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22 November 2015

Asa #LivingtheResearch: Pt. 3 - Shanzhai!

They're back in UK with new friends, new connections and new perceptions from China. This is the final instalment of MadLab co-founder Asa Callow's thoughts and reflections on Making in China.

It’s been a couple of weeks since we got back from China. Now the dust has settled a bit and having had the chance to reflect on our experiences, we’re more excited than ever about the prospects of increased collaboration between UK and Chinese makers – something we’re testing out with an initial foray into low-volume Shanzhai manufacturing for the Manchester Space Programme.

Spending time in community workshops around the UK, you might get the impression that the kinds of of processes, practices and expertise typically employed by UK makers – 3D printing, laser-cutting, DIY electronics, and similar – are a world away from how the manufacturing industry puts new products on the shelves and delivers new crowdfunded hardware. Indeed, you would be (mostly) right.

In China however, there is another way – what is referred to by David Li and Clay Shirky as “The New Shanzhai”.

In China – Shenzhen in particular – building, hacking, and repurposing electronics is such a part of day-to-day life that there is very little (if any) cultural distinction to be drawn between what happens in makerspaces, in factories, and on the street, where street hawkers repair and sell grey-market quality-control-failed iPhones (amongst other things) using advanced soldering techniques that would stretch the abilities of your typical UK hardware hacker.

This hands-on enthusiasm for new hardware and manufacturing is best exemplified by Ian and Jin from Dangerous Prototypes, with their Dirty business empire, “not coming to a crowdfunding platform near you” manufacturing side-projects (i.e. The Expressway to Pleasure. Click at your peril, obvs), and regular socials which bring together local and global makers in Shenzhen for Chinese barbecue and beers (and the occasional factory visit).

Also, by the supercool Janek and Victoria, who we met for the first time on our trip. Janek was in town as part of a Shenzhen exchange from Edinburgh Hacklab, and it became apparent very early on that he knew a whole load about low-volume manufacturing, and how to get things made in China. We soon found out why – his fiancee and now factory agent Victoria who, over several years of their travelling back and forth between the UK and China, has built relationships with an incredible roster of suppliers in the city.

It was through Victoria’s local network that we got to experience what was a real highlight of the trip for me: a visit to a “true Shanzhai” circuit assembly (PCBA) operation, in what was described as a “factory village”. One of the most remarkable things about this place was (Teletubby phone aside) that they were happy working at volumes of everything from a handful of hand-assembled prototypes through to tens of thousand of largely machine-assembled units. We are now in in the final stages of getting some pico-satellites made for the Manchester Space Programme – an initial and super-exciting foray into low-volume manufacturing!

Overall the research trip was hugely successful for us, and super enjoyable also. Not only for the nerd factor of being in a city where the majority of its inhabitants know how to wield a soldering iron, but also for the huge generosity shown to us by those we met along the way – Ian and Jin, Janek and Victoria, but also Helen from Higgs Hub, theRone Design team, Litchee Lab Lit, and countless others.

We’re very excited to see how the Chinese maker-manufacturing landscape changes in the coming months and years, as more people tap into the Shanzhai hivemind. Most of all though, we can’t wait to go back and get more things made.

Whilst on the subject of generosity, it would be improper not to thank the British Council’s expert kitten-herder Rebecca Shoesmith, Dylan Law from the AHRC, Nesta’s expert Trap clubbers Jeremy and Tom, and David Li, for their work in putting the trip together. Thanks all!

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.