A Tour Through the Archetypical Asian Factory

Overseas factories can be sort of a mythical topic. News articles remind us that Flex (née Flextronics) employs nearly 200 thousand employees worldwide or that Foxconn is up to nearly a million. It must take an Apple-level of insider knowledge and capital to organize such a behemoth workforce, certainly something well past the level of cottage hardware manufacturing. And the manufacturing floor itself must be a temple to bead blasted aluminum and 20 axis robotic arms gleefully tossing products together. Right?

Well… the reality is a little different. The special sauce turns out to be people who are well trained for the task at hand and it doesn’t require a $1,000,000,000,000 market cap to get there.

[Adam leeb] was recently overseas to help out with the production ramp for one of his products and took a set of fantastic videos that walk us through an archetypical asian factory.

The Room

I’ve been to several factories and for me the weirdest part of the archetype is the soul crushing windowless conference room which is where every tour begins. Check out this one on the left. If you ever find yourself in a factory you will also find a room like this. It will have weird snacks and bottles of water and a shiny wood-esque table. It will be your home for many, many more hours than you ever dreamed. It’s actually possible there’s just one conference room in the universe and in the slice of spacetime where you visit it happens to be in your factory.

Ok, less metaphysics. It’s amazing to watch the myriad steps and people involved in taking one product from zero to retail-ready. [adam] gives us a well narrated overview of the steps to go from a single bare board to the fully assembled product. From The Conference Room he travels to The Floor and walks us through rows of operators performing their various tasks. If you’ve been reading for a while you will recognize the pick and place machines, the ovens, and the pogo pin test fixtures. But it’s a treat to go beyond that to see the physical product that houses the boards come together as well.

Check out [adam]’s videos after the break. The first deals with the assembly and test of his product, and the second covers the assembly of the circuit boards inside which is broadly referred to as SMT. Watching the second video you may notice the funny (and typical) contrast between the extremely automated SMT process and everything else.

If the product being assembled in these videos feels oddly familiar it’s because we just covered a homebrew ePaper typewriter a last week.

50 thoughts on “A Tour Through the Archetypical Asian Factory

    1. Judging by the “Ask me questions screen” he was filming for Instagram Stories. Instagram being a mainly mobile platform means vertical video is the norm for things like that. As the world transitions from PC to phone/mobile devices some things being vertical just make sense.

      1. You joke, but I used to work in a production house where we had to deliver everything for both TV and mobile. Everything was filmed in 4k square and the framing was very center-oriented. Not great for creative cinematography or the rule of threes, but it made it pretty easy to deploy to different platforms with a quick crop and re-edit instead of filming everything twice.

        It has its disadvantages, though. I wish people just held their phones sideways like we did back when slide-out physical keyboards were a thing. I like landscape and sometimes I question the assumption that mobile is naturally portrait-oriented. It’s only that way because of the default orientation of the lockscreen and the software keyboard IMHO. Web design for one has gone to utter shit because of the need for two aspect ratios; it can ostensibly be done right, but absolutely nobody wants to pay for it or make the necessary compromises, so we end up with a bunch of hideously gimped and unusable websites everywhere. Seriously, never has one of our clients been willing to do what it takes for proper mobile design. It’s such a waste.

        1. > It’s only that way because of the default orientation of the lockscreen and the software keyboard IMHO.

          Ever tried using a mobile phone sideways with one hand for more than 5 minutes?

      1. It was shot with Instagram stories judging by the “ask me questions” screen and the hiccuping as IG stories let you take short clips where one long one gets broken up into many short ones

    1. Your phone and tablet is only in portrait because of the way the software is designed. Which for mobile is more often than not very poor design.

      We could rotate all our TVs and monitors and laptops and movie theaters, or we could rotate our handheld devices. Having all these radically different aspects is screwing up all our media and UI/UX. We live in an era of godlike computers and communications, but our interfaces still suck. It’s a real shame.

    2. Probably the same obsession SOME people have with using both eyes to view something other than text… like those pictures which accompany text.

      Personally, I only read books without pictures so I wouldn’t know about that. And only with one eye at a time, as god intended.

      It’s pure laziness to use a wider screen to reduce the number of times you need to scroll down.

      I find it amazing that monitor manufacturers cater to such a niche market as picture watchers while neglecting their core audience of text readers….. well except all those widescreen monitors that can turn 90 degrees and then you get an even longer portrait screen…. I guess that’s better for us normals.

      I heard they’re going to be making those pictures move soon. Geez. So frivolous.

  1. I’m surprised how little automation there is in Chinese factories are compared to how ones in the West were even back in the 1980s.
    Though that said the work conditions look a lot better than the ones where iphones are made.

    1. The government of China does not WANT automation. The entire point is to employ their huge population so they do not become an idle problem for the government. The money is a nice side effect but what China really cares about is keeping the population busy. To the guy in the video, if you don’t think there is a difference in where your stuff is being made then you have never dealt with manufacturing much. If you think those people are doing the same things with the same care when you are not there watching and filming then you don’t know manufacturing. The work conditions in the plant might look fine and usually have to for the customer but when you look into the pay, the vacation policy, the benefits, the compensation if you are hurt, you will find a true difference in conditions. Ask one of those workers what happens if they call in sick tomorrow.

  2. “I’ve been to several factories and for me the weirdest part of the archetype is the soul crushing windowless conference room which is where every tour begins.”

    This appears to be the standard beginning for a factory tour in the USA as well. Apparently the space-time glitch is able to modify which electrical sockets will manifest in that conference room, but the room is otherwise identical.

    1. It’s hard to ROI on a multimeter at $12/day. The other problem is that automation still requires operators and maintenance, so even high tech outfits still have a lot of seats to fill. I think the end value of the product is the biggest driver in automating a process. If the widget costs $20/pc who cares if yield is low. If the widget is $50k, automation pays for itself pretty quick.

    2. +1 some paid not that much. >8+ hours/day. Some of people probably live in dormatory thats not free and may be company required. This is actually one of Nicer factories I’ve seen documented, even with irritating selfie style shaky recording. Then again dont know how much is staged for visitors. Social environment isnt whats recorded either.

      1. I’ve probably been to 5 or so different CM in China / Taiwan (Quanta, Compal, Foxconn, plus a few smaller ones), and they all look like this.

        They don’t give a shit about “staging” — you’re no way near important enough for something like that.

    3. Nope. Shenzen minimum wage is about $3 an hour and the average hourly unskilled worker is ~$5. Skilled workers earn roughly half what they would in the states.

      Also, you can’t make fair comparisons with another country’s incomes.

      EVERYTHING, except for rent, is massively cheaper. It costs me nearly ten times as much to visit a cheap USA city like Columbus OH as it does to visit Shenzhen. There are also fewer expenditures for the citizens than in the USA or EU.

      Shenzen employees don’t make much money, but the lack of automation has more to do with China’s manipulation of their currency and lack of an automation supply chain than taking advantage of a nation of slave labor.

        1. Did you reply to the wrong topic?
          Just based on the first-hand experiences of family and friends who live in Shenzhen, most of them don’t like where they live in the city, but would rather live in China than anywhere else. Preferably a nicer city like Hangzhou or Kunming. Like most people, they’re more reluctant to change than you would think. If they’re wealthy, they want to get out of China because the laws guarantee a 10% loss of static wealth each year.

  3. *The sound of an airplane sailing over HaD commenters’ heads
    This would have been a great platform to discuss the human condition, labor, and what the future of production will look like for skilled and non skilled labor. But no, we get a bunch of snowflakes jabbering about vertical video smdh.

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