completely changes.
The moment you set foot on one of these Asian metropolis is kind of magical. If you are a Sci-Fi fan, you will be immediately overpowered by the feeling that you are in one of those futuristic cities that you see in films such as Star Trek (futuristic London) or Cloud Atlas.
You literally will feel like an ant while walking in the street, staring at the skyscrapers at night and contemplating how each of them has a different personality, being just one person out of 15 million and wondering: why I didn’t know places like these existed?
Although there are very negative facts such as pollution, dirtiness and overcrowding and I haven’t lived in such a city, spending some days in such an environment will give you a real feel of the magnitude of China.
Another very nice innovative and clever implementation I saw while having lunch at Kungfu (the Chinese Mac Donald’s without the burgers), was the renting of portable powerbanks.
These powerbanks are distributed all around the city and you can pick one, charge your phone and then leave it in any charging station you might find around the city.
Shenzhen Electronics Market
We all love markets.
Local people selling their products in stalls, local produce, price bartering and hundreds of economic exchanges happening at the same time.
Shenzhen market at Huanqiangbei is not your typical kind of market.
Instead of finding poultry, vegetables or fabrics, you get access to practically most of the Digikey inventory.
Forget about strawberries, eggs and handmade gloves. In here you will find capacitors, connectors and soldering stations.
The merchants also offer PCB soldering service, can repair mobile phones and take bigger orders if required.
The real value this market offers to electronic designers and makers is the capability of quick prototyping an electronic product.
Instead of waiting long lead times, paying import duties, repeating online orders and changing your product BOM because some generic component is out of stock, you can pop down to the market and get your components.
Might that be one 0603 resistor or an army of transformers (not Megatron but the coil and ferrous one).
Shenzhen Makerspaces Scene
One of the things in the to-do list for the trip was to visit at least one makerspace to feel the vibe and network.
Shenzhen hosts at least 10 of them and it is the perfect ecosystem for a thriving community of innovative and freaky creators.
Unfortunately, because of time constraints, it wasn’t possible to visit any of them 🙁
If you still want to know more about makerspaces in Shenzhen, check this article at Get in the Ring titled “6 Coolest Makerspaces of Shenzhen”.
Shenzhen Electronics Manufacturing
The last part of the trip was spent visiting the different manufacturing plants for the client’s product. We visited both Wonderful PCB and Onlitex manufacturing plants.
We all know the label “Made in China”. In this visit, Developpa got to experience the how is made in China.
PCB manufacturing and assembly is a common business in Shenzhen and the Guangdong province.
There are a vast amount of companies that rent an office to do all the sales and paperwork and a small factory which can be in a building where they put all the PCB fabrication and assembly machines in conjunction with a human manufacturing line.
It is just incredible to see the manufacturing taking place and how all the workers are synchronized and balanced in time in order to keep a steady output of boards/hour.
Developpa also got to witness the PCB assembly process for a standard PCB board with SMT components.
1. Apply soldering paste
The first machine on the line fixes the stencil on to the board.
A stencil is an aluminium sheet of an inverted photo of your PCB where the tin pads where you solder the components become holes on the sheet.
The purpose of the stencil is to cover the whole PCB except for the tin pads so a soldering paste can be applied to it as the machine is doing:
The machine basically puts a high pressure on the edges of the sheet to prevent any movement while a brush full of soldering paste covers the tin pads.
2. Pick and Place the components
This part is just mind-blowing. A machine is programmed to pick the components from an SMD Reel and place them with high precision on the board. This machine is capable of placing around 5 components per second.
The machine also takes photos of each component placed and looks for misplacement errors.
3. Solder components
The next stage on the assembly process is to solder the components to the board by passing the PCB through an oven that melts the soldering paste and sticks the components to the tin pads.
4. Visual inspection
Finally, after the components are soldered, a visual inspection is carried out by one of the workers to ensure all components have been soldered properly.
This trip was definitely a mind-opening experience that let me appreciate a unique ecosystem that it was completely unknown to me but where I feel identified as an electronics engineer and maker.
It was also a great learning experience to see firsthand another side of the business which was basically a black box to me. It makes you appreciate the skill that goes behind manufacturing and to make your own opinion about stuff made in China.
If you are a maker or electronics engineer, I would definitely recommend visiting Shenzhen and absorbing everything it has to offer for the prototyping and mass manufacturing activities. And if not for that, just to have that awe that comes from being in such a big and modern city with huge dimensions.
It could even become a “thing” to live in Shenzhen for 6 months just to develop and manufacture an electronic product.
However, it is not an easy place to get by if you do not speak Chinese. Before making business it is essential that you have someone in your team that can speak Mandarin fluently alongside English or your native language.
Cantonese food is also really good! Here is a photo of a meal sponsored by one of the PCB factories:
Have you been to Shenzhen before? How was your experience? Do you know any other technological hubs? Share your thoughts in the comments section!