Made in China (Part 1)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Fabule Fabrications visited a number of factories during our participation in HAXLR8R, a hardware startup accelerator based in Shenzhen, China. During a three-month period we designed and prototyped a cute and deeply adaptable lamp, lining up component sources and manufacturers as a part of this process. Emerging from this program, we’d like to share some of our experiences visiting various factories and learning how many of our everyday things get made. This is the first in a series of posts on this topic.

In general, my impression of manufacturing in China is that you can get what you pay for, ranging from very high to very low quality. As far as working conditions go, the same holds true. Some factories treat their employees about as well as anyone you’d find in the North America, but due to looser regulations the floor for poor working conditions might be quite a bit lower there. (I haven’t visited any US factories, and I’m sure there exist some less than wonderful working conditions there, as well.)

We went along on an organized group visit to one of the Jetta Factories (not the car) in Conghua, Guangdong, about three hours outside of Shenzhen. A former Makerbot employee who had handled some of their manufacturing in China made this factory available to us. Jetta now manfuctures Makerbot, as well as the Furby and many other animatronic toys, nerf guns, the iRobot Roomba, the Zeo, and other recognizable toys and household products. The parent company owns several facilities around Guangdong; the one we visited was a very large, new factory whose equipment and products seemed relatively high end. Lisa Fetterman from Nomiku has a great list of things to look for in a good factory and Jetta hit everything on the checklist.

We were asked not to take too many pictures of molds on the factory floor, because they were manufacturing some products that had not yet been publicly launched, and didn’t want to risk leaking a client’s project early. We did get to photograph the molds for Furby ears, since that was an existing, well-known product, and photos of the big machines – anything that didn’t reveal a client’s upcoming project – was OK. They just asked us to ask first. This was a lot more caution than most other factories exercised. The upshot is that I have a lot of notes from this visit, but not a lot of photos… you’ll have to take my word for it (or visit yourself as a potential client).

They divided us into two groups and took us out onto the factory floor. We saw their engineering department, where people were working on production models. We saw machinists making molds on CNC mills of varying levels of sophistication, mostly 5-axis, often with flexible water pipes cooling the tool bit.

Molds for Furby ears.

Here are some of our impressions, at least what we can glean from a half-day visit.

Working conditions: quality of life
The Jetta campus is enormous, and almost all the workers live there – not just line workers but engineers and managers, too. 33,000 people work at this location during the peak production season. Everything was six years old or newer at this location (though the holding company has been around since 1977, based in Hong Kong), so all the housing was in really good condition. I asked Jodi (the manager I was walking with) how many people each dormitory room could house. She told me managers were one to a room and line workers lived eight per room. This sounded pretty crowded to me, but Jodi didn’t show any hesitation or embarrassment in answering the question. I recalled that my mom’s university dormitory was similarly crowded and she’d looked back on that period with fondness – but it’s one thing to be 19 years old and upwardly mobile living in a crowded dorm for a few years, and quite another to be living in one interminably while supporting a family. I asked how long people typically worked at Jetta for. Most managers from various factories told us that their employees had an easy time finding new jobs, and moved on pretty quickly if they thought they weren’t getting much out of their current job. Chinese New Year was coming up when we did this visit, and Jodi told us that it was a busy time beforehand, and then there was a lull when many people just don’t return to work right away after the holiday. Giving two weeks notice isn’t really a thing here. Both managers and line workers had their own cafeterias, and left the factory floor during their breaks.

Working conditions: Safety
One thing we noticed was that signs indicating safety procedure were scrupulous and prominent. All the machinists we saw were wearing ear protection, and whatever goggles and masks were publicly recommended by the posted signs. There were fire extinguishers in every room. The floors and all equipment were very clean, there was good lighting everywhere, and (despite my sensitive nose and ongoing bad reaction to Shenzhen’s air quality) I never smelled any weird or disconcerting smells. Any areas with lasercutters or packaging were very well ventilated with very large fans.

There were some de-molding machines that were snapping injection-molded plastic parts out of their plastic scaffolding, and automatically tossing the scrap ABS into recycling containers. In other parts of the factory we saw huge bags of ABS pellets to be used in injection molding, or maybe even making 3D printer filament. I’m not sure whether they were reusing/recycling within their facility or sending it elsewhere, but there were clear efforts to dispose of their plastic responsibly. They do phthalate testing on their plastic products. They also told us that they had two plants for wastewater treatment.

On the electronics assembly line there were some very clear quality guidelines posted throughout the room. One poster illustrated at least a dozen different ways a solder joint could go wrong, with clear, close-up photos of each one so QA workers could easily identify errors.

We got to visit some of their testing rooms, which was honestly a bit creepy since once of their specialties is making animatronic talking plush toys (not just Furbies). Imagine being in a room with dozens of different stuffed animals talking gibberish at you. Yeah. But they were doing a lot of quality testing, dropping toys from different heights to assure they weren’t too breakable. We visited a very very quiet, noise-controlled room in which a couple of testers were recording the decibel levels of a nerf-gun’s characteristic pop (by shooting nerf guns over and over, of course). If they aren’t within a certain, auditorily satisfying range, they don’t ship. And yes, everyone there was wearing a very sciencey-looking lab coat.

Different factories specialize in different processes, and this Jetta location did a lot of in-house injection molding. Because they made plush toys, there was also a lot of lasercutting fabric, sewing, and stuffing. They made and assembled PCBs on-site in a clean room – we had to dress up like plastic-wrapped oompa loompas before entering.

What gets made here?
This is probably one of those things I wasn’t supposed to photograph, but I do have a good memory, and naming the clients without revealing any secret future products is probably ok. So here are some of the names I saw: Makerbot, Hasbro, Mattel, Fisher-Price, iRobot. (They also make that really cool runaway alarm clock). I’d say you can buy these products with a pretty clear conscience – it’s definitely legal adults (mostly women in their 20s and 30s) in decent conditions assembling your barbies, at least at this factory. Line work anywhere is boring and not particularly fulfilling, but at this facility it’s very safe.

Some products from the Jetta showroom.

What do they do for their clients?
Jetta is a pretty high-end factory, and certainly not the cheapest you’ll find. But if we thought we were going to do a fairly large run of a product, we’d strongly consider working with them.

Phases of production break down roughly into four stages: concept, design, engineering pilot, and mass production. They’re willing to do product development from the concept-plus-rendering stage, helping to turn CAD/CAM designs into production molds. They’ll arrange shipping, too. So this is a pretty full-service factory.

During the Concept phase, they’ll discuss functional and aesthetic requirements with the client, and have mechanical, electrical and fabric engineers to some drawings. During the design phase they move on to model making and rapid prototyping using CNC and rapid molding techniques. You can start to do evaluation at this phase, though these prototypes have some limitations in that they’re costly and may use different materials than your final product.

The engineering pilot phase will give you something very similar to your final product, using the same processes (usually injection molding here), materials and parts from the correct sources. But this is typically a run of 30-100 pieces.

They often do very large runs of a product, sometimes upward of a million pieces, but for a simple project that they think is promising, they’ll do as few as 5,000-10,000. Tooling will likely cost, at minimum 40,000 HKD (that’s about 5,700 USD) up to about 100,000 HKD. This can usually be estimated during the design phase, even without a lot of detail, so the tooling fees won’t generally be a surprise. As I understand it, these guys will also do preliminary testing for things like UL and FCC certification. You can’t be certified by your factory, you have to get that done by an independent testing authority, but a factory like Jetta can run the test and tell you if you’re likely to get through the certification process smoothly.

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