Thermoforming Factory

For the product I’m building (A portable electronic scoreboard), the enclosure is large; 18″x10″. This is pushing the limits of injection molding without using a giant press. It’s certainly too large for a 50 ton press, and the 200 ton is about right. I was looking for other options and wanted to try out thermoforming, which is also called vacuum forming. The theory is that you heat up a sheet of plastic, drop it over a mold, and then suck the air out between the plastic and mold so that the plastic gets sucked to the mold.

This is a much cheaper method of production, as well, because the tooling is much cheaper and easier to make, and the temperatures and pressures required are much lower. It is better for prototypes as well, because you can make a mold out of anything, including styrofoam, and get an idea for the feel of it.

Vacuum forming isn’t perfect, though; it’s only good for making shells because you are starting with a sheet. And the formed part still needs a lot of work afterwards, cutting the excess material around the part, adding side holes, sanding. There are tradeoffs, and I wanted to explore this option.

I managed to find a factory, though it turned out they didn’t do the thickness of material I wanted, or the type of material I wanted, and didn’t even have the machinery I needed. It was also a challenge showing him the design and telling him it was a prototype, and that I could make changes to make the design more manufacturable. There is definitely an expectation with factories that the designs you show them are set in stone and you need exactly what is on the paper, which has been a challenge for prototyping in China.

The trip wasn’t a total loss, though. I managed to get some photos and video of the process. This factory makes blister packs mostly, and packaging for bulk transportation of products. They use cheap thin materials and while fairly basic, they get the job done pretty well.

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Interview with a former Foxconn employee

After reading this post about rioting workers at Foxconn, I thought I should respond with what I saw when I was in Shenzhen.

The workspace where I’ve had my base of operations for the last two months has an employee who used to work at Foxconn as a test engineer. I asked him a few questions about his experience there, and while the language barrier was a significant problem, I managed to find some questions and answers that worked. He seemed reluctant to go into detail, though I imagine it was just as much because he was having a hard time understanding me and formulating answers.

He said living conditions consisted of dorms in which he lived with four people to a room. People worked eight hour days, but there was overtime of up to two hours a day. He said he likes his new job better, and that Foxconn was the best factory around. That was about as far as we got in the walk from the subway to the office.

His current job, working in R&D at Seeedstudio, seems remarkably normal for an engineer anywhere. Everyone arrives at 8-9, works until noon at their computers or in front of a lab bench, eats catered lunch either in front of their computer or with coworkers, then take a siesta for a while. Then the afternoon session starts and they work until 5-6, eating the catered dinner and going home in bunches.

I get the impression, not just from him but from other people I interacted with, that people generally have few complaints about working in the factories. They are treated well. Most if not all are young (college age or about), so living in dorms is partly social, partly time saving (often the dorms are right next to the factory, so there is no commute time), partly money saving (who ISN’T poor at that age?), and partly so they can send money back home, which they can afford since they are making so much more than they could back in village towns. Living in dorms isn’t forced; it’s a choice, and people often choose to pile in the places with the cheapest rent.

I’ll admit I didn’t particularly enjoy the catered lunches and dinners. Too many chicken necks and feet and random bones that had me flinching with every bite, and the boss liked spicy, so more often than not that’s what we got. But it was otherwise fine, and we could go back for seconds if we wanted, and lunch and dinner together cost about $3 a day.

I don’t mean for this post to be a generalization of all factories. Certainly there are places where workers are treated poorly. But the impressions I got from the people I talked to, the factories I toured, and watching people in public, things are generally not that bad, and could be compared to a college sophomore in the dorms, and a McDonald’s employee at work. Not ecstatic to be doing their job, but in a decent situation and making decent money.

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Video of the electronic market

I met Ian of DangerousPrototypes and Tully and Liao in Shenzhen, and just discovered they have a video tour of the electronics market that is much better than the coverage I gave of the place. This video gives a good sense of what the market is like.

And here’s the link to his article.

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Initial findings on manufacturing in China

For the past nearly three months, I’ve dealt with China and manufacturing in China. It has been stressful and interesting and exhausting and eye-opening. I don’t know nearly enough yet, but I know a lot, and what I’ve discovered agrees with what I’ve heard from others who have spent years and decades there. The following are some things to consider before going to China.

Don’t go until you are ready

I went to work on my prototype and hopefully have a manufacturable design by the time I left. The theory was that with access to the people building the products I’d be able to make a better design and prototypes. The reality is that the language barrier makes acquiring anything a challenge, and factories only want to deal with you if you are building thousands of units; they laugh at you if you give a number in the 1s or 10s, and I’ve been waved away by people who just didn’t have any interest in doing business with me.

There are companies in China who focus on rapid prototyping. Star Prototype and A-Tech were two places we toured. But they will charge Western prices to do it, so what’s the advantage? On a tight budget, I needed a place that could let me play with materials myself, and my local hackerspace had better facilities to do it.

I was also refining my schematic in China, and prototyping with parts acquired at the electronics market. They’re cheap, you can get them quickly, and the variety of parts there is enormous. But the cost may not be worth it. Certain parts of my schematic were failing, and it was impossible to determine if it was my design, or if the part I was using was the wrong one, or if the parts I was being sold were so cheap because they were defective and I was a white boy. With no datasheets, and frequent miscommunications, it’s just not possible to know where the fault lies, and when testing a design, that’s an extra layer of hassle. Without the datasheets, I had issues as well. There were no example schematics with recommended values for resistors or inductors, and there were no indications what the electrical and thermal and mechanical characteristics were and whether I was within spec.

When you go, you should have your design complete, your schematic complete and tested with a complete BOM and estimated costs in quantity. You should have all the files ready in a variety of formats so that you can whip them off to a factory engineer to print and examine, or a PCB assembly house to quote costs.

Go to reduce costs and produce in mass quantity

You’ve been building small batches in the U.S. and the higher costs of components are eating your margins and the labor cost is making it unsustainable. You don’t have the facilities to ramp up production, and you’re getting lots of orders you can’t fulfill in a timely manner. Your product is proven, demand is estimable, and you have enough certainty that you can raise capital to fund a trip and tooling and setup costs. THAT’s the right time to go to China.

When I went I didn’t know for certain my target market really wanted my product. I had indications; emails asking about availability, great feedback on the prototypes, etc. But not enough certainty that a bank would give me a loan. So I was on a super tight budget, and on a tight budget doors do not open and favors do not get granted.

I didn’t have a complete design that I knew would work and be easy to assemble and produce. I didn’t even know what materials I would end up using. When touring a factory and the engineer asks if you want to use PS, PP, PE, PC, ABS, or Acrylic, and what thickness it will be and you reply with “What do you recommend?” then things are destined for failure. But when you already have everything ready and are just going to try to reduce costs and produce in quantity, then the engineering problems are much smaller and the factories understand your needs and can either meet them or not.

China is set up for this. Labor is cheaper (though it is rising and many are saying they are starting to price themselves out of the market and major manufacturers are starting to look elsewhere), and they work longer hours. Sometimes it is cheaper to hire someone to make a tiny adjustment to a part than to retool a mold to get it right. And quantity is what they are after. One thousand is a starting number, but tens or hundreds of thousands is preferable. Setting up a line isn’t easy or fast, so the larger the batch, the less overhead is lost (as a percentage of total time) on the setup.

Think about ALL the costs

BOM and assembly costs are just the tip of the iceberg. You also have to test each unit, and depending on your assembly process and factory choice, this can mean higher failure rates, which either get reworked or scrapped at significant cost. There is frequently palm-greasing cost. There is shipping cost (way more expensive if air shipped, but can take a month or more if by boat). There are duties and taxes. There may be environmental costs as well, if one of the cost saving measures the factory takes results in bad practices.

Then there is the cost of sending a person over there to tour the factories and live there for weeks or months, setting up the assembly lines and being present for the initial run to work out all the bugs. Depending on the level of engagement with the factories, this can be intense and prolonged and stressful. The person will have to deal with all kinds of health and mental issues, from as simple as jet lag and a girlfriend at home to longer term health effects of factory presence and exposure to the various toxins and bugs that are at much higher levels than the U.S. It’s not just costing money; it’s costing someone’s life for a certain amount of time. This can be alleviated by hiring a company like Dragon Innovation, whose job is to be the China presence and ensure quality and represent your interests, but of course this too cuts into your margins.

There is a time cost. If you have a shipment leave China by boat and arrive two months later, and you find that it is damaged or defective, then you lose not just that batch, but the last two months of production may have the same problem as well. The delay of shipping can be significant to a business that can’t afford to have such long lead times. Also, as much as people praise the ability to work during the day and then let China work during the night, the reality is it takes 24 hours to get a response to an email because you have to wait until their shift starts, and the only time you can have real time conversations is the small window in either the morning or the evening where both of you are awake, and it’s not convenient and it’s poor audio quality.

Financial institutions are another significant but hidden cost. With exchange rates, wire fees, and other various mechanisms for skimming money off of transactions, a lot of money just disappears in transit. This needs to be considered.

Some people talk about manufacturing in China as if it’s exploiting people, and taking jobs away from the U.S. From what I’ve seen, manufacturing in China has increased the standard of living immensely; Shenzhen is remarkably middle class and wealthy. Granted, the further out you go the worse things get, but people who have been around a while have been amazed at the improvement in everything in the past few years. We are bringing a lot of money into China, and they are doing better because of it. It’s still not perfect, but it’s arguably better than it would have been if we weren’t there at all. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that money and jobs are going overseas, and that’s potentially a cost to the conscience.


There are some good reasons to go to China, and it’s important to know when is the right time to go. Too early and you won’t get what you’re looking for and may find yourself swindled or broke. It’s not as cheap as people think and there are a lot of factors to consider before doing it.

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Back in the States

I’ve returned to the United States for a while. There are some things you just shouldn’t try to do in China, and I needed to do those things. If you 1) Need a good internet connection or 2) Need to do rapid prototyping and engineering, then the U.S. is better. China is the place to be when you have a complete product and have completely defined all the parts and assembly and you’re just looking to reduce costs and produce in mass quantities much larger than 1000. If you aren’t trying to do both, the overhead of transportation, communication, and exchange rates eats very large holes in profit margins. China makes sense for a lot of companies, but not all of them.

Anyway, I returned to the states to take care of things that I couldn’t do in China, and the return home has been very strange and probably not unusual.

I got up early in the morning, took a taxi to a hotel which was a coach stop, and in the middle of purchasing a ticket found a guy who had a private van and offered me a ride. The trip to the airport was nice and I got to chat with a stranger about manufacturing in China and learn that the things I’ve been learning over my 2 1/2 months are consistent with what he’s learned over the last decade.

At the airport, checkin went smoothly and I was ounces under the weight limit. Fortunately, nobody weighed my backpack carry on, because there was no way that was under the limit. I had all the parts to build 20 of my prototypes in there, and the circuit boards alone weighed 5.4 kg.

Once inside the airport, things got weird. I saw a group of college-age people whose accents indicated southern or Texas. They were messaging and chatting and acting as if they hadn’t just been in a rough foreign country for months. There were people chatting in the restaurant about how nice China was in various parts. I started to feel like I’d been experiencing a completely different China, and the truth is I had.

China didn’t want me to leave without a parting gift, so it gave me a stomach bug before my 15 hour flight. For the next 48 hours all I had was a single banana and some water. I was in a window seat of a full flight, and the four movies we were shown were all pretty bad. I was so happy for it to be over, but after the flight ended, the journey still had much more to it.

United States immigration and customs was, without exaggeration, a bunch of buzzcut idiots.

Him: Who do you work for?
Me: I have my own business.
Him: When I ask that, it’s because I want to know what you do.
Me: My company is Portable Scores, I do consumer electronics.

Not only did I give him a perfectly valid response to his first question (I work for myself, not for anybody else), but he got angry at me because he expected to get from his first question completely different information that what he asked for. Sigh. Getting into other countries that aren’t mine doesn’t suck as much as coming into my own country.  To all the foreigners coming into the United States, I’m sorry. We hire stupid people to be the first people you interact with, and we give them a sense of self-importance and power that makes them think they can get away with being awful people.

Getting Used to Home

My Tuesday was 36 hours long. I was still in pain from China’s various assaults on me, exhausted, but somehow so happy to be back. The weather was perfect; 70s, light breeze, everything green and growing and smelling nice. Traffic was reasonable and not honking incessantly. For the first couple days, everything felt so soft and comfortable, and smelled nice, and the weather was great and I wasn’t sweating and I was happy not to be run over by motorcycles on the sidewalk. Eventually, I was able to eat real food, and I worked up to being able to eat the things I’ve been missing, like salads, hamburgers, and dairy. The jet lag is killing me. I haven’t really slept more than a few hours per day/night. There are unintentional naps in which I fall asleep in seconds as my girlfriend watches, and late night sessions of work as I get bored lying awake in bed. Eventually I’ll return to a normal schedule, and eventually my body will recover, but going from one side of the world to another is not easy.

Seeing other people is weird. Everyone looks like me. So much so that I wonder what my place is. There’s no feeling of adventure or challenge in ordering food at a restaurant. I often craved the comfort of fewer challenges in daily life, but now that I have it, I miss some of those challenges and the learning curves. Everyone is bigger, too. I remember being excited the first time I saw an obese Chinese person weeks after arriving in China; here it was within minutes.

Everything is just different. It’s not a bad different, and it’s not all good different. Things just work different here, and it’s taking some getting used to. I’m still sorting things out.

NOTE: Just because I’m back doesn’t mean I’m done posting. I have quite a few posts that I’m still working on in my queue, some of which required video editing and a couple of which are series that took a while to compile. Additionally, I’ll probably be returning when I have made more progress on my product and have raised funding for mass production. This isn’t the end of the blog.

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Getting from Shenzhen to Hong Kong International Airport

HKIA is cheaper than Shenzhen airport for flights, but it adds a layer of complexity to the voyage.

Hong Kong is a special region of China; U.S. citizens don’t need a visa for stays of 90 days or less, but that doesn’t apply to mainland. The primary languages spoken are English and Cantonese, whereas Shenzhen is mostly Mandarin. There is a strange tax for arriving in Hong Kong that is automatically added to flights. All of these things make getting from HKIA to Shenzhen and back again… interesting.

There are several options, each with varying prices and time tables, and you can even mix and match:

  • Subway
  • Ferry
  • Bus
  • Private van
  • Taxi
  • Bum
This post doesn’t have specific details and schedules because they change. The Hong Kong airport web site has decent information about your options, and the booths in the airport work as well. If you are just arriving in Hong Kong, pay attention to everything, take things slowly, and make sure you have written down exactly where you are trying to get, preferably with maps as well.


It is possible to take a subway from HKIA to Shenzhen, though it takes roughly 2 1/2 to 3 hours, as the route goes quite a bit around Hong Kong, passing through the city instead of avoiding it and heading directly North. Once you arrive at the border, you have to cross the checkpoint with all your stuff and go through immigration and customs, then catch the subway on the other side. The two are not connected in any way; different currency, different lines, different everything. The tradeoff for the time, though, is ease of use and schedule and price. With so many signs in English, detailed maps, and regular trains, it’s hard to get screwed, and it’s very cheap. The hours for the subway are decent; 7 am-ish to 11 pm-ish. If you’re trying to get an early flight, or you arrive late, this might not be the best option.


The ferry departs directly from HKIA and goes to a couple ports in Shenzhen, including Shekou, which is connected to the subway and very close to most of the expat area of Shenzhen. Additionally, since you never actually go into Hong Kong, you don’t have to go through Hong Kong immigration, so if you have visa problems with Hong Kong, this may be your only option. Further, you get a coupon for recovery of that weird tax that was tacked on to the flight since you never went into Hong Kong. Further still, it’s integrated with the luggage system of the airport, so you check your luggage at the port and it gets transferred to your plane, or if going the other way it goes directly from the plane to the ferry and you don’t have to do anything. It’s also a very quick trip.

If you have a late flight, the ferries might already be closed, so it’s best to check the schedule to see if it’s an option. It’s not cheap, but you get a big discount from that coupon.


There are a variety of coaches that make the trip, and I have to admit I was very confused and didn’t get it right the first time. The bus I took when arriving only went from the airport to the border, and it was the only border of three that wasn’t connected to the subway (Futian and Luohu are the ones with subways). There are some busses that go directly from the airport to some of the Shenzhen hotels, and this is probably what you want. Pick the hotel nearest you and go there. I had planned to do this to return to HKIA, and would have if I didn’t end up bumming from someone in the lobby. The hotel busses are cheap, regular, and fast because they go direct.

Private Van

Next to the bus counters at the airport are the private van counters. These guys will take you anywhere you want to go. It’s reasonable if your company is paying for you, and they’ll be able to take all the worry and hassle out. If you are going to the airport, the nicer hotels will be able to arrange a van for you at their front desks. Don’t be afraid to use them even if you aren’t staying there.


Taxi is only good for part of the trip. You could take a taxi in Hong Kong between the border and the airport, but it’s not a good idea. It will be expensive and I’ve heard of people getting taken advantage of. Taxis in Shenzhen are fine, though. I’ve never had a problem with them, other than with difficulty communicating where to go. I’ve never been overcharged, and the first night when I arrived in Shenzhen he was able to take me to my destination and waited with me until the person I was supposed to meet showed up. It was great. You definitely need to know where you are going and how to get there and be able to communicate that in a couple ways. Make sure they know where to go before you get in the car, and don’t be afraid to try a few taxis before you get in one. It’s not because they’re dangerous; it’s just that some know the city better and communicate better.


I have to add this option because it happened to me, and it was awesome. I had originally planned to take the coach to the airport, so I took a taxi to the hotel nearby, then in the lobby asked to take the bus. While they were sorting that out, someone else entered the lobby with his luggage. I asked if he was going to Shenzhen airport or Hong Kong airport. He said HKIA, and that he had a private van. I told him I was headed there, too, and he offered me a ride. For the next hour we chatted about manufacturing in China and our stories of crazy. At the end we arrived at the airport, and he told me he wouldn’t take any money because his company was already paying for the van. So I got a great ride for free just by being in the lobby and asking if someone else was going to the same place.

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Unsolicited business cards

I’ve discovered that white guys carrying manufacturing prototypes are like magnets for people who work for international freight agencies and are also traveling on the subway. All I have to do is sit here and other people come up to me and hand me a business card. This has happened a few times now. At first there is some awkwardness when they start talking to me in Mandarin, but then they hand me a business card and it all makes sense. They nod and smile when I understand, I thank them politely, and then the rest of the trip is silent.

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My new favorite breakfast

Since moving from my old moldy place to a spare bedroom in someone else’s, my morning commute has changed slightly. This puts me directly in front of Ichibenor, which is a chain of bakeries. Inside I found this roll. The green tint is because it’s green tea flavored. The red things are beans, which the Chinese use all the time in desserts. And no meal would be complete without some sort of rice or rice derivative, so the gooey inside is a rice jelly. It’s pretty tasty, and the convenience of having it on the way eliminates my need to go an extra stop for buns in the morning.

Ichibenor and King Arch are the two big bakery chains, and they are everywhere. You won’t see loaves of bread, but there are lots of smaller treats that you would find in the glass cases of a bakery.

mmmm. Green tea, beans, and rice jelly. Everything about this is so Chinese!

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Get out of my computer, China!

Today I was browsing the internet in the apartment, and a strange ad came up on the Google maps web site. Normally Google doesn’t show ads on their own pages; especially ones that look like this.

What is this ad in the bottom right? It's covering up part of the page!

I started to do some investigating, and what I found was disturbing. It turns out my internet service provider, Great Wall Broadband, is inserting code into my web pages. So when I make a request out to Google, GWB is taking the response, modifying it, and then sending it back to me. This is very bad. Basically, any of my network traffic that isn’t encrypted can be sniffed and modified, so I have to be careful to always use SSL when I am logging in to sites, and it makes me happy that I have intentionally not logged in to Facebook or Gmail directly from within China.

I would be using a VPN all the time, but there are a couple problems with that. First, I can’t seem to log in while I’m at the apartment, and second, with the ridiculously awful bandwidth I have VPN just wouldn’t work anyway.

For now I’ve put in a block on all traffic from the domains they use, so while I may still get some weird insertions into my web pages, at least I won’t be seeing any more of these ads.

A few days ago we tried contacting the company to get faster internet, but apparently we’re already paying for 6MBps. There must be a translation issue here, because in reality it’s about 1/20th of that, making it only slightly better than dialup. The internet guy didn’t seem to think there was an issue (the internet works, right?), and after futzing with some unrelated wifi settings (that would make things worse, by the way), he declared the issue resolved and left.

Sadly, this is the way things are going in the states, too. ISPs are more and more frequently modifying the page contents to insert their own ads, and lines are so oversubscribed that it’s impossible to get the service you pay for, and things outside of basic browsing are often restricted or blocked entirely. The network monkeys who come by to install or fix things are rarely knowledgeable enough about their field to correctly identify, diagnose, and fix a problem. I’d help GWB out with a strongly worded email and changing of service providers, but without mastery of the language or knowledge of alternative options, I’m pretty much stuck for the next month.

At least when I return to the states I’m completely wiping my computer, and changing all my passwords everywhere. I’m not bringing this crap back with me.

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I recently met someone who has been in China for the last year and Shenzhen for the last two months. He had read this blog and thought ‘he says everything I’ve been thinking but have been too lazy to write.’ Many of the things I’ve described here have also been experienced by the friends who have been here for the last two months with me, and in casual conversations with other foreigners I’ve met.

One of the things I’ve said a lot in moments of frustration and incredulity to explain and cope with a situation is “This is China” or abbreviated to “TIC.” I have heard other people say this as well, independently of me. Basically, everyone here is going through the same things.

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