Manufacturing In China Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday 10 July 2019 at noon Pacific for the Manufacturing in China Hack Chat with Jesse Vincent!

It started out where many great stories start: as a procrastination project. Open source developer Jesse Vincent decided that messing around with a new keyboard design was a better thing to spend time on than whatever he was supposed to be doing, and thus Keyboardio was born.

Their heirloom-grade keyboards of solid maple and with sculpted keycaps are unique to the eye and to the touch, but that’s only part of the Keyboardio story. Jesse has moved further down the road of turning a project into a product and a product into a company than most of us have, and he’s got some insights about what it takes. Particularly in climbing the learning curve of off-shore manufacturing, which will be the focus of this Hack Chat. Join us to learn all about the perils, pitfalls, and potential rewards of getting your Next Big Idea manufactured in China.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday July 10 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone 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 Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Rare Earth Metals Caught In Trade War

It seems these days that the news is never good. Speaking from experience, that’s really nothing new; there’s always been something to worry about, and world leaders have always been adept at playing the games that inevitably lead to disturbing news. Wars always result in the very worst news, of course, and putting any kind of modifier in front of the word, like “Cold” or “proxy”, does little to ameliorate the impact.

And so the headlines have been filled these last months with stories of trade wars, with the primary belligerents being the United States and China. We’ve covered a bit about how tariffs, which serve as the primary weapons in any trade war, have impacted the supply of electronic components and other materials of importance to hackers.

But now, as the trade war continues, a more serious front is opening up, one that could have serious consequences not just to the parties involved but also to the world at large. The trade war has escalated to include rare earth metals, and if the threats and rumors currently circulating come to fruition, the technologies and industries that make up the very core of modern society will be in danger of grinding to a halt, at least temporarily.

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Solar Power Is Set To Get More Expensive

The sun constantly bathes half the planet with energy. The energy may be free, but the methods for converting it to electricity cost money. Last year, the Chinese government cut subsidies to their solar panel manufacturers to shrink the industry which was perceived as bloated. This forced Chinese solar panel makers to cut prices to clear inventory. This drove down prices about 30%, making solar power cheaper than ever.

Reuters is reporting that Eric Luo, president of one of the largest solar panel makers in China, predicts that “the party is definitely over.” Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Luo said that prices have quit dropping and he expected industry consolidation to cause prices to rise by as much as 15% over the next two years.

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The Short And Tragic Story Of Life On The Moon

The Moon is a desolate rock, completely incapable of harboring life as we know it. Despite being our closest celestial neighbor, conditions on the surface couldn’t be more different from the warm and wet world we call home. Variations in surface temperature are so extreme, from a blistering 106 C (223 F) during the lunar day to a frigid -183 C (-297 F) at night, that even robotic probes struggle to survive. The Moon’s atmosphere, if one is willing to call the wispy collection of oddball gasses including argon, helium, and neon at nearly negligible concentrations an atmosphere, does nothing to protect the lunar surface from being bombarded with cosmic radiation.

Von Kármán Crater

Yet for a brief time, very recently, life flourished on the Moon. Of course, it did have a little help. China’s Chang’e 4 lander, which made a historic touchdown in the Von Kármán crater on January 3rd, brought with it an experiment designed to test if plants could actually grow on the lunar surface. The device, known as the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME), contained air, soil, water, and a collection of seeds. When it received the appropriate signal, LME watered the seeds and carefully monitored their response. Not long after, Chinese media proudly announced that the cotton seeds within the LME had sprouted and were doing well.

Unfortunately, the success was exceptionally short-lived. Just a few days after announcing the success of the LME experiment, it was revealed that all the plants which sprouted had died. The timeline here is a bit hazy. It was not even immediately clear if the abrupt end of the LME experiment was intentional, or due to some hardware failure.

So what exactly do we know about Chang’e 4’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem, and the lifeforms it held? Why did the plants die? But perhaps most importantly, what does all this have to do with potential future human missions to that inhospitable rock floating just a few hundred thousand kilometers away from us?

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GoPro Factory Goes Nomad To Dodge Tariff Threat

Despite the fact that the United States and China are currently in the middle of a 90-day “cease fire” in their ongoing trade war, with new tariffs on hold until March 2019 while the two countries try to reach agreement, not everyone is waiting around to see who comes out on top. In a recent press release, action camera manufacturer GoPro has announced their intention to move some production out of China in the face of potential tariff expansions; which many analysts fear will be the result of the current stalemate. That’s right, only some of their production is moving.

“We’re proactively addressing tariff concerns by moving most of our US-bound camera production out of China,” says GoPro CFO Brian McGee. “We believe this diversified approach to production can benefit our business regardless of tariff implications.” Reading his words carefully, the key phrase here is “diversified approach”. GoPro doesn’t intend to move their entire production capability out of China, but only the production of the cameras which are designated for importation into the United States. GoPro models which are to be sold to other parts of the world will still be made in China.

This might seem an extravagant move just to avoid US tariffs, but with better than 40% of GoPro’s revenue for the third quarter of 2018 coming from the Americas, the company stands to be hit hard by the proposed 25% tax. Combined with the fact they shuttered their drone division last year citing “an extremely competitive aerial market”, and the proliferation of “GoPro clones” available for pennies on the dollar, it seems pretty clear that belt-tightening is the name of the game for the company that was once synonymous with action cameras.

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Naomi Wu On The Sino:Bit, 3D Printers, And Open Source Hardware In China

Many readers will be familiar with [Naomi Wu], the prolific hardware hacker who has shown us so much of the epicentre of Chinese tech in her native Shenzhen through a lens that most outsiders would struggle to achieve. We’ve seen her touring factories and electronics marts, building a load of interesting projects, and achieving the first open source hardware certifications in China.

We’ve seen a lot of [Naomi] speaking to us in English as an audience outside her country, so it is extremely interesting to see her latest video posting in which she makes her case for open source hardware in Chinese to a Chinese audience (Chinese audio with English subtitles). She’s speaking at the recent China open source conference, and her description starts with “**THIS IS VERY BORING UNLESS YOU ARE INTO OPEN SOURCE**”, which we think is a little unfair as it should appeal to anyone with an interest in the Chinese tech business.

In the talk she takes us through the potential benefits of open source to Chinese business by using her projects as case studies. In particular she concentrates on how the arguments for open source in a commercial arena have to be made differently for a Chinese business to those used in the rest of the world. Using the analogy of a college dorm hotpot party, she outlines the importance of a community in open-source development, then we get a blow-by blow account of her work with Elecrow and Creality on the Sino:bit (a single-board computer targeting education in China) and the 3D printers.

The software support for the Sino:bit in particular demonstrates the added value of open source to a business, with significant tutorial and curriculum material coming from Adafruit Industries, Hindi language and character set support from developers in India, and a Chinese developer painstakingly transcribing all the Chinese character set for the device. That last step alone would have cost a non open-source developer a significant sum.

During her talk we are shown the commercial benefits to all three devices, for example one of the Creality 3D printers rapidly becoming Amazon’s top seller despite an array of knock-off machines appearing. We’ve embedded the video below the break, and we think it should be required viewing for anyone with an interest in open source or the Chinese tech industry.

Once you have seen the video you might find [Naomi’s] guide to buying on Taobao to be of interest, as well as her explanation of the Chinese cultural attitude to engineers while introducing us to the historical master craftsman, [Lu Ban].

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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.

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