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18 October 2015

Asa #LivingTheResearch: Pt. 2 - Getting Things Made

Part 2 of 3... Hacker, maker and MadLab co-founder, Asa Calow, shares his experiences of Shenzen so far.l

One of the most interesting parts of the trip thus far, for me at least, has been the opportunity to “peel back the layers” of the city’s maker ecosystem. Rather than manufacturing being a mysterious black box – where plans and specifications go in one end, and “stuff” comes out the other – it’s been super-interesting to see how relationship-driven the whole process is. There are parallels to be drawn between the kinds of social communities you find in a typical hacker/makerspace – where everyone helps each other out with their projects, shares what they know, and collaborates in a very informal way – and the networks of manufacturers, small to large, who frequently work together, and alongside their customers to get things made.

There is an incredible amount of variety in both scale and approach for those looking to tap into the Shenzhen hive mind.

At one end, you have the mega-companies you’ve never heard of, who provide white-label (OEM) goods to overseas brands. We visited one such company, 3nod, last year with Mitch Altman. Their main sales space has the look of an upmarket Currys but without a logo in sight, into which buyers are brought to select their next product – making a few cosmetic changes and adding their branding, before placing an order for a few hundred thousand units. Needless to say, this level of production is entirely unattainable to anyone whose bank balance doesn’t have a significant number of digits to the left of the dot. That’s us out then, on with the story.

Another common setup is the contract manufacturer. These are the people who take away a lot of the complexity and really step into the trenches with you to help get your nascent “thing” to market. Complexity is the watchword here – supply chains for anything but the simplest products involve an intricate dance of suppliers, distributors, financers, and manufacturers, providing everything from sub-assemblies and electronic parts, through to specific elements such as its case. As Doreen at Seeed told us, “if software teams are like a rock band, hardware teams are more like an orchestra”. When you consider that even simple products are often comprised of tens or even hundred of parts, where each part often needs a different process and specialist expertise to produce, you can easily see how a good “CM” (with a large personal-professional network of people they work with) is incredibly worthwhile when setting foot in the world of maker-manufacturing.

The downside to this of course is that as you might expect, given the ample opportunity for things to go wrong and the amount of money on the line for everyone involved, these kinds of services have historically only been available to those with an established track record of producing and selling hundreds of thousands of units at a time. This is beginning to change however, and there are several contract manufacturers out there who are prepared to talk to ambitious, capable, product-driven hackers and makers who intend to scale. Indeed we were introduced to one such company, Rone, who run an industrial design studio but were also offering many of the services which you would expect of a contract manufacturer. I got the distinct impression that if you approached them with something cool, that might start with a smaller number of initial sales, they were willing to talk. Indeed, they showed us a number of successful (and very cool) Kickstarter projects which they had been involved with.

But what do you do if you’re not Samsung, a hardware start-up or an ambitious crowdfunding jockey? Hacker, do not despair…

The answer is that you go full shanzhai! We met a number of people on our journey through Shenzhen who were doing exactly this, building up (and sharing) their extended network of different micro-manufacturers with different capabilities – everything from CNC milling and injection moulding, through to circuit board production and assembly of components – to create interesting things in small-ish quantities (<1k). Our friends over at Dangerous Prototypes are particularly awesome in this regard, and their DirtyPCBs service is an excellent example of Shenzhen lo-fi manufacturing at its best. The downside of this particular route is that it’s very difficult to tap into these maker-manufacturer networks without actually being in Shenzhen, being introduced to and working alongside the factories that you want to do business with. The upside of course is that it’s actually doable at all!

It’s super-cheap once you’re in Shenzhen to live and work, and we met a number of people on our trip who would travel in and out of the city, staying for anywhere between a couple of weeks and several months, until they were happy that they had all the pieces in place to get their thing(s) made. Indeed, a pretty major advantage to working in Shenzhen is the speed with which you can get stuff done – turning around design revisions in days rather than weeks in other parts of the world, and thanks to the power of WeChat (a kind of “kitchen sink” messaging app, that lets you do everything from group chat through to ordering a cab) you are connected to the Shenzhen hive mind 24/7.

So these are, broadly, the three approaches that many of the people we have spoken to have taken to get their things made, but they are by no means the only options available. This is hardly unlikely in a city with such a density of tools, materials and expertise, and where business is brokered more as an ongoing personal relationship and series of conversations than a straightforward purchasing of services followed by a firm handshake. As you might imagine we’re a big fan of China’s conversational, hackers’ way of doing business, and we can’t wait to get back out here again to get more things made!

This piece originally appeared at

Asa Calow is a self-taught creative technologist, civic hacker, amateur biotechnologist, mathematician, and co-founder of MadLab, one of the UK's most successful and engaged makerspaces/technology-focused community organisations.