Over the last weeks, I have started to accompany a group of DIY makers in Shenzhen on their journeys through the electronic markets around Huaqiangbei Road (华强北路), manufacturers and factories at the outskirts of the city. Learning from and with them as they navigate this complex makers’ ecology in Shenzhen to turn their start-up ideas into tangible products has been an intriguing experience. I will share stories of our ventures here on this blog for others to follow curious about the inner workings of our contemporary computational worlds.
Tackling Huaqiang Electronic World 华强电子世界
Huaqiangbei Road and the streets that surround it in Shenzhen’s Futian district are lined up with 4-8 story buildings that seem from the outset just like any other department store or office building in China. On second glance, however, one notices that the banners advertise products of another kind: MOSFETs, capacitors, buttons, and other electronic parts that together make up the interior of any computational device. When one enters on the ground floor it is often through an unremarkable door with a spectacular heading like: Huaqiang electronic world. And what opens up in front of our eyes is literally a world of its own – a vast maze of vendor stalls that spans the ground floor seemingly beyond a point the eye can reach and across several interconnected floors. The sheer mass is both overwhelming and truly exciting.
There is not much room or time to contemplate where to begin tackling the journey in front of you. When you enter you are often simply pushed along by those entering behind you who bring new packaged items into the market, and you are quickly swallowed up into the maze of narrow rows between the stalls. But giving in and floating through the stalls is also a central experience to anyone who appreciates these electronic markets for what they offer, the DIY makers I am with often tell me. Simply seeing and touching components triggers new ideas of what one could possibly build. For the makers I accompany, a design space is opened up of endless new arrangements and innovations right at your fingertips.
Keeping Track & build trust over time
One day, I tagged along with my friend Yair from the hackerspace in Telaviv on his tour through Huaqiang market. Yair works with a fabulous tactic to remember which vendor he trusts and what kind of components they offer. In a notebook that he carries with him he clips the vendors’ business cards and draws next to it an image of the component, the name, part number and price per piece or per purchase. Upon his next visit, he already knows where to look for a specific part rather than repeating the search all over. A simple and useful way of tackling the maze and over time develop a network of trusted vendors who also offer a good deal.
Meet Madame Cai
Many vendors are specialized in selling particular parts. For example, one vendor might sell various types of buttons and MOSFETs, while another one only sells resistors and capacitors and yet another specializes on magnets. The result is that the search for a specific part can at times be tedious, especially for those relatively new to the markets.
In such situations where little time is at hand to get a specific part, Madame Cai offers help. Customers come to her with a list of parts containing at least the part number, but often also the amount you need and a photo or drawing of the component.
At her stall, Madame Cai sits behind a glass display that shows off samples of parts she might help you with, often in different sizes so customers can easily point and explain their need. When customers stop by, Madame Cai goes through their part list for a quick assessment of what is in her reach to acquire. Then she begins making a series of phone calls to vendors within her network to confirm what she can get that day or what has to wait a day or a week. Most of the time, parts are ready 20 minutes after a visit.
Madame Cai rarely sells quantities less than 10 of one part and charges more than the other vendors – so, saving time costs money. Generally, the more pieces of one part you purchase the cheaper it gets. For example, 100 pieces of a capacitor might cost 30 RMB versus 10 pieces cost 15 RMB.