2013-01-27 The End

Well, that was an epic tour of the Shenzhen industrial complex. I think I've talked a lot about the different processes we saw and my feelings about the factory tours. This trip was a lot more than that though. I got to know a great group of people as we navigated our way through the complex markets, vast industrial factories, language miscommunications, and various other obstacles that we hit on this trip. Everyone pulled together and helped each other out and for an industrial tour of this scale, I think it was a huge success.
Bunnie outdid himself in planning all the tours and this trip will undoubtedly leave a heavy mark in everyone's lives and careers. Even though I'm been in the engineering industry for a long time, I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to experience this much condensed manufacturing knowledge at one time. There's no way I could ever return to being the same designer I was one month ago. I'm pretty sure everyone else feels the same way.
2013-01-26 Generator Conference

My final day in Shenzhen and also the final event on the itinerary is the Generator Conference. This is a conference put on by Cyril Ebersweiler and Seeed Studios for the hardware startup scene. It was a little bit crazy for us because the previous night, we had a big BBQ party on the top of Rapscallions and invited a bunch of people including AQS, HAXLR8R, Dangerous Prototypes, PCH, and others. It turned into a huge bender and most of the group had some degree of hangover today. Bunnie had the worst of it and I think it was the final few rounds of vodka or whisky last night that did him in. Bunnie is also one of the speakers at the Generator conference which is going to be interesting.  
The Generator conference was right next to Seeed Studio which was located far away from us. We took two taxis out there but ended up getting lost along the way. We finally were able to meet up at a subway station near the place and walked to the conference from there. At the entrance to the venue, Cyril greeted us with his custom "Hardware is a Bitch" shirt and wearing NekoMimi neural cat ears. I can see why traditionally VC-averse people like Zach and Mitch Altman like him. I can see myself getting along with him too.
2013-01-24 PCH

Although the factory tours had ended, that didn't mean the events had ended. As usual, the schedule was still packed and today, we had the chance to visit the headquarters of a large contract manufacturer and logistics company called PCH. According to rumors I overheard, PCH was named by the founders, a group of Irishmen, as they were traveling down Pacific Coast Highway in California. They needed a name for their company and figured PCH would work.

PCH is the parent company of the logistics company we visited, CTS. They also handle manufacturing for many Apple products and accessories as well as various other brands. They run a technology accelerator to help smaller companies get to manufacturing and provide services and consulting to the companies in the accelerator. Darragh Hudson is one of the heads of the accelerator and he also owns a popular restaurant in the Coco Park district called Rapscallions. We've been going there regularly so we've met up with Darragh a few times already.
2013-01-22 AUK Connectors

For the final factory tour, we visited AUK Connectors. Bunnie wanted to show us a connector factory because connectors are the pinnacle of plastic injection molding technology. Making connectors is orders of magnitude harder than making things like injection molded enclosures because the tolerances are so tight. Any type of flashing occurring due to tool wear will drastically affect the connector and hence somebody's design. A good connector manufacturer needs to constantly check and test their tooling to make sure it's always within spec.

Before I saw the AUK manufacturing operation, I did not realize that connector manufacturing was so difficult. The tour started off in their sample room with them showing us the various connectors they make and also showing us a short PPT intro of their company. One of the things that caught my attention was that one area they focus on is customized connectors. Of course I started asking a lot of questions about it. I was curious what it took to make a custom connector. The tooling fee varies but it is in the area of around $30k for a custom connector. In my opinion, it's worth it after seeing what they have to go through with the tooling. The per connector charge also varies depending on the composition and complexity of the connector, but in general, it sounds like the NRE for the custom connector is the big hurdle.

Today we went on one of the most interesting tours of this trip. It's something that I've always been interested in but didn't really know how to approach. The tour was of a chip-on-board bare die bonding assembly house. For those that don't know, one interesting technique used for very low cost, high volume products is bare die bonding. In this process, the bare die is used rather than a die packaged in a lead frame and epoxy resin. This has two benefits. The first is that the form factor is decreased since only the bare die is used. The second benefit is that its possible to save cost since packaging materials usually add cost to a chip.

There are headaches with doing a bare die process. You'll have to negotiate with a vendor to purchase bare die rather than packaged die and you'll also usually have a rather high minimum order quantity. The minimum order quantity can vary depending on whether the manufacturer is set up to do bare die sales, but the general rule of thumb I've heard is that the MOQ would be one wafer, which for something like a simple ARM or AVR microcontroller would be in the thousands.
2013-01-21 Okano SMT and Speaker Factory

The same day we went to the sanitary napkin factory, we also went to two other factories. I broke them up into two parts because there were too many factories to write about and it would have turned into a huge post.

After lunch we headed to the Okano PCB Assmembly house. Okano is a joint venture between Okano in Taiwan and AQS so it was easy to set that tour up. Unfortunately, Okano didn't want pictures being taken inside the factory because one of their large customers was Nintendo and they didn't want the PCB pictures and assembly process for them to get leaked on to the internet. I was only able to take pictures of the initial setup to go into the factory. By now, we're all pretty used to the gear needed to go into an SMT assembly factory. All PCB assembly houses are paranoid about ESD since they result in soft failures that are difficult to diagnose. For Okano, we had to get dressed up in the standard ESD frocks, hair nets, and shoe condoms. This was the first picture I got of all of us geared up to go into an assembly house though since Huawei wouldn't allow cameras.

Today we got taken to visit a diaper and sanitary napkin factory. Bunnie had AQS line this one up because he wanted everyone to be exposed to a non electronics manufacturing operation. The factory was actually quite with only three lines total and one line in operation. The line in operation was a diaper line and we were able to see in detail how diapers were made. I'm not familiar with the exact details of what was happening throughout the process, but the general idea is that paper napkins were being layered on top of each other to form a sort of paper sandwich. Along with that, there were other operations that needed to be done such as adding the elastic bands, some cotton filling, and spritzing the diapers with perfume.

The factory was quite young at only one year old. The owners were formerly paper based product distributors and ran a trading company in that industry. They eventually got to the point where it just made sense for them to own their own factory. What I'm now understanding about Shenzhen is that this is not a difficult undertaking. There is a company that sold them the whole machine as a finished product. Technically, I guess it'd be called something like a "modular paper layering machine" but you can buy one for about $300k USD. This machine can be configured to be used to make diapers, sanitary napkins, or likely any other paper based product that requires layering on paper and there are technicians available that can teach how the machine is used, configure it, and repair it.