Building One Thing In China

Conventional wisdom dictates that if you need to make a million of something, you go to China. China is all about manufacturing, and there aren’t many other places on the planet that have the industry and government-subsidized shipping that will bring your product from China to people around the world. Building a million things in China is one thing, but what about building one thing? How do you create a working prototype of your latest product, and how do you make that prototype look like something that isn’t held together with zip ties and hot glue? The folks at Hatch Manufacturing have a guide for doing just that, and lucky for us, it’s a process that’s easy to replicate in any well-equipped shop.

In this tutorial/case study/PR blitz, Hatch Manufacturing takes on constructing a one-off smartphone. The Huaqiangbei markets in Shenzhen are filled with vendors selling smartphones of all shapes and sizes. If you want a miniature iPhone running Android, that’s no problem. If you want a phone that looks like a 1969 Dodge Charger with the Stars and Bars on top, you can find it in China. But how are all these phones made, and how do you show off a prototype to factories begging for business?

The answer, as is always the case, comes from one-off manufacturing. Building, assembling and reworking PCBs is a well-trodden path whose process could fill several volumes, but for this post, Hatch Manufacturing decided to focus on the plastics that go into a smartphone or tablet.

Once the case or enclosure is designed with a few CAD tools, a block of plastic is run through a mill. After that, it’s a matter of painting and finishing the latest smartphone that will show up in the Chinese market. Putting a professional finish on a block of plastic is something that will look familiar to anyone who has ever assembled a miniature plastic model. There’s priming, airbrushing, sanding, more painting, sanding, wet sanding, and still more sanding. After that comes polishing the plastic part to a fine finish. It is extraordinarily labor intensive work even for a skilled hand with the right equipment.

Once the plastics are done, the PCB, display, battery, and everything else comes together in a completely custom one-off prototype. It’s very similar to how this would be done in any small shop with a benchtop mill and a dozen grades of wet/dry sandpaper. It’s also something anyone can do, provided they have enough practice and patience.

34 thoughts on “Building One Thing In China

        1. I don’t know about this particular machine but one would need to know what type of things you are trying to make to give you any advice. It does have a very small build volume…

        2. DO IT!!! lol a DIY’er could pretty much do the entire thing with a desktop CNC. and im sure once you have the machine you could find lots of other projects, and friends projects to work on.

        3. The Rolands seems to be marketed to artist and people who are making lost wax casting positives. They make little 4th axis units for them too.

          At work there are a couple of the smaller chinese CNC routers. They work OK but the design is pretty awful. Improper bearings on the lead screws, just rough running in general. I guess what can you expect for $600.

  1. That is the worst website I have seen in a decade. They need to fire their web designer as they seem to believe they need to load 200mb of Java libraries and let the page take minutes to load.

  2. That page has a 25MB gif on it! I understand that web design isn’t everyone’s forté, but blocking the whole page until everything has loaded is really poor. Almost a poor as choosing a 25MB gif over a video file that would probably be about a fifth of that size.

    1. Hahah, that’s awesome. Fasttech for whatever reason does something similar, when they take a picture of your package for the invoice page, it gets embedded as a 3MB+ base64 encoded string right there in the HTML itself. Around the same time, I found out the windows clipboard *really* doesn’t like pasting multiple megabytes of text into and ipython shell.

  3. Dear Brian Benchoff,

    It’s great that you found this article informative, that was the point of it. We appreciate your recognition. The article’s intention is to enlighten people who don’t have the opportunity to see first hand what the prototyping process looks like. Prototypes made in this manner are extremely useful for generating advanced sales, finding things clients want to change, and testing the design before investing in a much more expensive plastic injection mold. After any development ends and before any mass production begins we give this kind of prototype to our clients for their review.

    My dedicated colleagues, Lionel Beilin and Blanche Huang, did a great job producing this article. It was made as a resource for people who want to learn more about this process and to demonstrate the kind of work that Hatch does for potential clients. While we’ve tried to speed up our webpage before our focus is on creating quality content targeted to the professional viewer rather than someone unwilling to wait 3 seconds. People making comments about our website speed are not the target audience.

    Webspeed aside there’s a comment from ‘Kevin Bates’ questioning Hatch’s respect of IP and, therefore, integrity – a key to staying in business since 2006 and something extremely few China based manufacturers understand. Like a professional athlete ignores nonsensical harassment from a pathetic fan in the stands, we ignore Kevin Bates, but for everyone else reading the comments it’s important to set the record straight!

    The product shown in the article was on public display at multiple TechCrunch events, shown to the public in tech meetups, and even posted online by our client before the article was released. Never in the article was the client or product’s name mentioned as the article was written as a demonstration of the prototyping process, not to show off what projects we’ve worked on. Kevin’s cynical taunting from the stands reveal his lack of experience and other readers should disregard his amateur comments. Hatch respects and protects our client’s IP and operates with unparalleled integrity.

    In the continued interest of helping people learn more about Hatch and/or manufacturing in China I’d be happy to answer any legitimate questions posted in the comments.

    1. “People who are used to post-dialup loading speeds are philistines who don’t deserve our content, so we are absolutely absolved from looking into ways we could achieve the same result with less bloat.”

        1. Kevin clearly never appreciated the finer things in science. Kevin has the unmitigated gall to share an opinion. Manufacturers who should consider hiring a web designer think Kevin is a silly, silly boy. Don’t be like Kevin.

      1. You’re one of the most polite commenters I’ve seen on this site in a long time, don’t be harsh on yourself.
        It’s fantastic to see the work you’ve done here, I’ve made the occasional PCB and 3d printed/lasercut case, but never thought it was possible to make a professional looking device with anything short of millions of dollars in development costs.
        I might try and dig up my workplaces CNC router and get it working to see what I can do with it, this has been a real inspiration. Than you.

      2. I think the question on IP here is whether or not your client allowed you to post this process, even revealing their brand (which is displayed on the last picture, btw). Do you think Samsung would be happy IDEO shows how they made their latest Samsung phone, or even whether they were involved?

        1. Ben,

          The product being shown in the process isn’t the same product being shown after the process. Again the purpose of this article was to show steps, not a specific product – it’s product agnostic. The phone in the process has a full physical keypad that’s clear to see isn’t on the images of the finished casing bring shown. Nothing confidential or ‘behind the scenes’ was revealed about our client’s device.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, I buy as much knock-off/clone/imitation crap from China as the next hacker/maker/vaper but it’s kinda sad that what really makes the deal so cheap is the free postage.

      Then again I’ve ordered books from the US cheaper than I can post a large letter to my mother in the UK.

      Turns out the way to lead the world’s economy is through cheap postage!

    1. This device is a blood tester integrated directly into the phone. The app that goes with it collect the data and send it to your doctor and hospital.
      As far as I know these guys envision the future with ultra customization of the hardware instead of accessories to plug into your phone.

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