Lu Ban’s Axe and Working with Your Chinese Suppliers

It is nearly impossible to build any kind of hardware these days without at some point in the process dealing with China — Chinese suppliers, and so by extension Chinese culture. Difficulties can be as simple as the usual inconvenience of everything stopping for weeks up to and after Chinese New Year, or engineers that you know to be otherwise reasonably competent simply choosing not to bring up glaring and obvious problems. Having encountered my share of Western hardware entrepreneurs on the verge of a breakdown, and just as many flummoxed Chinese bosses completely unable to see exactly why they’re so upset, I thought I’d try to offer at least a little insight into one of the many issues that comes up.

Nearly any school child in the world will be able to tell you whom they were taught invented the lightbulb, the telephone, the radio transmitter. Those same children will usually be able to tell you of at least a few Chinese inventions as well — gunpowder, paper, the compass etc. But with one key difference, even the Chinese children are unlikely to be able to credit even a group of people for their invention let alone a single (usually misattributed) individual.

China does not really have an Edison, or Tesla, or Bell — oh we’ve had people as brilliant, but they are not celebrated in quite the same way for cultural reasons. If you were to do an alternate history of China where we went through the Industrial Revolution first, you’d want to split the timeline around Mozi (墨子). The Mohists (followers of Mozi) had advanced siege engine design, schools of logic, mathematics and theory for the physical sciences. much of the same foundation that set the West on its particular trajectory. In the end, Confucian ideals won out and China became a culture that celebrated scholarship over ingenuity (to vastly oversimplify things).

Even our respective terms for engineer reflect this. The word engineer (Latin ingeniator) is derived from the Latin words ingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”). Yet in Chinese 工程师, the first character for engineer in Chinese is the carpenters square 工. He or she is a simple worker (工人 literally “Work Person”). Even now, engineers are not held in anywhere near the same regard in China as they are in the West.

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Friday Hack Chat: Making in Shenzhen

China is an amazing land of opportunity, and if you want to build anything, you can build it in Shenzhen. This city that was just a small fishing village a few decades ago has grown into a cyberpunk metropolis of eleven million and has become the manufacturing capital of the world. You’re probably reading this on a device made somewhere around Shenzhen.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking about manufacturing in Shenzhen. We’re bringing in a very special guest for this one: [Naomi Wu] is a Cantonese DIY maker, professional web dev, transhumanist, electronics reviewer, occasional Hackaday contributor, vlogger, 3D printerer, advocate of women in STEM, SexyCyborg, and a riot on Twitter. [Naomi] also lives and works in Shenzhen, and is tapped into the DIY and maker culture there. She’s created 3D printed pen testing shoes, a Raspberry Pi cosmetics case, and infinity skirts.

This Friday (or Saturday, depending on which side of the date line you’re on), [Naomi] is going to be talking about manufacturing, making, DIY, and Shenzhen culture. Of particular interest will be electronics purchasing and manufacturing in Shenzhen, designing wearable projects with an emphasis on power and thermal design, documenting projects, and Shenzhen culture. This is basically an AMA, so if you have any questions you’d like to ask, throw them up in this spreadsheet.

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. Hack Chats are usually at noon, Pacific time on Friday. This week we’re doing the Hack Chat a little later, because timezones. This week’s Hack Chat will be at 6 pm PDT Friday / 9 am CST Saturday. Confused? Here’s a time and date converter!

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Defeat the Markup: Iphone Built by Cruising Shenzhen

[Scotty Allen] from Strange Parts, has just concluded a three month journey of what clearly is one of the most interesting Shenzhen market projects we have seen in a while. We have all heard amazing tales, pertaining the versatility of these Chinese markets and the multitude of parts, tools and expertise available at your disposal. But how far can you really go and what’s the most outrageous project can you complete if you so wished? To answer this question, [Scotty] decided to source and assemble his own Iphone 6S, right down to the component level!

The journey began by acquiring the vehemently advertised, uni-body aluminium back, that clearly does not command the same level of regard on these Chinese markets when compared to Apple’s advertisements. [Scotty’s] vlog shows a vast amount of such backings tossed as piles in the streets of Shenzhen. After buying the right one, he needed to get it laser etched with all the relevant US variant markings. This is obviously not a problem when the etching shop is conveniently situated a stones throw away, rather simplistically beneath a deck of stairs.

Next came the screen assembly, which to stay true to the original cause was purchased individually in the form of a digitizer, the LCD, back-light and later casually assembled in another shop, quicker than it would take you to put on that clean room Coverall, you thought was needed to complete such a job.

[Scotty] reports that sourcing and assembling the Logic board proved to be the hardest part of this challenge. Even though, he successfully  purchased an unpopulated PCB and all the Silicon; soldering them successfully proved to be a dead end and instead for now, he purchased a used Logic board. We feel this should be absolutely conquerable if you possessed the right tools and experience.

All the other bolts and whistles were acquired as separate components and the final result is largely indistinguishable from the genuine article, but costs only $300. This is not surprising as Apple’s notorious markup has been previously uncovered in various teardowns.

Check out [Scotty’s] full video that includes a lot of insight into these enigmatic Shenzhen Markets. We sure loved every bit of it. Now that’s one way get a bargain!

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Source Parts on TaoBao: An Insider’s Guide

For hardware aficionados and Makers, trips to Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei have become something of a pilgrimage. While Huaqiangbei is a tremendous and still active resource, increasingly both Chinese and foreign hardware developers do their sourcing for components on TaoBao. The selection is vastly greater and with delivery times rarely over 48 hours and frequently under 24 hours for local purchases it fits in nicely with the high-speed pace of Shenzhen’s hardware ecosystem.

For overseas buyers, while the cost of Taobao is comparable to, or slightly less than AliExpress and Chinese online stores, the selection is again, many, many times the size. Learning how to effectively source parts from Taobao will be both entertaining and empowering.

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Absolute Power

We recently noticed a very cool-looking series of power supply modules on a few of the Chinese deal web sites. Depending on the model, they provide a digitally-controlled voltage with metering. You need to provide at least a volt or so over the maximum desired output voltage. You can see a video from [iforce2d] below. The module in the video is rated for 5A at 50V maximum, but there are other sizes available. For those interested in graphs and numbers [lgyte] did a lot of characterization of these modules.

There was a time when importing goods from far away places was somewhat of an art. Finding suppliers, working out payment, shipping, and customs meant you had to know what you were doing. Today, you just surf the web, find what you want, pay with PayPal, and stuff shows up on your doorstep from all four corners of the globe.

There is one problem, though. We see a lot of cool stuff from China and some of it is excellent, especially for the price. Frankly, though, some of it is junk. It is hard to tell which is which. What’s more is even though in theory you might be able to return something, usually the freight charges make that impractical. So when you get a dud, you are likely to just eat it and chalk it up to experience. So the question is: how good (or bad) or these power supply modules?

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Akiba: Shenzhen in 30 Minutes

Multi-talented hacker extraordinaire and electrical engineer [Akiba] is based in Japan, and this makes it just a hop, skip, and a jump over to Shenzhen, China, the hardware capital of the world. He’s led a number of manufacturing tours aimed at acquainting hackers with the resources there, and now he’s giving you the benefit of his experience in a 30-minute video. It’s great.

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Ask Hackaday: What Should Father Christmas Bring From Shenzhen?

Imagine this, you have a friend who grew up in Shenzhen, China. The place from whence all your really cool electronics come these days. They speak Chinese in a way only someone born there can, and given that you know them through a shared interest in hardware hacking you can assume they know their way round those famous electronics marts of their home town.

Now, imagine that in a rash move, your friend has offered to pick up a few bits for you on their next trip home. A whole city-sized electronic candy store opens up in front of you, but what do you ask for them to seek out?

Before you continue, consider this. Why has Shenzhen become the powerhouse of electronic manufacturing (and everything else) that it is? Economists will give you pages of fascinating background, but if you want a simple answer it is that those electronics are produced for export, and that its citizens are only too happy to export them to you. Therefore if you want to get your hands on electronics from Shenzhen you do not need a friend who is a native of the city, all you need is a web browser and a PayPal account.

We have all become used to seeking out the cool stuff and eagerly waiting for a padded envelope from China Post a week or two later, so there are very few items that are worth putting a friend to the extra task of finding. At which point you realize that it is the candy store rather than the candy itself which is so alluring, and you ask your friend for a video walkthrough with commentary of their travels through the electronics marts. Oh, and maybe a Chinese Raspberry Pi with red solder resist, just for the collection.

If you had a friend about to board a plane to Shenzhen, what would you ask them to find for you that you can’t just buy for yourself online? Remember, nothing that’ll land them with awkward questions at either airport, nor anything that’ll land them with a hefty customs bill. That’s a very good way to end a friendship.

Huaqiangbei skyline image: Edward Rivens (PD) via Wikimedia Commons.