Since January 2013, I have been based out of Shenzhen, a city in the southern region of China, bordering Hong Kong, and most widely known as the home to factories such as Foxconn, where firms like Apple and HP manufacture their products. What brought me to Shenzhen was a new project, part of my long-term ethnographic research on maker and hackerspace culture in China: alongside 10 hardware start-ups, I joined as an on-site ethnographer the HAXLR8R program. HAXLR8R is the first of a growing number of hardware focused accelerator and incubator programs that invest in start-ups born out of the open hardware and maker movement.
The 10 start-ups I have been working with over the last months in Shenzhen and programs like HAXLR8R play a central role in what I call an increasing “professionalization of Make.” By this, I refer to a growing number of start-ups and individual makers that are working towards economic models that allow them to make a living off their hardware designs and productions. In this post, I explore what actually goes into this professionalization of maker practice, which is mostly thought of as a hobbyist activity and something that people do in their free time or just for fun. What does it take to professionalize make? I will show that at the center of this transformation lies the establishment of partnerships between people and entities we previously thought of as populating quite distinct or even opposing worlds.
Made with China I: LightUp
LightUp was founded by Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry with the vision to apply maker and open hardware techniques to education and enable hands-on learning. A central aspect that motivated Josh and Tarun is a commitment to open up the black-box of technology. By this, they mean to uncover the inner workings of our technology. For instance, they ask what makes a “closed” device such as an Apple iPhone “tick,” e.g. what materials and components were used, where it was made, what it does in terms of electronics and physical materials, etc. With this, Josh and Tarun speak to a broader vision that motivates many of those who identify as part of a contemporary maker movement: individual and collective empowerment through the building of platforms that allows others to make and understand the inner workings of technology; or in their words:
“… as these devices have shrunk over the decades, they’ve become inaccessible black boxes. We live in a world where we can only use electronics, but not understand, fix, remix, or create. At LightUp, we aim to tear open those black boxes and help create the makers of tomorrow.”
With their LightUp system Josh and Tarun are driven to implement in practice this vision of un-black boxing technology and what it means to do that via an out-of-the-box designed artifact. The goal of LightUp is enable young people to playfully approach the complex workings of physics and electronics via a tangible system. It consists of electronic components (wire, bulb, motor, microcontroller, etc.) mounted on blocks that connect to each other magnetically to form circuits. A central aspect of the LightUp system is not only the design of these electronic components and of the magnetic enclosures, but also the design of a corresponding software system. Josh and Tarun describe this software layer of the LightUp system as an “informational lens” – a mobile application that recognizes the components in the magnetic circuit system a user puts together and then augments the image with visualizations of otherwise invisible circuit behavior. The application visualizes, for instance, if the circuit was put together correctly and current is flowing through.
Over the last years, scholars, educators and politicians alike have paid increasing attention towards “maker” practice as a new form of education that enables innovation and creativity through hands-on learning. For instance, in 2012, DARPA announced to fund an educational program aimed at bringing “the practices of making into education and [to] extend the maker movement into schools” with a target of reaching 1,000 schools by the school year of 2012-13 (the announcement, the controversy). Similarly, in 2011, the Chinese government, announced the funding of 400 hackerspaces in Shanghai to support new forms of learning, creativity and innovation (Lindtner and Li 2012). And also in higher education, many programs – ranging all the way from the MIT Media Lab to Information and Management schools – have opened up hacker and/or maker spaces providing their students with access to a new set of tools and collaborative learning.
The work by Josh and Tarun is indicative of how this vision is being implemented in practice. During their time at HAXLR8R, LightUp visited a series of factories and established close relationships with a selected few that they deemed fitting their quality requirements, specifications, and style of interaction and communication. One of these manufacturing partners produced small enclosures of LightUp prototype. Josh and Tarun were working closely with their production site in Shenzhen. The interaction involved an intricate and effortful interaction between LightUp, the manufacturing site and the service provider that had established the bridge between the foreign start-up and the Chinese manufacturing site. A particularly important aspect to these interactions were on site visits, during which Josh and Tarun met with the Laoban (the factory owner) as well as with workers on the factory floor to test the appropriate materials to be used for their product:
During one such visit I accompanied Josh and Tarun and we met with the workers to test several different materials to be used to stamp on the small scale the LightUp system required. After several hours of trial and error, the manufacturer and LightUp decided to consult with the subcontractor that manufactured the mold for the stamp. A phone call later, the worker who had produced the mold stood in the office and we agreed that modifications had to be made to the mold design itself. The interactions spanned beyond this on-site visit over another 2 weeks.
It is exactly this careful interaction as well as the establishment of trust between the hardware startup and the owner and workers at the factory that turns maker ideas into tangible products. It’s a combination of a deep understanding of materials, the inner workings of technology and social interactions.
Made with China II: Have you seen Clyde?
“Clyde is a bit of a character,” Amanda explains in the Kickstarter video (link to: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/metamanda/clyde-an-expressive-lamp-for-creative-homes?ref=live) that introduces Clyde, the first of a product line of modifiable and open household appliances by Fabule Fabrications (link to: http://fabule.com/). What Amanda and Bruno realize with Clyde is an expressive and personable take on what designers and engineers have envisioned for more than 2 decades as the so-called smart home. This vision of a smart home with interconnected devices that make our lives easier and frees us from household chores dates back to the 90s. Back then, the advent of mobile computing and sensing technologies lead people to envision an invisible computer moving into the background of our lives and connecting seamlessly our lives at home, in the office and while on the go. What we learned over the years is that much of this remained a vision and that in practice most people prefer warm and customizable environments rather than full-on home automation. Recently, we have seen a resurgence of these earlier ideas of the smart and interconnected home with the Internet of Things. A central difference is that much of what was envisioned 10-20 years earlier today has become possible to implement in practice. One reason is simply that electronic components have continued to shrink in size and price. More importantly than the change in technical feasibility is what a growing community of makers like Amanda and Bruno are making in practice.
With Clyde, Fabule Fabrications illustrates that we can implement earlier visions of interconnected devices, but do so with a personable touch, with character and by engaging and working WITH the consumer, rather than designing a sterile and automated home FOR people. With a background in interaction design, Amanda and Bruno are well versed in designing devices that have a delightful and quirky personality. The process was driven by humor and playfulness, for instance what would a household lamp look like that reacts to your plant needing water or that greets you when you come from a long day of work? Or that gets sleepy when you have been working for 2 hours straight at your desk and you really should be taking a break?
This humor that Amanda and Bruno designed into Clyde is central to the maker community. This playfulness and humor also extended in Fabule’s interactions with manufacturers in China. During their time in Shenzhen, they worked closely with the prototype manufacturer Industri-Man. They worked in particular with a young women and recent college graduate Ada Liu from the foreign trade department of Industri-Man. Through a series of interactions through email, phone and on-site visits, Fabule and Industri-Man discussed intricacies to the material requirements of the best plastic to be used as well as how to best engineer the snap-and-twist joining mechanism that Bruno designed for the lamp. Together with Industrial Man, Fabule Fabrications designed a vacuum cast that’s very close to the final injection mold to be used for the finished product. Clyde, then, comes into being not by the tools and materials of one single, but of many different entities and manufacturers with a distinct focus on specific machines, materials, and products. Large corporations such as Intel and Apple often work with contract manufacturers that handle for them the different sub-contract manufacturers and take care of the quality assurance, etc. Start-ups like Fabule Fabrication, especially when in the early stages of prototyping, work directly with smaller scale and specialized manufactures, and then are themselves responsible for quality assurance and putting together the different components into a final put-together product. For instance, in addition to Industri-Man, Fabule Fabrications also worked with Hill Optical to design the heat dissipation from the high-power LEDs that give Clyde parts of his personality. The collaboration with Hill Optical prompted Fabule to change the bottom portion of the lamp to aluminum (from plastic), and add some ridges on the inside to create additional heat dissipating surface area.
What this shows is that makers, manufacturers, and VCs are invested in the “professionalization of make,” while approaching it from very different positionality in terms of resources, power and knowledge. They have a stake in each other’s success and by recognizing each other as collaborators working towards a mutual goal, they alter the very way industrial production, business collaboration as well as design is done. These partnerships in design and ideation between makers, manufacturers and VCs is better characterized as a “made with China” (rather than made in China), a process of mutual learning, investment of resources and trust.
In a previous post, we covered how to tackle the digital vendor worlds of Taobao. Here, I will discuss together with Amanda from Fabule and Tarun and Josh from LightUp, where and how digital PCB (Printed Circuit Board) designs are made tangibly real – just like the PCB coster depicted here, that was designed by LightUp to detect temperature of a cup and display it visually.
Over the last months at HAXLR8R, many of us have begun working with HQPCB, a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of PCBs. What we found was a service that extends way beyond a linear transaction from a digital design into physical board. HQPCB basically functions like a “friendly neighborhood” PCB shop. HQ does not stand for high quality as the name might imply, but literally for the neighborhood of the PCB shop in Shenzhen: HuaQiang.
Working with HQPCB has been a learning experience for us on many levels. While in the United States, for instance, PCB prototyping often feels like a very distant manufacturing process, working with HQPCB takes on a much more personalized note. Even though orders are submitted online, they are verified over the phone or even in person at the HQPCB office. In these conversations, we learned things like “if we order 10.000 boards, can you produce a special shape,” or “can you do two layers of solder masks instead of silk screening” (as described in Bunnie Huang’s post on “Where Arduino’s are born”). So even though the interaction with HQPCB starts off with an online transaction, it quickly turns into a personalized experience.
This becomes more immediately visible, when we introduce you to Kevin Lau from HQPCB, one of their English-speaking customer representatives: On one of our first order’s, Kevin reached out to us over the phone and one of us walked over to the physical shop of HQPCB. This way, the payment could occur in cash (which is great if you don’t have a Chinese bank account). Kevin took care of the payment out of Amanda’s HQPCB customer account. This required us to share our account info with Kevin, which at first created a feeling of unease. Sharing account information can be a quite common practice in China, especially when the relationship is based on mutual trust (check out one of my earlier papers where I have written more extensively bout this). Generally, our interactions with Kevin have been very personable. He has gone out of his way to help us with orders on weekends and even while he was out of town. He always followed up within hours of receiving a delivery to make sure everything is OK. And he ordered batches to be redone, if they were not within the specified tolerance or of there were any issues with the boards.
A central aspect of these interactions was the mutual learning process. We often met with Kevin to talk about particular PCB art techniques. This included, for instance, a conversation about how to accomplish a board design based on two coats of solder mask, in different color, rather than solder mask and silk screen. This technique allows to achieve a better resolution on the PCB’s decorative elements, which is crucial when the boards are a visible part of the consumer end product. For instance, think of the aesthetics of the Arduino board with graphical elements such as the geographical map of Italy, which make the board immediately recognizable. This design also helps to identify “fake” Arduino boards, which mostly rely on low-resolution graphics, i.e. a pixelated or blurry map of Italy.
Double coating of solder masks is a non-standard technique that HQPCB was not familiar with before our work with them. And so, we learned together, as HQPCB experimented with the technique, how it worked in practice. What we found out was that the double coating does not require the use of machines other than those already in use at a standard PCB manufacturers. It does require a slight alteration of the assembly line process.
Some basics for those interested in working with HQPCB:
The standard delivery with HQPCB takes 4-5 days. If you want to have express delivery within 24 hours the costs increase: We had an order, for instance, for 100RMB (Chinese Renminbi) within 48 hours, and 200 RMB within 24 hours. 24 hours means that the PCBs are finished within 24 hours and then delivery occurs the next day. Generally, with HQPCB the price depends on the size of your board and the color of the solder mask (white solder mask is more expensive than the green). So for a small green board is 50RMB and a big one is 100RMB. You submit through a form that updates live. HQPCB then gives you an estimate of the costs, after about 30 minutes of reviewing the files. If a PCB design is more complicated or any other questions come up, they will call and discuss details.
In a previous blog post, I covered some tactics to source electronics in the Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen. Some asked, what if you are not located just around the corner of Huaqiangbei? Or, what if you really really can’t leave your office, because you are in the midst of finishing up that latest hardware prototype of yours? In this post, I teamed up with the brilliant DIY maker minds Amanda Williams from Fabule and Josh Chan & Tarun Pondicherry from LightUp to answer these questions.
Here, we discuss how you can access the same electronic markets remotely, without leaving your office, and how you can do so in less than 24 hours. In a second blog post (soon to come), we will cover how to turn your PCB design (Printed Circuit Board) into an actual board by working with HQPCB (华强PCB), a Shenzhen-based PCB manufacturer.
Taobao is most commonly known as China’s largest online shop, at times compared to eBay or Amazon, that offers anything from standard consumer products such as shoes, bags, home appliances all the way to services such as custom-made designs, finding a temporary boyfriend over Chinese new year, etc. Much less known, however, is that Taobao also functions as the online interface to the Huaqiangbei electronic markets in Shenzhen. It is based on two built-in features: 1) a search field used to type in the product or service you are looking for and 2) a built-in chat interface from Alibaba that links up a product and its vendor. How this works in practice:
Let’s say you search, for instance, for a 10K ohm SMT 1206 Resistor. It helps to search for such items in Chinese with help from Google Translate and the Chinese Digikey datasheets. Taobao will return a screen that lists several links to different vendors that offer such a resistor, and includes prices next to each listing, in this case ranging all the way from 0.01 RMB to 35 RMB:
Such a wide price range is common and can mean different things: some vendors list the price per piece, others list a ballpark price (especially in cases of such small parts like resistors), and at other times a difference in price could indicate a difference in quality. And so the next step is to figure out more details on the price and/or quality of the product. In the case of such small electronics like the resistor we searched for, many vendors offer more than just the specific piece you searched for. And so the price they list is, for instance, an average for all their products or a starting price. If you click on one of the listings that your search returned, the vendor would then list all the different products they sell as well as the different prices and specs. It is here where the built-in chat interface is the essential tool. Hardly any Taobao order would take place without some sort of – even if minimal – interaction between the shopper and vendor.
Clicking on the little blue bubble will open up a chat interface in your browser window (see screenshot above). Each of these chat interfaces is linked to the vendor of the product, who is often located in one of the tiny stalls that make up the big department stores in China’s industry-heavy cities like Shenzhen (check out previous blog post [link] that covered the stalls in the electronic markets of huaqiangbei in Shenzhen). This is visible also when you go to the markets; many vendors are busy typing away on their computers, and while sometimes this might be for the purposes of leisurely distraction, more often they are interacting with a taobao customer. So rather than going to the markets in person, finding the specific market and the vendor who sells the piece you are looking for (which is often an hour-long intensive search), many make use of Taobao and the access the shopping platform provides to the same vendors.
Those who don’t speak Chinese install the Google Translate plugin, which does a decent job translating basic conversations. By this we mean that it works well for translating technical terms, and less well for translating more nuanced topics, for instance, when there is confusion about some of the product specs or if you order something more custom-made like business cards. Free plugins like the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary help because you can move your cursor over confusing translations and get a character-by-character translation of the original Chinese. This sometimes helps you deduce the meaning of a phrase that Google Translate gets wrong.
The vendors who communicate through Alibaba chat are mostly pretty patient though – in the end, it’s about two individuals (you and the vendor) making a concerted effort to make the order work. If we order more we also negotiate with the vendors to lower or waive the delivery costs. So to sum it up, when we purchase things on Taobao, we first inquire with the vendors about things like: what is the minimum amount of order a vendor accepts, the amount of pieces we want to order, how long the delivery will take, where the vendor is located, if there is the possibility to lower the delivery costs, ask if the part can be picked up in person instead of delivery, ask for clarification on product specs that aren’t in the product description, etc. For instance, once when we ordered a power supply, we needed to double-check with the vendor the “barrel jack” factor (the one that the Arduino uses) – which means we had to know if the center pin is power or ground. In the power supply we found on taobao, this was not part of the description, and so we had to ask the vendor about it. It was a bit tricky to describe this in technical terms in Chinese, so we used the chat interface to send the vendor links to screenshots and drawings of the jack and power supplies that demonstrated what we wanted, like the one here:
Some of the vendors are also available on Taobao during off-working hours after 6pm, when they physically leave the markets, and so people can place an order during times when the actual physical markets are shut down. Before spending a lot of time interacting with a vendor, we make sure that the vendor is rated highly by other users. Every vendor is rated through a series of symbols, whereas one or several diamond shaped symbols next to the vendor’s user name mean he/she is trustworthy – based on user recommendations. When you decide on a product, finalize with the vendor the amount of your order and delivery cost. At this point, the vendor updates the order number and all you have to do is hit the browser refresh button a couple of times until you see the order number and final price. Payment then runs through Alipay, but also many international credit cards are accepted.
This blog post is a collective piece co-written by Amanda, Josh, Tarun, and myself, and would not have been possible without the many hours of their hard work put into uncovering the digital mechanics of Shenzhen’s hardware and electronic worlds. So extra special thanks to Amanda, Josh & Tarun for spending their time and energy to work with me on writing this up for Transfabric!
In April I am co-organizing together with Anna Greenspan a panel discussion and workshop on “Hacked Matter.” Confirmed Panelists include: our very own David Li from xinchejian 新车间, Amanda Williams from Wyld Collective and currently in Shenzhen for HAXLR8R, and Tom Igoe from ITP New York. More details here:
Hacked Matter: A Workshop on Shanzhai & Maker Culture
Shanghai and Shenzhen: April 6-8 2013
With support from the Shanghai Studies Symposium, NYU Shanghai, ISTC (Intel Science & Technology for Social Computing) UC Irvine, the Rockbund Art Museum and Xinchejian 新车间
This workshop aims to critically explore and examine connections between the informal networks ofshanzhai production and the open innovations of the DIY (do it yourself) maker community in China. It will take place in Shanghai and Shenzhen, hubs of China’s growing Hackerspace and Maker scene as well as critical sites in the global flows of ‘copycat’ or shanzhai technology. The workshop will begin in Shanghai with presentations and a panel discussion by leading researchers and practitioners in the field. It will be followed by a two-day hands-on engagement with the open hardware scene & shanzhai manufacturing markets in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, we will visit the HAXLR8R event, a 15-weeks long workshop designed as a ‘startup accelerator program’ for ‘people who hack hardware and make things.’
Saturday April 6, 2013: 3pm – 6 pm (Shanghai):
All Tomorrows Parties (episode 6): Shanzhai & Maker Culture. Presentations and Panel Discussion at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.
Sunday April 7/ Monday April 8, 2013 (Shenzhen):
A tour of Shenzhen guided by David Li (founder of Xinchejian: Shanghai’s hackerspace). The tour will include visits to Chaihuo hackerspace, the HuaQiangBei shanzhai market, and SeeedStudio. It will also involve curated conversations with Eric Pan of SeeedStudio and DIY makers currently working in Shenzhen. The workshop will end on Monday evening with a roundtable discussion (and some delicious Guangdong food).
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.