Shenzhen, the capital of Guandong, China’s manufacturing region, where the sun is never really able to break through the smog.
(This has been reposted from Kickstarter)
Manufacturing in China
Prototyping is like cooking, manufacturing is like baking. When you cook, you can adjust while you work. You taste, add more pepper maybe, a squeeze of lemon, you taste again, add a splash of cream, a pinch of salt. You keep adjusting until it goes on the table. Baking is different, you mix all the ingredients, put it in the oven and pray for the best. It if fails, you got to start over from the beginning.
Manufacturing a relatively complex piece of electronics like the Kick, takes hundreds of different parts from different manufacturers. Some parts needs to be handled in a particular way, stored at a certain humidity, soldered in a certain way. When the assembled unit literally comes out of the reflow oven, it has to be tested properly to make sure everything if put together the right way and is working properly. The WiFi, the internal sensors, the charger, the battery, the LEDs, the buttons etc, etc. everything has to be tested on every device. There is literally a thousand small things that can go wrong and a lot of nail biting and obsessing over details. Designing the test jig and building an automated test procedure can sometimes be as much work as building the product in the first place.
I was in China last week to work with the factory who makes the plastic parts, and to visit potential manufacturers for the electronics. There is a lot of manufacturers in Guandong. From the really large ones like Foxconn and Flextronics who focus on customers who need massive volume. Then there is the tier below who are very professional, but who sometimes are able and willing to work with smaller customers as well. Then there is the smaller factories. The smaller the factory, the lower the price, but the more oversight they need. There are factories where workers walk around in spacesuits making little marks on notepads, and there are factories that are almost like sweatshops. Hot, smelly and poorly lit. The poor reputation that Chinese factories have is to a large degree based on poor conditions in the smaller factories.
This is the end of the production line for the printed circuit board assembly. The long chamber in the foreground is the reflow oven where the components are soldered. At the far end is the stencil printer and the pick’n place machine, the robot that places the components on the printed circuit board.
I want to mention the fantastic help from several people like Chris Gammel, Bunnie Huang, Adam Scheuring, Billy and William from Dragon Innovation and of course Jenny Odegard. They helped locating the right kind of manufacturers, sent introductions and with visiting the factory sites.
It is critical to use a larger mainstream factory that have a reputation to uphold and an established customer base. The trick is to find someone who are still hungry, and flexible enough to take on smaller production runs. I think we found the right electronics manufacturer and that feels really good after our initial false start to manufacture the electronics.
Translation of the flowery language used by Chinese factories can be unintentionally funny. Instead of “To create the greatest value for customers and stuff”, why not “To create great value for customers and shit”. That would be my kind of people.
Two of the five molds used to make the Kick enclosure, ready for transport to the big injection molding machines.
I visited James at HiTop who makes the molds and the plastic parts. The molds are done and we worked on the T1 shots. The parts looks good for the most part, but there is a few adjustments we need to make.
As you can see in the above pictures, gaps appear when you squeeze the case. We are adding some features to the case to better keep it tight. Please note: The case above is a test-shot without any surface finish. The final parts will be polished and wet-etched to give them a fine-textured matte finish.
Molds are seldom perfect on the first try. I hope we are able to sort all remaining problems for T2. If not, there will be a T3. I was probably a little disheartened when I realized we could not fix the issues with tweaks or by adjusting the plastics mix. We need to design in additional features for the parts. James tried to lighten me up by sharing war stories about working with automotive manufacturers who sometimes were at T50 or T60 before they got it right.
The design changes has been done, but we’re holding back on implementing changes as long as we can in in case other issues appear during beta testing. The shipping date is still dependent on the delivery of the pesky batteries.
China is totally preoccupied with the iPhone to a degree I haven’t seen anywhere. The Apple logo and iPhone 5 posters and images are everywhere you go. Even in the hotel toilet stall 🙂
The first pre-production/beta units have been assembled and are about ready to go out to the beta testers. We have way more people offering to test than we have pre-production units, so we can’t accept more testers.