Troll YouTube long enough and chances are good that you’ll come across all kinds of videos of the “How It’s Made” genre. And buried in with the frying pans and treadmills and dental floss manufacturers, there no doubt will be deep dives on how pipe is made. Methods will vary by material, but copper, PVC, cast iron, or even concrete, what the pipe factories will all have in common is the high degree of automation they employ. With a commodity item like pipe, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from another manufacturer on features, so price is about the only way to compete. That means cutting costs to the bone, and that means getting rid of as many employees as possible.
Such was not always the case, of course, as this look at how Irish Stoneware & Fireclays Ltd. made clay pipe, drain tiles, and chimney flues back in the 1980s shows. The amount of handwork involved in making a single, simple piece of clay pipe is astonishing, as is the number of hands employed at the various tasks. The factory was located in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, Ireland, near an outcropping of shale that forms the raw material for its products. Quarrying the shale and milling it into clay were among the few mechanized steps in the process; although the extrusion of the pipe itself was also mechanized, the machines required teams of workers to load and unload them.
If you’re among those of us with immediate plans for a PCB or parts order from China, watch out – Shenzhen just recently got put on a week-long lockdown. Factories, non-essential stores and public places are closed, and people are required to spend time at home – for a city that makes hardware thrive, this sounds like a harsh restriction. Work moves to remote where possible, but some PCB fabs and component warehouses might not be at our service for at least a week.
It might be puzzling to hear that the amount of cases resulting in closures is as low as 121, for a city of 12.6 million people. The zero-tolerance policy towards COVID has been highly effective for the city, with regular testing, adhered-to masking requirements and vaccinations – which is how we’ve been free to order any kinds of boards and components we needed throughout the past two years. In fact, 121 cases in one day is an unprecedented number for Shenzhen, and given their track record and swift reaction, it is reasonable to expect the case count dropping back to the regular (under 10 cases per day) levels soon.
Not all manufacturing facilities are located in Shenzhen, either. Despite what certain headlines might have you believe, supply chain shortages aren’t a certainty from here. A lot of the usual suspects like PCBWay and JLCPCB are merely reporting increased lead times as they reallocate resources, and while some projects are delayed for now, a lot of fabs you’d use continue operating with minor delays at most. SeeedStudio has its operations impacted more severely, and your Aliexpress orders might get shipped a bit later than usual – but don’t go around calling this a Chinese New Year v2 just yet. For those who want to keep a closer eye on the situation and numbers, the [Shenzhen Pages] Twitter account provides from-the-ground updates on the situation.
The cardboard box is ubiquitous in our society. We all know what makes up a cardboard box: corrugated paper products, glue, and some work. Of course cardboard boxes didn’t just show up one day, delivered out of nowhere by an overworked and underpaid driver. In the video below the break, [New Mind] does a deep dive into the history of the cardboard box and much more.
Starting back in the 19th century, advancements in the bulk processing of wood into pulp made paper inexpensive. From there, cardboard started to take its corrugated shape. Numerous advancements around Europe and the US happened somewhat independently of each other, and by 1906 a conglomerate was formed to get the railroads to approve cardboard for use on cargo trains.
By then though, cardboard was still in its infancy. Further advancements in design, manufacturing, and efficiency have turned the seemingly low tech cardboard box into a high tech industry that’s heavy on automation and quality control. It’ll certainly be difficult to think of cardboard boxes the same.
There also numerous ways for a hacker to re-use cardboard, be it in template making, prototyping, model making, and more. Of course, corrugation isn’t just for paper. If corrugated plastic floats your boat, you might be interested in this boat that floats due to corrugated plastic.
The open source world and Chinese manufacturing have a long relationship. Some fifteen years ago, the big topic was how companies could open-source their hardware designs and not get driven bankrupt by competition from overseas. Companies like Sparkfun, Adafruit, Arduino, Maple Labs, Pololu, and many more demonstrated that this wasn’t impossible after all.
Maybe ten years ago, Chinese firms started picking up interesting hacker projects and producing them. This gave us hits like the AVR transistor tester and the NanoVNA. In the last few years, we’ve seen open-source hardware and software projects that have deliberately targeted Chinese manufacturers, and won. We do the design and coding, they do the manufacturing, sales, and distribution.
We have a cheap commodity smartwatch, being sold with frankly mediocre firmware, taken over by hackers, re-flashed, re-branded, and sold by the hackers on Kickstarter. As a result of it being (forcibly) opened, there’s a decently sized app store of contributed open-source applications that’ll run on the platform, making it significantly more useful and hacker friendly than it was before.
Will this boost sales? Will China notice the hackers’ work? Will this, and similar projects, end up in yet another new hacker/China relationship? We’re watching.
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The semiconductor shortage sparked by the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down. Although auto manufacturers were some of the first affected, the shortage has now spread and is impacting all sorts of projects, including the Smoothieboard open-source CNC controllers.
[Chris Cecil] walks through the production woes they’ve had over the last few months. It began this spring with a batch of the V1.1 boards. The prices of some of their chips started jumping, and then they were informed that the microcontroller that serves as the brains of the Smoothieboard was only available for five times the old price. In the end, they placed a smaller order, and V1.1 Smoothieboards will likely be scarce until the microcontroller’s price returns to normal.
Getting V2 of the boards into production has been even more difficult. Just weeks before the final prototype, it was discovered that the LPC4330 microcontroller the V2 was built around was also sold out worldwide. With the shortage in mind, a hole was left in the layout of the final version of V2 so that they could finish the design around whatever microcontroller they were able to get. In the end, they were able to lock down a supply of STM32H745 controllers, which are actually substantially more capable than the original device.
We have to admit that a first glance at the article, by [Davide Sher], tripped our nonsense detector pretty hard. After all, the piece appeared in 3D Printing Media Network, a trade publication that has a vested interest in boosting the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. We were also pretty convinced going in that, while 3D-printing is innovative and powerful, even using industrial printers it wouldn’t be able to scale up enough for print parts in the volumes needed for modern consumer products. How long would it take for even a factory full of 3D-printers to fill a container with parts that can be injection molded in their millions in China?
But as we read on, a lot of what [Davide] says makes sense. A container full of parts that doesn’t arrive exactly when they’re needed may as well never have been made, while parts that are either made on the factory floor using AM methods, or produced locally using a contract AM provider, could be worth their weight in gold. And he aptly points out the differences between this vision of on-demand manufacturing and today’s default of just-in-time manufacturing, which is extremely dependent on supply lines that we now know can be extremely fragile.
So, color us convinced, or at least persuaded. It will certainly be a while before all the economic fallout of the Suez blockage settles, and it’ll probably longer before we actually see changes meant to address the problems it revealed. But we would be surprised if this isn’t seen as an opportunity to retool some processes that have become so optimized that a gust of wind could take them down.
The small city of Naka (pop. 53K), a two-hour train ride from Tokyo on the eastern coast of Japan, was thrust into the international spotlight in the early dawn of Friday morning. A fire broke out among electroplating equipment in Renesas’s 300 nm N3 fabrication facility. It was extinguished before breakfast time, and fortunately nobody was injured nor were there any toxic chemical leaks. Only six hundred square meters on the first floor of the plant was damaged, but the entire building has to be closed for repairs. It will take approximately one month to restore normal operations, and CEO Hidetoshi Shibata is “concerned that there will be a massive impact on chip supplies”.
In a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Renesas reports that the source of the fire has been determined, but the details are still unclear:
The casing of the equipment and the plating tank have relatively low resistance to heat, and the equipment ignited due to overcurrent. However, the cause of the overcurrent and the reason for the ignition is currently being investigated.
Semiconductors are already in short supply, as we reported back in January, forcing slowdowns at many auto manufacturers. The Naka plant primarily makes automotive semiconductors, worsening an already stressed supply chain. While the news focuses on the automotive sector, this shortage spills over into many other industries as well.