Inside Shenzhen’s electronics markets

I was chatting with another entrepreneur who moved to Shenzhen last year for the 1st HAXLR8R cohort and decided to stay. We were talking about how much location really does matter for businesses (especially with physical products) and he said “Shenzhen is the city that tells you how to make your dream become real.” Now, to be fair, in context, this is about making hardware… if your dream is to cure malaria, have 19 kids, or get rich writing poetry, this may not be your city.

One aspect of Shenzhen’s lubricant effect on creative hardware design is the ready availability of building blocks for any hardware engineering project. Our office is located at Huaqiangbei, right in the middle of all the huge electronics markets. We are always sharing the elevator with large carts full of capacitors. And we are steps away from millions of LEDs, passive components, integrated circuits, shanzhai mobile phones, PCB manufacturers, and tons of useful tools.

It’s not quite to the point where plutonium is available at every corner drugstore, but we can probably get all the parts we need to build a flux capacitor within a three-block radius. Check it out!

key mandarin shopping phrases

Some survival phrases for the electronics markets. No accents, alas. The very last one seems crucial. :)

led market billboard

The LED market sign we passed every day during the first week, walking from hotel to office.

duhui market

There are lots of markets, SEG being probably the best known, but Duhui is our go-to general electronics market since it’s right across the street. Ready to go inside…?

inside duhui market

Inside are rows upon rows of tiny stalls. Bottom floors are very basic components: resistors, capacitors, leds. As you ascend, you’ll encounter integrated circuits, arduinos, cable assemblies and other more complex stuff.

kids at duhui market

A lot of people working at these markets have their young children with them. They’re sliding down one of the ramps that are meant for carts. (Note: these ramps are EVERYWHERE in downtown Shenzhen. Every set of stairs, it seems, has a ramp built in that’s far too steep for a wheelchair, but fine for a human-steered cart, or for walking a bike.)

batteries and caps

The variety of specific subtypes of electronic things is staggering, and the displays kind of remind me of a candy store. Lots of obscure batteries here, I think, and maybe some very large capacitors.

usb and power connectors

Huge variety of USB connectors, and some power jacks.

leds

Have some ultrabright LEDs!

connectors
buttons and switches

More connectors, this time the Molex type (I know that’s the brand, but it’s like kleenex to me), JST connectors, assorted switches and buttons.

led samples

LED displays like this are sitting on nearly every vendor table inside Duhui Electronics. It looks really festive.

led assemblies

Every one of these is handmade, likely by the sellers themselves, so there’s a wide variety. Here you can see that these are just hand-soldered in parallel into a perf board, with a few really high-wattage current-limiting 220ohm resistors.

nicely labeled leds

We ended up buying from this person because she had a clean display that had a lot of specs (relative to the others) written down for each LED. Presumably, if we spoke Chinese, we could ask and the vendors would know all this stuff, but our communication is not great. I wonder if this particular vendor does especially good business with foreigners.

shopping with datasheets

To get around our inability to communicate, we shop with datasheets. Part numbers are a universal language. Rigid, reliable categorization here supports our creative improvisations.

mme cai

Another approach is to go find this lady, Madame Cai. She speaks pretty good English, at least in this specific domain, and will get on the phone and source all of your parts in about 20 minutes, then have them delivered to you later that afternoon. Or the next day if Chinese New Year is just winding down. She charges a bit more, but can save a shopper several hours of search time. For a more in-depth article about Madame Cai, with other wonderful observations about electronics shopping in Shenzhen, you should check out Silvia’s post on transfabric.

loading
loading

Outside (I guess these are the back doors, but they’re just as accessible as the front) there are always carts waiting, being loaded, leaving, coming back. A lot of them head up the elevators of our office building. This part of Shenzhen is full of carts, always moving, transporting electronic components and assemblages.

Some of the factories we’ve visited (more on that in the near future) have seemed very Big and Corporate — exactly what you’d expect when you think about globalization and business. But a lot of exchange, the distribution and selling of component parts, happens at markets like this, that have a vital, organic, “mom and pop” feel to them. But the smallness of the shops doesn’t mean they’re dealing in small orders — not at all. 100,000 surface mount capacitors are easy enough to transport on a bike, and these people are mostly working with large-volume orders. It’s pretty anticlimactic when we come in and ask for 10, or even 100 of something.

If you own a mobile phone, a computer, any number of consumer electronic devices and accessories, you almost certainly own some parts that have been traded through this market, or one of the similar ones right next door.

And if you can’t get it at this market, you can find it on taobao. As far as I know, there’s nothing you can’t find on taobao, up and an including a fake boyfriend.

If you want to know more about what we’re doing here in Shenzhen, take moment to visit fabule.com and sign up for our mailing list. We don’t spam or share your info, we’ll just occasionally let you know when we make something really cool.

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A small first taste of Shenzhen

I’ll start with a caveat: I am an ignorant visitor. I don’t know anything about China. In the last couple weeks I have picked up the following words: “hello” “thank you” “goodbye” “tenth floor” and “beer”. So that’s how informed any opinions I express are. Read accordingly.

We came to Shenzhen to participate in a startup accelerator for entrepreneurs dealing with hardware. These sorts of businesses have particular joys, needs, and pitfalls, and with material sourcing and production so central to our practice, location really really matters. So when we got accepted to HAXLR8R and were presented with this opportunity, of course, we jumped on it without hesitation, and worked our tails off until Jan 20, when we left Montréal for Shenzhen (via Hong Kong, just across the border).

With very little free time to research things before we left, we arrived in Shenzhen with no idea what to expect. Everything we’d been exposed to in media and rumour led us to believe that we’d be entering the dark underbelly of piracy, a manufacturing-heavy trademark-deficient safety-tenth hazy dystopia. I mean, hey, we came, so clearly we were taking it all with a grain of salt, but we’re coming here to work and find our fortune rather than to find a pleasant place to live.

And yeah, the air here is not great. Above is the clinic I had to go to for a small pharmacy’s worth of asthma meds. (I photographed the Chinese address so we could direct a taxi there.) The air here is decidedly worse than in Bangkok or LA. But it is pretty much the same as Hong Kong, and much better than either Shanghai or Beijing, which has been in the news for record levels of deadly air pollution. All the foreigners here have an app or widget on their phone that measures air quality in near real time. LA’s is usually around 25-50. Shenzhen anywhere from 80-180 (but mostly in the low to mid 100′s), which is considered unhealthy in the US. Shanghai has been above 200 quite a lot lately. Beijing has recently exceeded 500 several times. That’s right around where AQI stops being very useful because it’s just not scaled for pollution levels that high.

I got some inhalers. I got some face masks. No one else I know is significantly bothered by the air quality here, but I am a delicate flower.

We stayed at a business hotel for the first week, where I learned that the kind of men who do business in Shenzhen might sometimes be a little sketchy. The manicure kit seems somehow guilty by association, so I avoided cutting my nails. There was a massage / sauna place in the hotel, right next to the restaurant. They even give you a coupon for it! Don’t ask how I know this, but I am pretty sure that it’s a legit massage place before 7pm, and something entirely dodgier after. In other arenas of sketch, we were located right next to THE big shanzhai cell phone market, where I hear you can find a phone that looks AND WORKS exactly like an apple magic mouse. It’s a phone. And it’s a mouse. Cuz why carry both? Our friend Silvia saw a bunch of people in a room packing up tons of phones in boxes, but moved on quickly when a big scary (apparently) Eastern European guy gave her the stink-eye. I bet her we’d see him at the sauna later that night.

So there is a bit of that “dark underbelly” element, with a significant dash of (largely delightful) weirdness.

Weird hotel adventures aside, Shenzhen is a really liveable city. There’s a big middle class here. Leopard print is in. It’s pretty clean, but not so creepily clean as Tokyo. The subway goes lots of places and runs smoothly and frequently. People are pretty nice — much nicer than in Beijing*, both in our experience and according to everything others have told us. It’s a young city. Someone cited the totally unconfirmed (but rather plausible) statistic that the average age here is 27. Babies, children, and pregnant women everywhere, which is probably partly due to the average age here, and partly due to our proximity to Hong Kong. (I believe that under some circumstances, if you give birth outside of China, and Hong Kong counts in this case, you get an extra kid under the current One Child Policy.)

* I’m starting a rumour that Beijing cab drivers are the product of a failed eugenics program that bred people for maximum nastiness in an attempt to create super-soldiers for the People’s Liberation Army. Pass it on.

The first week we were here, lots of companies were having their end-of-year parties at various big restaurants around town, complete with music, stage performances, and numerous speeches, toasts, and dinner courses.

During Chinese New Year, Shenzhen looks like San Francisco during Burning Man but with more bottled water left on the shelves — everyone goes back to their home town. Like ourselves, hardly anyone who lives here is actually from here. Those who stayed set off fireworks on the first night of the new year, which seemed to come from every alley and rooftop around our building. The next few days each have their own meanings and traditions. Day five is dedicated to the god of money, and on that night, we heard almost as many firecrackers as we did on New Year’s Eve itself.

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Introducing: Fabule

Wyld Collective is in Shenzhen!

We’ve been rather quiet in our preparations for our four-month-long move to Shenzhen, just telling clients, family, and a few friends. But now we can announce that we’re here, and why we’ve come.

There have been a few posts on the Wyld blog about these cute little lamps, maybe some moustache-shaped hangers, a picture or two from Maker Faire. Well, these are all part of a greater plan to develop a line of hackable housewares. We’re spinning this project off into a startup called Fabule. There’s even a little website up.

Fabule from Wyld Collective on Vimeo.

At Fabule, we’re anticipating the growth of mixed manufacturing. On the one hand, mass-manufacture of electronics has become increasingly accessible, which has facilitated a growing market for DIY electronic kits. More and more people are creatively engaging with hardware, which is absolutely awesome. On the other hand, 3D printing, lasercutting, and small-batch CNC manufacturing have also become increasingly available, both as services, and as machines affordable enough for individuals and small businesses to consider owning. What’s missing, so far, are design methods (and designed products) that use this manufacturing ecosystem to create objects of great beauty and practicality as well as uniqueness. This is where we’re taking Fabule.

So first things first: we’re going to make some lamps. Some really cool lamps. Lamps that you can hack and repair and customize. Lamps are the simplest thing. We’re going to perfect those before we move on to clocks and toys and ambient displays and internets of things and lowering the barriers for product designers to make cool objects and taking over the world and stuff.

We’re being helped along in this quest by HAXLR8R, a hardware-focused startup accelerator based here in Shenzhen. For the next 111 days we’ll be rapidly iterating through electronic and material prototypes in the world’s hot-bed of manufacturing, facilitated by Seeed Studio and some other mentors. Look for us in the San Francisco Bay Area on May 17, our demo day, and probably at Maker Faire directly after.

And keep reading right here to learn about our Shenzhen adventures as they happen.

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How’s it hangin’?

Hello there, dear reader. How’s it hangin’ with you?

It’s hangin’ pretty well here at Wyld Collective Headquarters.

We’re trying out a fun new mini-project: Moustache Clothes Hangers! We’re getting some prototypes of it ready to show at the Montreal Mini Maker Faire, and anticipating that we should be able to sell some small batches this fall. These cardboard prototypes are hot off the laser cutter (seriously, they still smell like campfire), but we’re already picking out some nice wood for the final product.

And it’s not just for sleeveless thingies either: there are many different types of moustaches, on which you can hang many different types of clothes. A Tom Selleck or a Freddy Mercury might be better suited for, well… suits.

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Project update: Luciole

A while back, we posted about a new project of ours, Luciole. Here’s an update!

During April, we did a bunch of work on this project, designing and redesigning the circuit boards for reliability and reconfigurability. What we’ve ended up with is pretty compact: a board for power regulation that is smaller than the battery case (this version runs on 3AAAs) and an attachable/detachable board for the LEDs, about the size of a quarter.

Here’s a few fun features!

  • You can place the button wherever you want when you assemble the kit.
  • Great power management: plugging the light into AC vs. running it off of batteries will switch the resistance of the circuit so that the LEDs always received the optimal amount of current. This means that they glow brightly on batteries, but stay within spec when plugged in. Running too much current through LEDs shortens their life, so controlling the current in this way means that the LEDs will last a really long time.
  • Use rechargeable or disposable batteries — a small jumper on the board lets you optimize for either.
  • The LED board can plug straight into the power board if you want them all in one place, or you can separate them… it depends entirely on what you want your light to look like.

We also made two different enclosures to demonstrate a couple of the different forms the finished light can take. This summer, we’re working on even more!

We showed this project at China’s first Maker Carnival in Beijing at the end of April, and then at the Bay Area Maker Faire in late May. We received tons of great feedback and advice from people at these events, and we’re busy improving Luciole to be cheaper and easier to assemble.

We’re currently working on setting up an online store, as well. If you’re interested in buying a kit or learning more, email us at info [at] wyldco.com

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