Jon and I had long wondered about manufacturing in China. Of course, you hear a lot about the low labor rates and a well developed supply chain. But you also hear about a lot of disasters as well. To clear up this mystery I decided to take a trip to Shenzhen, China in January of 2016 to see for myself.
As our goal, we decided to have our first prototype constructed in China. We figured this would give us some hands-on experience with Chinese manufacturing and also give us a chance to wander through the various factories and markets. Furthermore, we figured to get the most out of manufacturing in China we needed to do things the 'Chinese way'. To us, that meant using the tools and parts commonly found in Chinese manufacturing. So, the first DigiSpeaker prototype was designed with tools that are commonly used in China and also uses parts commonly found in the supply chain in China.
The first part, using tools commonly found in China, was pretty simple. It turns out, they pretty much use the same tools and techniques we use in the United States. That was good news since it was easy to transfer our design documents to the Chinese without much hassle or communication problems. The process was very similar to what we normal do here in the States.
However, the second part proved to be harder. DigiSpeaker was designed with parts commonly found in the supply chain in China. For common components like passives, diodes, transistors and whatnot, this meant identifying the brands that are most commonly used in China. For more complicated parts, this meant learning to interpret specifications written in Chinese. As you can imagine, this took a lot of false starts and stops until we found ways of identifying common parts and obtaining datasheets for the more complicated parts. In addition, it takes a while to figure out how to purchase things from the Chinese markets. Of course, there are the payment and shipping complications. But there are also basic misunderstandings about what is available and what to purchase.
In the end, we were able to design our first prototype using techniques and parts available in China. So, the next task was how to get to Shenzhen and where to live once we got there.
In order to conduct business in China you have to have a business visa. To get a business visa you have to obtain an invitation from some company willing to sponsor your trip to China. Fortunately, Jon struck up a friendship with a person who currently has a project under construction in Shenzhen. He was willing to give us a hand. He asked his current factory to write me an invitation letter. With that letter, I used a passport expeditor service to get a Chinese business visa added to my passport.
I live in Seattle and there are direct flights from Seattle to several major cities in China. I soon found myself on a flight to Beijing and then on to Shenzhen. Our friend has an apartment in Bao'an Shenzhen so he was able to meet me at the airport. The next day, he let me tag along with him to the factory that was making his product.