This is day 3 of the MIT Media Lab organized Shenzhen Trip and it feels like it's already been an eternity. I can feel a lot of my attitudes towards design changing by seeing the manufacturing flows and factories. Previously I would unconsciously limit myself to different possibilities because things like doing an injection molded enclosure felt outside of my reach in terms of cost and volume. After seeing and talking to the people here, many are willing to take on all kinds of projects and offer a lot of help. It all depends on the relationship you have with them. It's a very Asian thing.
Today we're taking a break from the factory tours and going to the South China Market. This market is kind of in the middle of nowhere about an hour's drive outside of Shenzhen. It's a huge market spanning probably a few kilometers on each side and rather than small stalls, each manufacturer occupies a proper shop space. The storefront is just a showroom and you go into the shops to discuss business with each manufacturer.
The place was huge so we split up into groups to explore it, based on who had working cell phones. Some groups were heading to the electronics area, but since I work with electronics just about every day of my recent life, I decided to check out something decidedly non-electronicky. Bunnie had the same idea so we formed a group to explore the paper and materials section. Jie works a lot with papercraft and soft circuits so she came along with us. The other groups split off for the other areas.
The South China Market was huge but it was also fairly deserted. Most likely it was an economic zone designated by the government and the shop space is cheap. But it's so far out of the way that there's not a lot of traffic to the area. That being said, you can strike all kinds of deals with the people there and buy factory equipment on the spot.
One shop we checked out was a factory liquidation outlet which sold equipment from factories that shut down. The place was amazing and they had all types of manufacturing equipment. I've been wanting to pick up an environmental test chamber and they happened to have multiple chambers sitting on the floor. When I asked the price, the guy said that they were $120 each. I was floored. Unfortunately, those things are also around 1 ton so importing it into Japan would require shipping it to port, dealing with freight and customs, and then paying a freight forwarder approximately 10x the cost to have it cleared and sent to my apartment. I decided to give up on it. Next time, I'll come with the intent to pick up and import heavy equipment and hopefully hire out someone that can handle the freight and shipping details on the China side for all the equipment that I want to get.
After the liquidators, we walked around a bit until we got to the paper area and it was seriolusly no joke. There were stacks of paper as tall as me laid out on palettes ready for people to just buy and load into their pickup trucks. As we were looking at things, Jie decided that she wanted to talk to some people about a possible way to print conductive foils on to paper to make essentially PCBs on paper.
Jie, Bunnie, and I started talking to one foil manufacturer that made foils for embossing and gilding. All three of us are pretty much born and raised in the US and had seriously handicapped Chinese skills, at least to discuss something as technical as this. We all tried to explain about printing circuits on to paper when Jie finally pulled out her notebook and showed him one of her designs which was a working circuit cut out of copper tape inside the notebook. The guy's eyes lit up as he played with the circuit and started to give contact info and discussing different methods of printing. He said it was simple and he could provide the foil and a contact to a printing factory that could cut the die and attach it to the paper for her. I was impressed at how quickly things could be worked out once there was a mutual understanding.
As we continued to walk around, we checked out other foil manufacturer and learned that the process that is used to attach the foil to paper in specific patterns is called embossing and that it uses heated stamping tool with a custom die attached for the specific pattern to stamp out. The die is heated, the foil is placed over the target material, the stamping tool presses the heated die into the foil, and the embossing foil gets heat transferred to the surface. Only the raised parts of the die come in contact with the foil so the pattern get transferred in the specific pattern of the die.
As we were mulling over contacting the printing factory
to do a test run, Bunnie and I mentioned that Jie should just purchase
her own machine and do it herself. I think this blew her mind. Ha ha ha.
We then found a shop that sold equipment for print factories and
inquired about the embossing equipment. She immediately took us to one
wall where they had a few sitting around. They had all types from manual
to automated. We inquired about the smallest one since Jie would have to
take it back and also didn't want to deal with freight to ship it to
the US. The lady introduced a small manual heated stamping machine with a
lever actuated press. It was perfect. The cost for the machine was $150
and she decided to buy it. It was Jie's first industrial equipment
purchase and was made on a whim as we tried to puzzle out the process
of how to print circuits on to paper. Hilarious...
The rest of the purchases we all made were small things like solar cells and panels and miscellaneous hardware, although I was tempted when I saw the large CNC machines. I had a serious urge to slap down some cash but again, the pain of importing heavy equipment into Japan stopped me. I really need to come prepared for that kind of thing which would be a different trip.
After heading back to the apartments, I met up with Matt Mets who is living in Guangzhou currently. He's a member of NYC Resistor and was also working with Zach Hoeken at Makerbot previously. He came with all of us to dinner and called out Zach to meet up too. Zach and Matt were talking with us about the HAXLR8R program and also life in Shenzhen. It was nice to be out there and get to meet up with friends and compatriots.So that's the end of another mind boggling day in Shenzhen. Every day I'm here, I can feel the design possibilities expanding...