Big Chuck’s Chinapalooza 2014: Shenzhen, Days 1 – 2, Electronics Markets and Mechanical Streets

Dec 16, 2014 by the chuxxor in East Asia 2014, Events

I am just beginning to gather my senses from the past roughly 80 hours of sensory overload. In fact, I’m going to spend most of today writing this instead of going on more exploratory and scouting missions, because I can tell that if I let this keep going on, I’m going to have to write a book in one sitting (not that I haven’t before).

For some backstory, I was supposed to visit family in Beijing this month, but decided to take the opportunity of being in the neighborhood (i.e. the same continent) to visit one of the premier locations for manufacturing, hardware, and making – Shenzhen, in southern China. In 2 weeks, I’m also going to be in Tokyo for a few days, which is going to be its own entire set of shenanigans.

Shenzhen is the direct result of a central economic planning bureau deciding that they really liked this small nondescript fishing village and that it should become a world center of manufacturing and industry, so let’s throw money and power at it. It appears to have worked for the most part. For the actual story of SZ, there’s Wikipedia.

Inspired by posts like bunnie huang’s and many others detailing the electronics marketplaces in the city, I decided it was worth my while to check it all out in person. Interestingly enough, I have had past experience with visiting electronics/mechanical parts markets in China. In 2007, I was once again on a family visit, and I ran around a few of the neighborhoods with high concentrations of this kind of industry. Sadly, that was all on a previous version of the site which did not survive a server move a few years ago. Maybe I’ll put those pictures back up when I dig them out of my storage drives later.

Since my interests are primarily in the mechanical/fabrication side and overlapping into electric vehicles as well as pure electronics hardware (boards, fab, enclosures, packaging), one thing I’m trying to do is a bit of scouting for those who want to build more hardware. Needless to say, I’m a little weary of the term “hardware” being co-opted to basically mean stuffing a printed circuit board, but I understand that to what was mostly software people, that’s hardware. My hardware tends to weigh more and have higher tensile strengths.

What I’ve noticed in the past two days of shifting around the market crowds is that the infrastructure of both procurement and mentorship (the hardware startup accelerators, the makerspaces) is well-established for those making electronic hardware. Like in many parts of the world, I suspect the mechanical side is hidden away in dedicated industrial spaces, so part of my own mission in the short time I’m here is to scout those places out a little, and perhaps lay some groundwork for future explorers, a bit of a mechanopunk Roald Amundsen.

So we begin. I elected to not take my “big camera” for this trip, and instead rely on a Coolpad 7298D shanzhai phone that my partner in EV crime Adam brought back on his own trip to Shenzhen a few months ago. I call it “the cloud device”, and in general, besides the sheer Chineseness (Chinacity) and half-baked translations of the Android OS (a Coolpad company special, it seems), it is well-featured. What I haven’t quite gotten used to are the ideosyncrasies of the camera, so some of the photos are what I categorize as “eww” – that’s a photo industry technical term. But oh well..

To better split this post up into something readable, here are the current days selection:

1. Day 1 – Sunday, 12/14

2. Day 2 – Monday, 12/15

day 1

I left Boston on Friday morning (12/12 local time) and transferred onto the international leg at IAD (Washington Dulles) for arrival in Beijing. I never sleep well on moving vehicles or sitting up, so I stayed up all of Thursday night and then took two sleeping pills after the long hop started.

That got me about 6.5 hours. Out of 14. Oh well, better than nothing.

 

Arduino’ing on the plane on the last leg. I’m working on RageBridge v2 firmware here. RB2 will use a different current sampling and limiting method which will occur at PWM frequency – 15.6khz, but the basic principles are the same as the Hysterical Current Limiter currently in use. This involves a lot of register configuration and timer/peripheral setup, which I love hate despise rue am not fond of. I knocked some of it out on the plane, but not too much, as I didn’t have an oscilloscope, power supply, and test motor. The code compiles, so that’s worth something, right?

But enough about that. Here’s a view of the Shenzhen Futian CBD area from the hotel room of Amy Qian, who’s been on this site before with clever vehicles too. She’s in town on business, I am in town on freeloading.

I got in on Saturday evening (local time), so the next morning we took the subway two stops over to the world-famous Huaqiang Bei road (华强北路). Here’s one of the markets, Huaqiang Electronics World building 1 (there are three).

Helpful guides to this area that I used are the Haxlr8r map and Seeedstudio’s map. They really are like real-life strategy and play-through guides for video games.

 

SEG Electronics Market (inside the larger, taller SEG Plaza Building) is the principal market – it occupies 7 floors, 3 of which are parts/subassemblies and the rest tend to focus more on consumer electronics. Bunnie relayed it the best when he said that the higher you go, the wares really get “higher level” – componentry on floors 1 and 2, and consumer products/accessories thereafter. It’s like some kind of weird evolutionary chain with single celled organisms and slime molds and whatnot.

 

As we arrived pretty early in the morning, most places were not yet open and the crowd was sparse. HQB Road itself was under heavy construction; the whole thing was torn open. I believe a new subway line is being put in.

There was this funny little police bus-let thing that I wanted to steal and ship back to the U.S. really badly. I would just enter this straight in the PRS.

Shipments from factories and warehouses being unloaded in the morning before the shops open up. All 3 blocks we toured were like this!

“Hey, who’s signing for this?”


Sales staff briefing and Mandatory Happy Fun Time, a traditional Chinese business practice.

As SEG was not really open yet, Amy and I toured through HQ Electronics World building 1 (#7 on the hacker map). Not much here was open yet either; we would eventualy make two rounds of each.

Above, some heat sink art.

Capacitors, but if I didn’t know better, would think they’re bags of beans or something.

As I learned from talking to some of the shop owners over the course of the day, the booths/stands aren’t principal money makers, but more serve as a formal front to the business which might have significant online, B2B, or contract operations. In the past, I learned that factories would send buyers to these markets whose job it was to collect all the parts. Serving the ‘grab and go’ parts market is not as much income as it was several years ago now that many parts and entire Bills of Materials are bought and sold online, but the demand is still there (but generally declining in favor of sale online sales). It was sad to hear, but perhaps just a reality of the evolving economy. However, it is still fully possible for you to put together a BOM live on the spot and go into production immediately.

A PCB fab house advertising services and sample boards. Yes, I COULD buy the sample boards shown – who knows how many Kickstarters are in this picture!

If I ever see a RageBridge board here… well, I’d actually be quite content with myself.

On one of the upper floors was one of the infamous “sticker shops”. You can buy almost any manufacturer or certification sticker here, holographic and all. I kind of wanted a book of RoHS stickers.

Dress up your computer with hardware it never had! Like putting performance badges on base model cars, or perhaps misrepresenting your hardware to garner high prices.

Nesting heat sink cases in all colors and styles. At least 1 of these fits a RageBridge, I guarantee. If not, I am sure the factory rep will ask them to yoink the CAD file and make it fit.

Hilarity also ensues. Whomever you guys hired as a translator…

Clearly, unless you’re a complete n00b in this game, you know that not everything sold in this kind of environment is fully to-spec, sanctioned, or even legal. I’m fairly certain there is not currently a 26650 sized lithium cell that is anywhere near 6000mAh. The highest cap 18650s that I know of from big name-brand companies which are commonly available are hitting the 3600mAh mark, so don’t tell me your 18650 is pushing 5K.

Little neatly planted rows of LEDs abound.

One of a handful of motor vendors. Motor vendors were rare, but power transmission/mechanical parts vendors were maybe in the low single digits, and their selection was not stellar – though I’m sure if I inquired about a certain widget they could source them.

This is what I was talking about when I said mechanical hardware is not nearly as common in the open. I briefly spoke with one who indicated their factory/warehouse/larger storefront is in Bao’An district – a much more suburban area about 30 minutes on the subway or 10-15 miles by taxi away.

A lot of these small motors are used in robotics – some of them, like the ones on the center-left, are very familiar to me.

Also strangely common: These things. You might know them as solowheels, but their ilk populates this area like no other small transportation utensil I’ve ever seen. I think they spawn somewhere in the area. Maybe  2 dozen vendors over the whole day just had one or two sitting about. The lowest price I sweet-talked one to (and I wasn’t out to buy one, so I didn’t try very hard) was 1300 RMB or right around $200.

Honestly, for a hub motor, controller, battery pack, some semblance of a frame, AND the balance controller, it’s worth it for parts alone. I will not rule out the prospect of leaving with one.

One of several shops selling electrical engineering tools, this one specializing in repair/refitting of old equipment.

Inside the interior atrium of the SEG building, showing the multiple levels.

My first (and only…) haul of the day, a handful of little Sanyo-flavored motors (nowadays also known as “Pololu motors“). I went for a ‘quantity discount’ and got these for 12 RMB each – a hair over $2. When I asked for a spec sheet, the guy couldn’t whip one out for that line, but then I said all I needed to know can be discerned with a power supply, so he pulled out a small bench supply. I performed a stall current test at 1 volt to get an idea of how much current the motor will draw – some of these have very mild-wound weaksauce motors.

The ones I ended up buying had a pretty solid 0.11A stall at 1 volt. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s in the neighbhorhood of the “HP” Pololu motors I commonly use. I bought 20 of the 6v, 1000RPM type he had. I am inclined to return to get more, because they’re just so handy for little bots.

Around lunchtime now, and the bustle has seriously started. Now there were street hawkers trying to get you into their cell phone operations.

Inside a different, bit better lit market. This is the HQ Electronics World building 2.

Fancy LED buttons. I know these have an actual name, but I call them “Form 1 buttons” because I know the lengths to which Formlabs went to source the perfect glowy button for their machine. I might grab a few of these just to have for whatever.

More shady 18650s – they cluster around the flashlight vendors. As Amy put it, “They finally figured out how to print bigger numbers!”

In these little shops, only the proprietor knows the product selection, stock level, and location of each item. It’s like the dual case of MITERS, where a bunch of people might know portions of each but never the whole picture!


Okay, this little device might be my favorite of the day. It basically is Segstick, without the stick, and with a hinge in the middle. You just twist your ankles a little in order to turn, but otherwise it rides like a balancing doodad. I rode it very unskillfully on the sidewalk.

They wanted 3200 RMB minimum, which is higher than my impulsive buy threshold, but man, those dual 8″ direct-drive hub motors. Notice the little Solowheel clone next to it.

After some sleuthing, I found that the manufacturer is Shenzhen Sunnytimes and it’s called the “iMuve2″.

(Interesting trivia: Myself, Shane, and all other skilled Segstick operators all maintained it was easier to ride without the stick. This device proved that hypothesis beyond a doubt.)

YAY! WE FOUND YOU!

The letters come from the first letters of the company’s Pinyin name (ya an yuan, or 亚安源). I’m honestly not sure which was thought up first.

They sold security camera products – 安防 just means ‘security’.

Wandering inside the 3rd building of the day. I think this is the “Sun Asia”  building (#3 on the hacker map). It was certainly the most old-school of the markets - it’s literally all business, and nearly all surface mount passives and ICs. I swear ther are more SMT resistors in that building than atoms in the universe, which doesn’t even make sense.

Even more SMT parts on reels in Sun Asia.

After we finished looking through the parts markets, we met up with some more of Amy’s coworkers who were on business. They were actually out to get some cell phone equipment and get some repair parts, so off to the more consumer-oriented markets we go.

Up on the higher floors, here is another one of the Shenzhen legends: the cell phone chop shop. People always say that they recycle old electronics and sell them as new. This is not entirely true, but it’s also not entirely false. I liken it to running an auto mechanic operation as part of your junkyard. If you need to fix someone’s car, go and pluck a part from a junked one in your backyard. These part shops are an extension of that concept to phones and laptops. Not only do you harvest parts for sale downstairs, but you have a live garage of sorts to perform repairs.

In this area, lots of the office cubes had makeshift heat shields so you didn’t walk right into their reflow gun. These guys were also not fond of photography, so I snapped this a bit surreptitiously while pretending to be texting.

As a large portion of your buying activity is bargaining, they didn’t like the offer for something and so we went elsewhere. This repair shop was much friendlier, and welcomed me in to take photos. Here’s a phone magician at work.

I think the invitation was me inquiring about their hot air rework station model and what other techniques they used – it showed I was not some random fucker. I passed myself off as a wee engineering student to a lot of places to get some sympathy, and I have no remorse about this whatsoever.

HQB really starts kicking in the evening, though. Handtrucks and 3-wheeled moped carts fly around everywhere, intermixing with just-off-work evening shoppers and people pushing last minute shipments and orders made during the day. I stayed to watch some of this but decided to book it before I was surrounded by too many hawkers.

So that’s my day in the electronics markets. It was great to see what everyone was talking about up close and personal, but I suppose I didn’t find it to be orgasmically delightful because I’ve both seen it before and am a bit past the “OMG MUST BUY EVERYTHING” stage of life, replacing that with the “Okay, I literally am not going to use that EVER” stage. There are some items I am interested in going back for, so perhaps I will go on a “zero inhibitions tour” right before shipping out.

I definitely left a bit dissastisfied with regard to the availability of mechanical parts. We had been told throughout the day while talking to the vendors that in large part, the manufacturing itself these days has moved well out of town and we might have better luck in Dongguan, a city about an hour north of Shenzhen.

But maybe they had ‘outlets’ or similar in town? In part remembering my scouting adventures in China and Singapore in search of metals, bearings and gears, I decided that it was worth a Google (/Sogou) maps search of the area for some mechanical engineering keywords. That night I did some sleuthing, such as:

“加工” means machining in the industry, or more generally “processing”. It can mean anything from materials processing to food processing, just implies the act of adding value to something. It’s a very general search phrase, but it was a place to start. 机械加工 specifically means ‘metalworking’.

I found the best concentration northwest of the city proper in Bao’An district, which is what I gathered from speaking to the vendors.

A similar search for “五金” – general hardware/screws and the like – reveals a massive concentration in the neighborhood. The word itself means “five metals” – gold, silver, copper, tin, and zinc… Because back in the day, that’s all the metals you had to work with to make anything!

Looks like the greatest concentration was a path from Fanshen road, and then to the northeast towards Liutangcun. I decided to just take a walk and see what’s out there. If it was like the parts of Beijing I walked through, it’s not necessarily what I was looking for – mechanical parts and the like – but more power tools, some industrial parts, but mostly commercial building products and similar. But who knows!

By the way, this is what the ‘hood looks like in satellite view.

That’s quite the density you got there.

One of the things people always forget about is that mechanical engineering isn’t as elegant or pretty or presentable as electronics and consumer product design. Things are dirty, it’s loud, there’s flying metal bits everywhere, and in general the manufacturing industries are looked down upon by city governments trying to keep the place clean.

It also tends to require a lot more space than stuffing a board. That’s usually why they are located out and away from the shiny new CBD or residential neighborhoods. It takes effort to seek out.

I determined that the plan for Monday was to walk through this area and see what it was about.

day 2

A little after rush hour, I set out on the subway towards the Fanshen stop on Line 5, which should dump me right out into the area. I had no purchases in mind, but just wanted to see what the flavor of the industry there was.

Here’s a general ‘street view’ of the place when I got to Fanshen Road.

Not as fancy as HQB or where I’m staying, but a fairly average neighborhood. Immediately, the fun started:

Right on the corner was this place selling large amounts of electrical cables.

I called this place “the delrin store” but based on reading their sign outside I am not sure if any of that is Delrin – perhaps nylon or PTFE. Still, a little plastics outlet next to a little metals outlet. Already, the Home Depot Coefficient (how many times your target area is better than Home Depot) is over 1.0, as I do not ever recall HD selling plastic billet.

The street scene a few blocks down doesn’t look too different. Many of these stores, like the electronics vendors, do sell the same kind of things. Ostensibly, it seems nobody can make any money, but like the electronics vendors, these shops often have contracts supplying a construction project – and there are MANY, MANY of those in Shenzhen and the surrounding area. They don’t exist to serve me, they exist to serve construction. Speaking to one or two every big city block, I got the impression that their storefronts are more formalities than sales drivers – again, like the electronics vendors. Business, in general, seems to be good because of the sheer amount of new construction.

I wonder how it will keep up in the future – perhaps not a near term enough future to concern them.

How many familiar plastic names can you spot!?

A store of nothing but conduit, cable trays, and steel wall studs.

I peeked around a block corner to check out the scene away from the main street, and it seems like woodworking is strong in this area too. Suppliers here stocked 2x4s (or whatever a Chinese 2×4 is called), plywood panels, and other wooden implements.

In a small tool shop that was clearly family run (little kids at the order desk and all), a few lithium ion minidrills mimicking a familiar color scheme.

Peeking around another block, lighting and electrical services extend off into the distance.


In the middle of this fray…

Hey, if the guy you sent to pick up the day’s construction supplies breaks down, you can have him repaired here!

Another mom & pop & grandkids tool shop, showing a few colors of Harbor Freight-class drills and grinders.

I learned from this place that for the most part, walk in sales are important to them. I guess tools aren’t really a thing you purchase en-masse via contract – you get them as you need them. This stands in contract to the “supply” places.

If I were going to drop Big Maos (like Big Benjamins) on a small lithium mini-drill like I wanted, I’d come back here – the manager was a very kind middle aged lady who I had a nice broken chinese chat with about her business.

 

A material handling shop, but I called it the “every kind of wheel ever” store. Which is true. They had entire 3-wheel moped-truck axles in the back in case your 3WMT leaves one in the middle of the road as you drive off with it 375% overloaded. Which is also true.

Aha! The magic words appear – 电车, or electric vehicle. Also common was 电动车, literally ‘electrically moved vehicle’ but colloquially referring to small electric bikes and mopeds.

I some times discount Tesla and all of the big Western efforts at “green transportation” and “future mobility” because of all the publicity, chest pounding, and government money-getting – the “look at us, we’re changing the world because we’re so awesome!” approach. In the mean time, you have these Chinese companies who literally have put tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people on electric wheels in the past 10-15 years. When I came to Beijing in 2007, everyone still rode normal bikes. There are still normal bikes here too, but the 电动车 is now what you see 80% of people riding while carrying their extended family, week’s groceries, and two chickens. All on a 350 watt hub motor, even! Dirt simple, dirt cheap, and reliable.

By the time I got to the big residential area seen on the map, I was already getting weary of all the places retailing roughly the same things. So I poked my head a few blocks in on the main avenue through that area.

Another friendly neighborhood e-bike shop.

I gathered from talking to this proprietor that he pretty much functions only as a sales and service location – and that most businesses catering to the e-bikes are similar. Nobody keeps a pile of new parts on-hand like I would like, but rather they are ordered as needed, just as I would order from the likes of elifebike.com. He was not aware of a “NAPA Auto Parts” of dorky e-bikes (Note that I didn’t actually use NAPA as an example…) – that I might have to go to the factory, of which there are some in Shenzhen, and inquire.

I hopped on the subway back towards the hotel after this location – I’d say I was deflated, but not defeated. I’d already found raw material, plastics, wheels, tools, electrical parts, and so on.

By this point, I was also getting tired of straining myself trying to talk to people. As much as I said I spoke to one store owner or the other, it was all in rather broken and simplistic chinese, interrupted by needing to thumb through my translator app for a technical word, all while excusing myself and apologizing for being bad at Chinese and having to explain my American heritage over and over. I’m sure that didn’t endear me to a lot of these places, either. Nobody out here speaks a lick or reads a single word of English, which is another accessibility factor – I can’t tell 99% of people I know to come out here and buy stuff since they would not even be able to ask for it. At the very least, HQB is a sufficiently bustling hub of foreigners that a lot of the booth and stall owners understood some English, or at least (and this was the hard part for me) knew the English name of a specification or specific term.

Needing a shot of energy (and English speakers), I actually stopped back at Huaqiangbei, hit the Starbucks, and went to Haxlr8r:

A hardware startup accelerator located in Ground Zero of the electronics markets. They have a moderately large workspace spread across 2 of the offices in the building, each of which is actually 2 floors. I had an “in” through one of the folks who works in the IDC, who introduced me to the founders/principal operators.

A portion of their ‘office space’, or really just more workspace – the spaces blend together.

The idea of Haxlr8r is, you apply with your fancy hardware app product idea, and if you get in, they give you money (in exchange for some equity in your company) and help with all of product vision, engineering, production, and business. They’ve had a very, very high success hit rate.

It’s rather like Bolt here in Boston, if Bolt were located in a place where you can stumble downstairs, grab a TQFP microcontroller or two and a fistful of LEDs, and run back upstairs.

More workspace, showing the stairs that lead up to the ’2nd floor’. Upstairs is a small CNC router, large-ish  laser cutter, and a Tinylathe, among other tools.

So how do they get mechanical hardware done? Well, unless you can do it in house with these tools, it’s all hired out. I got a chance to commiserate with some of the folks here who needed to get parts made, and they, too, wondered if there was a hot spot of activity they can just show up to. There seems to be a disconnect between the world of production factory jockeys and the average maker/hacker when it comes to mechanical hardware. Shit’s hard – as I’ve ranted about many times on this site, getting a board stuffed is a much, much better constrained problem than manufacturing in 3D from raw materials.

After this day, I pretty much subway’d back to the hotel and zonked out immediately. To come are the adventures of Tuesday and Wednesday: Seee(eeeeeee)d Studio visit and the Silly Segway Factory Tour! Have you ever gotten a factory tour by sending an email that basically said “I almost died trying to ride your product yesterday. May I visit your production facility?” because I just did.