Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

A event log for Manufacturing in China Hack Chat

From project to product to off-shoring

LutetiumLutetium 07/10/2019 at 20:050 Comments

ap-tech11:59 AM
This looks interesting

Jesse Vincent12:00 PM
@ap-tech I'll do my best ;)

Hi everyone, looks like we can get started. Thanks for tuning in after our week off. I want to welcome Jesse Vincent from Keyboardio to the Hack Chat today. He had a great idea for a topic: Manufacturing in China. Really looking forward to hearing his insights on off-shoring.

Hi Jesse - can you maybe start us off with a little introduction?

Guille12:00 PM
Hello, thanks for this chat! Is it too difficult to go to Shenzhen and interview factories for projects of a few hundred items? Like electronics, injection-molding plastic parts, general assembly. What would be your approach in this case? Would you try to arrange meetings via mail before traveling? (I guess you'd miss a lot of options by relying on google searches)

Jesse Vincent12:01 PM
Sure thing. Hey everybody. I'm Jesse from Keyboardio. For the past...almost six years my partner Kaia and I have been designing and manufacturing computer keyboards. We had a pretty successful kickstarter, followed by a wildly interesting manufacturing adventure.

Jesse Vincent12:02 PM
This is the first physical product we've made. At this point, we've shipped thousands of units and are hard at work on a couple new products.

Hexastorm joined  the room.12:02 PM

Jesse Vincent12:02 PM
@Guille One of the things to learn about is your target factory type's Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ)

Jesse Vincent12:03 PM
You need to find a factory that's going to be happy to work with you for what may be a relatively small order.

Monty joined  the room.12:03 PM

Valentin joined  the room.12:03 PM

Jesse Vincent12:03 PM
Indeed, Google is not a great way to find a factory in a far-off land.

Kelly Heaton12:03 PM
@Jesse Vincent who handles your final quality control and order fulfillment? I am also curious to know what issues you've had with importing larger quantities of goods from China -- especially under the current administration.

Guille12:04 PM
@Jesse Vincent So how do you find these factories?

Jesse Vincent12:04 PM
There are a few ways to get started: Sourcing consultants are often a good option. Another option is to start reaching out to factories via global sources or alibaba. I could write for hours on just this topic

Jesse Vincent12:05 PM
@Kelly Heaton We have a third-party QC contractor in Shenzhen who does inspections based on a quality stsandard I wrote with him. The first time through, I actually sat next to him doing inspection to train him up.

doug.leppard12:05 PM
@Jesse Vincent why don;t you write an ebook on this, I would buy it

Jesse Vincent12:06 PM
We use a company called EasyShip for fulfillment directly from Hong Kong. We don't currently fulfill from the US. Luckily for us, Keyboards still have 0 duty when coming from China to the US

Monty12:06 PM
"finished goods"

Jesse Vincent12:06 PM
@doug.leppard We've written north of 50k words about all this

Kelly Heaton12:06 PM
@Jesse Vincent can you share the name of your QC contractor?

Jesse Vincent12:07 PM
@Kelly Heaton He's an individual young guy. I'm not going to post his name publicly, but if you email me at, I'd be happy to make an intro.

doug.leppard12:07 PM
@Jesse Vincent great I will read it

Kelly Heaton12:07 PM
@Jesse Vincent Thank you!

Valentin12:08 PM
Is the factory doing everything ? PCB, assembly, hardware, box etc. ?

Andres joined  the room.12:08 PM

Jesse Vincent12:08 PM
@Valentin The factory we've used to date is what's called a CM or Contract Manufacturer. In China, it's sometimes called an "assembly factory" -- they specialize in keyboards and mice.

Kelly Heaton12:09 PM
Are you concerned about IP theft?

Jesse Vincent12:09 PM
They have partners who do the injection molding, SMT soldering, box stamping, metal stamping, etc. They do wave soldering and QC in house. Some of their partners are in the same building. That's pretty typical for small factories in China

Does the woodwork needed for your cases add a level of complexity? IOW, are there contract manufacturers in Shenzhen who do custom woodwork?

Jesse Vincent12:10 PM
@Kelly Heaton Not really. At an engineering level, there's nothing new under the sun in keyboards.

anfractuosity12:10 PM
do the people you deal with speak English?

Jesse Vincent12:10 PM
Our particular design is weird enough that most locals don't "get it" -- And we do have a design patent in china, which would let us get alibaba or taobao to yank down clones.

Kelly Heaton12:10 PM
If you were doing something radically new, would you steer clear of Chinese manufacturing?

Jesse Vincent12:11 PM
@Dan Maloney We've been through ...5 wood suppliers? We currently consign the wood parts to our CM.

Jesse Vincent12:11 PM
Dongguan, one of the next cities over from Shenzhen (SZ) has a huge wood CNC industry.

Monty12:11 PM
I'm actually curious about this, given manufacturing capacity I see coming out of Eastern Europe.

Jesse Vincent12:11 PM
But yeah, very few folks who design with plastics understand wood and vice-versa.

todbot12:12 PM
Do you have any custom metal parts? If so, what manufacturing method is used to produce them?

Jesse Vincent12:13 PM
@Kelly Heaton No. The entire supply chain for what we need is in China. Doing this anywhere else would be dramatically harder. And plenty of things that are 'unique' are made in China. It's always possible that someone will clone your product. And realistically, they're not going to clone it by stealing your schematics. They're going to buy one and tear it open and reverse engineer it.

[skaarj]12:13 PM
....and mess up the documentation

Jesse Vincent12:14 PM
@anfractuosity Every factory we work with has at least somebody who speaks -some- english. Often, the level of English spoken isn't great. But it's dramatically better than my chinese. Google translate, Baidu translate and pictures are super-useful. On occasion, i've used a professional translator

[skaarj]12:14 PM
and write an extremely stupid set of examples that cause people to reverse engineer the reversed engineered product and end up rewriting software according to the datasheet of components

Kelly Heaton12:14 PM
Is it worth seeking design / copyright protection with a Chinese attorney (for Alibaba, etc.) or are infringements impossible to enforce in real world circumstances?

Tomi Piriyev joined  the room.12:15 PM

Valentin12:15 PM
You're saying it would not have been easier to manufacture locally ? Even though it would have been more exepensive ?

John Silver12:15 PM
At what point in design-> prototyping -> manufacturing cycle does it make sense to visit China and interview the various contacts we have met virtually

Jesse Vincent12:15 PM
@todbot Custom metal parts: metal key plates (Stamped Al), custom 1/4-20" mounting screw (think camera tripods)--those are made on a CNC lathe. Heck, the brass and steel screw nut inserts inside our plastics are all custom. Very little in china is off the shelf

Kelly Heaton12:15 PM
In other words, just expect copycats and move faster (like Elon Musk)

Jesse Vincent12:16 PM
@Kelly Heaton If you're being copied, it means you have something worthwhile. And even if someone clones the product, they can't clone good customer service and community.

todbot12:16 PM
Thanks! I was wondering if you were doing stamped vs CNC vs moulded. Looks like the first two

David Shuman12:16 PM
Re English-speaking: I had been doing business with a certain Chinese PCB house for years and getting what I would call mediocre customer service. When I had them quote a really big order -- probably 20x bigger than anything they'd done for me up to that point -- I was switched to a different rep whose English was much better and who was, overall, much easier to work with. They got the order and did a really nice job.

Jesse Vincent12:16 PM
@Valentin We looked hard for factories close to home. All the keyboard CMs in the US shop out projects with mechanical keys to China.

Monty12:16 PM
I would expect that for what Jesse's doing, his best defense is actually the cultural difference. Both in terms of consumer desires and business practice. Thoughts?

Jesse Vincent12:17 PM
@Monty Yep.

Kelly Heaton12:17 PM
Have you worked with factories in Mexico (or elsewhere in Latin America) as an alternative to China?

Jesse Vincent12:17 PM
@John Silver If you've never been, go today.

Jesse Vincent12:17 PM
@Kelly Heaton I have not worked with any. We talked to Flex about assembly in Mexico. They ended up deciding not to bid. They didn't think we'd be lucrative enough.

Jesse Vincent12:18 PM
To be clear, there are great factories in most places. For consumer electronics, southern China is a sweet spot for us.

Tomi Piriyev12:18 PM
@Jesse Vincent what are the advantages to visiting the china to produce something there?

Jesse Vincent12:19 PM
So I 'd love to be as helpful to people as possible wrt making stuff in China in today's chat, rather than talk about making elsewhere. That's a great topic for anotherchat.

Kelly Heaton12:19 PM
I think most people would argue that southern China is the global leader in consumer electronic manufacturing. I have tried and tried to work with US-based manufacturers but they charge 3 to 5 times the price and the quality is often substandard by comparison.

[skaarj]12:19 PM
....Question: have you tried to work with factories from the Allied countries of the USA? It is cheaper because it is a common sense that Allied countries have low or zero customs taxes

[skaarj]12:20 PM
Also, even USA Navy and Air Force depend on Chinese products which..... are not too great in this field

Tomi Piriyev12:20 PM
@Jesse Vincent i would like to make my production in China, but my production need still not that big,

Jesse Vincent12:20 PM
@Tomi Piriyev First up, business in China is very, very relationship driven. Working with people face to face can result in a much better working relationship and much easier communication. Also, once you see how things are actually being made, you can do a better job as a product designer.

Monty12:20 PM
That's a good quesiton, apologies if it's been asked-- at what scale does China make sense?

Monty12:21 PM
I know you've urged me to start looking at Chinese manufacture :-)

Jesse Vincent12:21 PM
@monty @Tomi Piriyev There are definitely places that can be cost and quality competitive at quantity 1, 5, or 10.

Monty12:21 PM

Monty12:22 PM
how big of a 1? Given the need to establish a relationship?

Jesse Vincent12:22 PM
Seeed, along with other small batch PCB shops will do very short run SMT runs.

David Shuman12:22 PM
@Jesse Vincent Any advice on how to avoid manufacturers substituting counterfeit components?

Monty12:22 PM
Ah, you're thinking of shops with western-facing retail presence

Jesse Vincent12:22 PM
Or some with local-only retail presence and a local helper.

Jesse Vincent12:22 PM
There are shops set up for -prototyping- specifically. You wouldn't want to injection-mold 5 copies of one part.

Monty12:23 PM
I do recall you using Seed quite a lot during prototyping

Monty12:23 PM
sorry, Seeed

Jesse Vincent12:23 PM
But at that scale, there are CNC prototyping shops who are astonishingly cheap for what you get.

Jesse Vincent12:23 PM
yep. i've had mixed luck with seeed over the years, but the quality has improved steadily as the cost declined.

Monty12:23 PM

Monty12:24 PM
I can say the same of PCBway

Guille12:24 PM
@Jesse Vincent You say that you've used a professional translator on occasion. I can find many of them via google on the Shenzhen area for $100 a day, but I don't know how good they are. Was yours good? Did he know the proper technical vocabulary? Do you think this might usually be a problem?

Jesse Vincent12:26 PM
@David Shuman I've still never had it happen. Part of it is having a good relationship. If there are parts you'r concerned about, either consigning them, having someone do inspection, or something else. I do know plenty of folks who have a trusted partner do their SMT and then consign the assembled boards to the CM or assembly factory. I -have- had my factory try to convince me to switch to local parts. Which I'm really happy to learn about and test. Often, it's connectors and LEDs they want to sub for insanely expensive western, Taiwanese, or Japanese parts. Sometimes they're good. Sometimes they're not. But as a westerner, I don't even know which Chinese brands are an -option-. Every time a factory proposes one, it's a learning opportunity.

doug.leppard12:26 PM
so is Shenzhen by far the best place to work with PCB and assemblers?

Tomi Piriyev12:27 PM
@Jesse Vincent visiting china, staying there visiting factories isnt so expensive?

Jesse Vincent12:27 PM
@Guille The easiest thing is to have a 5 minute phone call with someone who you might want to work with. Alternatively, start by having a 5 minute skype call with the factory's salesperson. you'll know if you can communicate.

Kelly Heaton12:27 PM
@Monty I've also had mixed experience with PCBWay... mostly when their customer service drops the ball because I'm doing a test run of smaller numbers and they consider it unimportant -- which, of course, backfires for all involved. Does anyone in this chat have a PCB manufacturer in China that does outstanding work (consistently)? Or a contact within a PCB manufacturing company who provides reliable supervision for a continual stream of different designs (whether prototyping or larger scale production)?

Jesse Vincent12:27 PM
These days, I work with a chinese project manager who has fluent English. So I haven't used a translator in a while.

Jesse Vincent12:27 PM
@doug.leppard It's one good place.

David Shuman12:28 PM
@Jesse Vincent You mentioned consigning parts. My manufacturer convinced me to let them source all parts rather than sending them stuff from the USA. That added at least 20% to my costs but they said it would be worth it because it would avoid the hassle of getting my parts through Chinese customs. What's your experience/advice?

Kris Winer12:28 PM
Schotry International does excellent quality work at very reasonable prices with minimums of 50 pcbs.

[skaarj]12:28 PM
.....Guys, what is the future perspective of those taxes which Mr. President invented for doing business with China? Are those business going to be profitable in the future? Are the costs going to increase?

Kelly Heaton12:29 PM
@Kris Winer thanks!

Jesse Vincent12:29 PM
@David Shuman It depends on the parts. But Chinese customs are...vigilant and brutal.

doug.leppard12:29 PM
@Jesse Vincent My son in law is fluent in mandarin having lived there and teaching both Chinese and US students here. Plus for part of his business he must go back 2-3 times a year. He is non-technical but good relational. What would be a good way to involve him?

Jesse Vincent12:29 PM
@[skaarj] It's impossible to know what will happen with US-China trade. Import-export is a huge topic that's a little off-topic for me.

Jesse Vincent12:30 PM
@doug.leppard Depends what your goal is. But tagging along with him and bringing him with you for some factory visits would likely be interesting and educational for everybody.

[skaarj]12:30 PM
I'm from one of the USA-allied countries in Eastern Europe, and most of the USA imports here got expensive because they have components manufactured in China

David Shuman12:30 PM
@Jesse Vincent "vigilant and brutal" ... LOL. Which parts are a problem and which aren't? For me the parts in question were a small FPGA and some TI glue logic.

Jesse Vincent12:31 PM
@David Shuman My best story is about our taiwanese RJ45 jacks. The supplier tried to "Help" by underdeclaring the value by a factor of 10.