Made in China (Part 3): How we found a factory for Clyde

Tuesday, June 4, 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 third in a series of posts on this topic, about how we found a factory for Clyde's enclosure. (Our first post brought us to Jetta, who makes Makerbots, Furbies, and other consumer products. Our second post was about a factory whose working conditions we didn't really like.)

We found our factory nearly by accident, and it never would have happened if we weren't located right in Shenzhen. We hadn't yet decided on a factory for the injection-molding that we'd need for Clyde's plastic body. But, we needed to find a lens so we could lay out our high-power LED board to the correct proportions.

Bruno started searching for a supplier in Shenzhen who made a lens that would be compatible with Cree XPG LEDs, and found a place called Hill Optical. He emailed at first to inquire, and at their request sent a copy of our 3D model to suggest how the lens would fit with the rest of the design. Once they understood our project, they proposed that they would also be able to produce the high-power LED PCB as well. This sounded like a good idea, since that PCB would need to fit perfectly with their lens. After a little bit of back and forth, we agreed to bring our prototype to the factory for a meeting with one of their engineers.

Hill Optical’s sales representative, Julie, met us at the nearest metro station, and took us down to meet the company’s driver (who also happened to be the Senior Optical Engineer… “driver” wasn’t so much a dedicated position as a skill that only a few employees had).

One we were at the factory, we took a tour of the entire facility. Though their business was initially all about making lenses, over the last few years, they expanded into production of whole lamps and lights, with machines to CNC tooling and injection molding in-house. And though they often used third-party LEDs (often because brands like Cree enjoy a great reputation for quality), they even had some facilities to make their own.

Freshly de-molded lenses cooling in a water bath

Electrical discharge machining allows manufacturers to make cuts that are impossible with typical CNC milling, such as sharp internal corners.

Inspecting LED assembly.

Hill Optical is a medium-sized factory. We were told that about 130 people work there, at a couple different locations. We were pleased with how clean and organized the facilities were, and noticed that the relationship between engineers and line workers seems pretty collegial. We’d see engineers on the floor dealing with some details of finishing a product assembly, which was pretty cool.

At the time, we had just received our first prototype, which was made entirely out of wood. Hill’s engineer suggested that an all-wood lamp would have problems with heat dissipation from the power LEDs, and pointed out places where we should cut some holes to improve air circulation. After we left, they took our 3D models and ran them through a program that simulated the LEDs’ heat dissipation, and sent us results showing where some of the problem areas might be. After another visit where we revised our models with one of Hill’s engineers, we arrived at a near-final design with an aluminum LED housing that performed well in their heat-map simulator and was appropriate for use with either a plastic or wooden lamp body.

We hope you all enjoy hearing a bit about “how the sausage is made”. We definitely enjoy sharing what we’ve learned over the last several months, so if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

In other news, we’re just a hair over $5000 away from our Kickstarter goal, with a week left to go. Tweet, share, like, post: if you haven’t told anyone about Clyde yet, now’s a great time to start!

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