Being in Shenzhen is like living in a city-sized TechShop.
– Zach Hoeken Smith
Today we toured just a few of the expansive electronics markets in Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen. Our tour guide was Zach Hoeken Smith, program director for HAXLR8R and former co-founder of Makerbot.
Imagine a Costco-sized warehouse densely packed with 10×10 stalls dedicated to every conceivable piece of the global electronics supply chain. Now imagine a building with 6 floors of that. Now imagine 10 buildings like that. That begins to describe the electronics farmer’s market that is Huaqiangbei, located literately across the street from HAXLR8R in Shenzhen.
Oscilloscopes and multimeters, connectors of every shape and variety, LCDs and LEDs, motors, wheels and buttons, resistors, capacitors, miles of USB cables and row upon row of copper tape, soldering paste and every manner of specialized glue. Hundreds of stalls each with hundreds of components organized and displayed for browsing. You may never have seen a reel of PCB components for loading into pick-and-place machines. At Huaqiangbei you’ll see thousands upon thousands of them.
It’s naive to think of labor costs as China’s chief advantage in hardware manufacturing. The main advantage of being at the center of the supply chain is the iteration speed it permits. Need to find a particular part to fit a particular housing? Just blew a board and need a replacement part? Looking for a variation of a certain component? Then literally walk across the street and go get it. Even if you’re in the heart of the Silicon Valley sitting inside a TechShop that’s not possible. Looking for a segmented LED display? How about browsing through a case full of 75 different ones on the spot. Not sure about using the part in production? Talk to the factory rep and maybe jump in a car to see the factory line.
Aside from selection and immediacy, it’s easier for local designers to build their prototypes using the exact same tools as the production line uses, thus side-stepping possible manufacturing problems down the road and avoiding costly redesigns that plague most hardware projects. It’s also much easier to identify and design around components that are more popular by looking at what’s on sale at local markets than by searching online.
Huaqiangbei is the electronics component mecca, but it’s just one small part of the Shenzhen ecosystem. “I’d never hand-soldier a board. I just send an Eagle file off and get the completed board back later that day for a few bucks.” The town is full of service firms that have the equipment, expertise and capacity to handle quick turnaround on basic needs.
In the US when you need an electronics component the typical first step is to look it up on Digikey, find the closest match you can and have it shipped to you days later (or worse; it may need to come from China.) In Shenzhen you walk through Huaqiangbei and find exactly the part you need, talk to the people who make it, and carry it away with you for a fraction of the price. Is it any wonder why so much innovation is happening here?