Big Chuck’s Chinapalooza 2014: Shenzhen, Days 3 and 4 – Seeedstudio and the Silly Seg-Things Factory

Dec 19, 2014 by the chuxxor in East Asia 2014, Events

Guys, I found the local Mexican place. I can officially just settle down here now.

It wasn’t bad – at LEAST Taco Bell grade (and I hold Taco Bell in moderate repute!) but like many Western food options, is much more expensive than a noodle shack – three tacos here cost me about as much (converted back to USD) as if I just hit up Beantown Taqueria back at base.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s adventures involved some sightseeing. Not the touristy kind (is there such a thing as ‘industrial tourism’?), but visiting the facilities of a well known maker-oriented company – Seeed Studio – as well as that of a small vehicle manufacturer. My favorite!

Day 3: Seeed Studio

We begin with me getting lost for like 15 minutes trying to find the office of Seeed Studio.

So they definitely have directions to visit the office on their website here. But, I noticed a glaring omission. The directions just say “Make a right onto Tongsha Road and look for Building 32!” The north side and south sides of Tongsha Road are very different, though both have commercial buildings, and it took me a few minutes of confusion and pattern matching before I realized they meant the north side.

Welcome to Seee(eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)d Studio! Hey, it looks exactly like the picture on their website!

All around the front office, there are ‘trophie case’ showing samples of products they’ve shipped. The cases are made from repurposed shipping materials.


D’aaaw.

The main hallway of Seeed, where the various departments and rooms break off. I got a tour from one of the HR ladies who could speak english fairly well.

I’m going to complain juuust a little about this since it goes kind of well with the general theme of my visit so far, that I’m actually not sure when I can speak English or have to resort to… well, Chinglish. Seeed presents itself online as a very English speaking place – the website and documentation is pretty much impeccable. So imagine my surprise when I roll up and receive strange looks after asking for a tour.

Maybe it’s something I should have called ahead about (in which case, that maybe should be on the website – English speakers, call to arrange), but it sort of ruined my plans to talk shop with an engineer or something. I settled for a fairly basic walkaround of the space and just used what Chinese I knew, which is somewhat sparse as I’ve mentioned previously.

Overall, though, it was still an insightful look at their operations. They pretty much are a product design company and marketing ecosystem that focuses on maker-style/DIY products.

The shipping department was alive and bustling with orders being picked.

Manufacturing takes places on another floor.

Electronics assembly room. SMT and hand assembly are both done here. This was as far as I made it in, since to go further, I would have had to put on antistatic protection clothing.

Off to the side, a small mechanical shop with a little CNC, laser cutter, and other fairly basic RP tools. The idea is simple stuff like 3d printed parts and laser-cut enclosures cold be done in-house. I asked what they did with products with significant mechanical features – and the answer was, again, they hire them out to local contract manufacturers!

The main hall of the upper floor office hosts customer service, support, and HR.

I spoke to Jim, a product manager, after the tour was over. I brought over a RageBridge prototype for kicks – this is the unfinished v1 that I owe everyone a fab report on soon. I was non-seriously inquiring about having the whole thing made through them, asking what he (and an EE that came over in the middle) what they thought of the board.

They did say there doesn’t seem to be anything about the board which can’t be made and fitted in-house (yes!), but they have also never done anything with such high power before. But to be sure, I would have to submit a case through their Propagate program so they can look at everything in detail. Fair enough!

On the way out, I placed a live order for something I’ve been wanting for a hell of a long time. I’ve been watching the DSO Nano since they released version 1 a few years ago. It seems like having the pocket ability to, say debug PWMs and signal levels is a very powerful one I’ve been missing out on. The DSO Quad ups the sample rates significantly and also has two digital-only inputs.

This little guy will live in my personal toolbox and travel to robot events and silly go-kart races and the like.

Day 4: Silly Segway Factory

Remember that little yellow thing? This thing.

On Wednesday, after getting back from Seeed, I looked up the manufacturer, who is local, and actually e-mailed them asking if I could have a factory tour. Not only did I play the “noobie engineering student looking to learn about how manufacturing is done” like, but I also made sure to casually mention that I was impressed with their product since I had built similar things before – namely, I showed my sales rep contact and a manager Segfault. They invited me over the next day, in the afternoon.

Well, what can I do until then? I returned to HQB first, in the morning, to pick up some motors.

Not only did I invest some cash into buying roughly Pololu micro, 25mm beetlemotor, and Silver Spark sized gearmotors for my own use, but the majority of the motors are earmarked for supporting new bot builders at MIT who have decided to enter into Motorama 2015. The idea is I’m going to make the motors available basically at-cost to the new builders.

The motors I picked up aren’t exactly identical to the ones I linked to, but I think to a new builder the Law of Chinese Product Packaging Inertia applies here – it will probably work just fine!

While heading through the market to the motor place I’d spoken to before, I found this.

Hey, umm, doesn’t 2 wheels kind of ruin the point? They’re not independent either, but the rim is a single long piece. The seller mentioned that it’s easy for newbies to train on, but that’s about all.

After stuffing my backpack full of motors, I went and hailed a cab to visit the Seg Things factory.

They’re located in Longgang district, a dusty northern district that is literally on the other side of the mountain from the city core. Lots of other factories are located out here also.

The structure above isn’t their building; it’s on the other side, and the structure is just a dividing wall.

The lobby, which also functions as a freight elevator access path. Because you’re never really supposed to see these places, they’re not nearly as shiny.

I met up with the sales rep and manager and began the walkaround. The manager mentioned that the iMuve2 contraption I saw is their in-house design – it is not a copy of a oneWheel or a segway-shaped object. I’m not one to verify, but all the Google search results for that name come back to them, so it must be at least somewhat legit!

In Special Economic Zone China, Segway off-load you.

I pointed out that they might want to fix this for the future.

This space isn’t a ‘factory’ per se. Instead, it’s an assembly house, logistics center, and sales & service center. Parts are ordered from CMs all around the area, like handlebars and motor assemblies. The seg-things are then built to order in small batches by techs, one at a time. Not a bad model for small-quantity quirky vehicles.

The sales lady mentioned they roll out about 3-400 units (of all types, combined) per month. They go all over the world, and they sell directly.

 

A seg-thing being assembled. These big ones are all DC motor, unlike actual Segways which are brushless. The reason why? Cost, and “good enough”. I dunno about you, but I approve.

A tech starts taking apart a display model they sent to a dealer, who sent it back because it suddenly would just cut on in one direction. Sounds like a loose IMU problem to me.

He was taking the cover off as the wheels were spinning, only finally switching the thing off by yoinking the battery connector… which was an XT-60! Something tells me the engineering team and I will be very good friends.

Unlike many places, even in shops, they fully let me whip the camera out and take closeup photos of everything. I’m guessing they are comfortable enough with me doing so since I showed them what I’d done before (that I wasn’t just some random secret agent); that, or they stalked me enough to read Beyond Unboxing posts and know that no matter what, I’m going to take it apart and put it on the Internet eventually anyway. Which I will…

…because I am now the proud owner of a Stickless Segstick. Schmoozing the factory does get you places! It wasn’t free, but we worked out a price that was basically their parts cost plus “well we do need to make SOME money”, which I agreed to. I didn’t push too hard since they’d been so generous in giving the indepth tour. I mentioned I was more interested in souping it up and using it potentially for parts, which made them acquiese a bit.

I am a huge fan of this thing. It’s very intuitive to ride and very smooth (despite still being block-commutated brushless – so there’s still a bit of dead zone in the middle). But it’s definitely an indoor machine.

One of the techs and I had a race in the warehouse, which he of course handily won.

Overall, these two days were a pretty insightful look into a place that mostly ships PCB products and a place which assembles and ships small low-production-count vehicles. Both industries I’ve either been in or thought about getting into. It’s good to see that I’m not crazy or too far off base with many of my assumptions on how this stuff works.

What I learned is that even the Silly Seg-Factory still uses Alibaba and the local market ecosystem to scout out new CMs and obtain purchasing agreements for parts. They represent the layer of manufacturing that is above “the factory” – making all things from scratch and basically in-house – which I suppose is ‘the integrator’ or something of the sort.

After returning to the hotel, I promptly tried to ride Stickless Segstick around the block, only almost dying like 5 times. It’s WAY easier to ditch off from than a Segway – just jump up. The two black footpads are actually weight sensors and it will quit instantly when you jump off.

In the future: A visit to SZDIY, and a Friday spent chilling and writing this before I hop on the high speed rail to Beijing. Maybe tomorrow’s post will be a RageBridge fab post.