8-Bit Blog: China Edition (Day 2) September 12 2013

Day 2! Today we visited the supplier who'll be making the aluminum stand, as well as the electronic supplier (they'll make the circuit board for the lamp, and will assemble the final product). 

In order to make the stand we'll be using a process called stamping, where the parts will be cut out of a larger piece of aluminum. The technique is very similar to die cutting, which we are using for the side panels of the lamp. However, the mold is going to be slightly more complicated, and the machine will be significantly larger. On the left is Mr. Liu who will be designing the mold. On the right is Mr. She, who is the owner of the factory where we'll be stamping the stand. 

Before we discussed the stand, Mr She showed us around his factory, where they work mostly with metal. They had an impressive array of machines to create a wide spectrum of products. Top left: CNC laser cutter, capable of cutting up to 1-inch thick steel (example on the top-right). Bottom left: 3-axis CNC mill, for cutting complex metal parts. Bottom right: angle press, for making precise bends in sheet-metal. 

After seeing the factory, we sat down with Mr. She and Mr. Liu to discuss the process for making the stand. First, two molds must be created, one for each part of the stand. Mr. Liu will design the mold with what looked like pro-e (a type of design software), and then it will be machined out on the CNC mills. This would normally be a pretty straightforward job, but the slots that allow the two parts to fit together must be very precise. It would be very risky to create the mold and hope for an exact fit. Instead, we're going to create a custom piece to cut this slot, which can be adjusted until the fit is just right.

Shenzhen is a very big place, and the factories are often many miles from the center of the city. In order to get around, our partners have a driver on staff, Mr. Liao. He's been driving in Shenzhen for 11 years, and has intimate knowledge of the routes and traffic flow. He has a pretty "no-nonsense" attitude toward his job.

Coincidentally, it turned out that Mr. She and Mr. Liao used to work together about 8 years prior. They had not seen each other since then, and were excited to be reunited after all this time. We decided to have a celebratory meal at a restaurant nearby the factory.

Today we ate at a Hakka restaurant. Originally, the Hakka people lived in the center of China, but emigrated to many other provinces due to war. The Hakka food is generally on the lighter side with more subtle flavors. At the restaurant, there was an aquarium display with many different types of fish. We picked an especially big one (top left) which was cooked in a stone pot at our table (top right). We also had fresh-water shrimp, which were delicious (bottom left). These are meant to be eaten whole (shell, legs, head, everything). Fortunately I had experience with this back in the states at Japanese restaurants (amaebi, or sweet shrimp is often served with a fried head). The restaurant also had a traditional display with various dried herbs and mushrooms (bottom right). 

After lunch we went to visit our electronics factory, which has produced the circuit board for the lamp, and will conduct the final assembly of the lamp. Mr. Wen, who's on the left is the owner of the factory. He has extensive experience with consumer products, and has designed several himself. From left to right: Mr. Wen, Ms. Liu (sales manager), Peggy (Allan's assistant), me, and Allan. 

When we arrived, we took a look at the circuit board which Bryan designed for the lamp. This board connects a microprocessor to the LEDs and speaker, and also acts as a touch sensor (the grid of squares senses the capacitance in anything that gets close, like a finger or fist). What you see in the picture is a blank board without any of the components soldered on. We confirmed the layout, and the factory will begin the board assembly process (called SMT) over the next week. 

We worked the remainder of the afternoon, and into the evening formulating the assembly process for the lamp. We have a very non-traditional product, so assembly will probably be the most difficult part of production. After several hours, we found that there were still some bugs to work out. Much of this was going to hinge on picking the right type of glue. We decided to have Mr. Wen bring together several options, which we'll try next week. 

It's always important to test the durability of a product, so at the end of our meeting, Mr. Wen did his due diligence by slamming the lamp repeatedly on the cement floor. To all of our satisfaction, it took him about 5 or 6 tries to break it apart. Also noteworthy is that the lamp broke through the center of the panels instead of along the seams. This is a good sign, because it means we've chosen a good method for bonding the pieces together.

Before we left, Mr. Wen showed us some of the products he'd designed, including this clever iPad stand. Allan requested that for our next invention, we try to match this in it's simplicity, as it would be a much easier manufacturing process.

Thanks for tuning in y'all! More to come from the front lines. 

- Adam