China = Manufacturing Powerhouse.
Updated: Jun 22
It is a well known fact that China is a manufacturing powerhouse. As a product designer/ engineer, who’s life revolves around designing and manufacturing many different products, China has intrigued me for quite some time. Over the past couple of years I have been working closely with Chinese manufacturers on various projects, in area's such as electronics, automation, injection moulding, CNC machining and 3D Printing. I have even started learning the language, which is...lets just say a working progress...很坏.
''So I decided I would take myself off to China, meet with some of these people and find out what 'made in China really means. What's the worst can happen!?''
First stop, Shenzhen – A product designer’s paradise
When you get off the high speed train in Shenzhen and walk out into the street, It is hard to believe,
''Shenzhen was just a small fishing village 50 years ago, and today, it one of the most modern and high-tech cities in the world.''
Located in southern China, just across the boarder from Hong Kong, Shenzhen was the first of 5 special economic zone’s to 'open its doors to the world' for foreign trade and investment in 1980. Since then Shenzhen has grown massively and today it is one of the most developed cities in China. It is the first city to have a fully electric powered fleet of taxi’s and buses, and it currently has the 3rd busiest shipping port in the world.
Shenzhen and the wider Guangdong province (highlighted in blue) is well known for its manufacturing might, its no wonder it is called the 'factory of the world'. Guangdong province has one of the highest number of factories per square Kilometer, arguably more than anywhere else on the planet. Now these factories aren’t exactly the most extravagant, shiney - eat your dinner of the floor type factories, no, but nonetheless they get stuff done, and at a 'competitive' price.
A friend of mine once told me:
''If you want something manufactured go to Shenzhen, you will get it made twice as fast, for half the price.''
Dongguan city, is the main manufacturing hub about 1 hour north of Shenzhen. Many of the factories that started out in Shenzhen 10 – 20 years ago, have now moved to Dongguan, for various reasons, reduce labour cost, more available land, pressure from government to reduce inner city polloution etc.
Over the past 3 years I have worked with a number of manufacturers based in Dongguan, and some, I have only just got to know recently. One person I was excited to meet was Tony Lin from U-created. Tony runs a product prototype manufacturing firm, working closely with product designers and start-up companies to help them develop exciting new products. Tony is a graduate from Dongguan University, he studied International business and is able to speak good English. U-created specialises in CNC machining and 3D printing and has close links with many factories in the region, including, injection moulding, plastic/metal extrusion, die casting, metal forming etc.
Upon my arrival I was greeted with a nice welcome message (above), a pleasant start to my tour of Tony Lin’s factory, U-created.
The first part of the tour involved visiting the materials store, to better understand the supply chain and how this worked at U-created. Tony showed me the materials 'store', which to my surprise, was a street full of different material suppliers, only a 2 minute drive from Tony's factory. Tony explained, having this street full of material suppliers so close to his factory saved a lot of time, money, and unnecessary logistics of raw materials. Many of the suppliers and factory owners know each other very well and are able to source almost any quantity of material to suit a specific job. From small one off prototype’s to larger production runs.
''The material cost alone in the UK, can often be more than the completed part in China.''
We walked around the factory and looked at the various different machines (of which there were many). Tony's factory has over 25 production machines, including 3 and 5 axis cnc machines, cnc lathes as well as specialist finishing and precision measuring equipment.
I took a quick nosey into the design office, introduced myself briefly, in mandarin. There were 5 designers/ CAM programmers, preparing CAM (master CAM) for a small batch run of robotic arm parts. I had to get a closer look at these parts, the geometry was beautiful, and the quality even more so. Each one of these parts took over 5 hours to complete with multiple operations and part setups.
''If you want to grab someones attention, this is a good way to do it. Put a complex part like this on your desk, it really saves a lot of time talking, the parts really speak for themselves, and of course the ability of guys and machines making them.''
The next factory we visited was an injection moulding company. This company is owned by a friend of Tony’s however Tony revealed he also has a small share in the company. This company produces injection moulded parts and assemblies for various different industries, mainly for the Chinese market 90%, international market 10%. Products produced ranges widely from hair and beauty products to kitchen utensils.
On my second day I visited another company in Dongguan, Toco transmition machinery co LTD. I sourced some components from Toco, just under a year ago, namely ball screws and nuts, a high precision specialist component that I required for a lifting device I was designing for a client.
''It simply made financial sense to source these components in China rather than in the UK. However you must factor shipping cost/import duty into your total costs.''
I worked with a guy called Bengi, this of course is his English name (many Chinese people will also have an English name). I have yet to met someone who is so genuinely helpful. Bengi will keep in contact with all his international clients via WhatsApp, (even though it is blocked in mainland China without the use of VPN). Bengi is responsible for international sales, but he's not your typical sales man, the high pressure pushy type, no. He is a genuinely good person looking to help, if help is required. The quality of Toco components are very good and the pricing is competitive. I would recommend this guy/company.
The next factory I visited was through a friend of a friend back home in Northen Ireland. This friend of a friend was called Mike. Mike is the lead designer of a US owned lighting products company, he is responsible for designing and developing the companies product portfolio of which there are many different styles and sizes. The company is based in Ningbo about 1 hour drive south east of Shanghai. I booked a flight with Shenzhen airlines and took the two hour flight from Shenzhen to Ningbo.
''Ningbo is another one of china's 5 special economic zones which is very much open for foreign trade and investment. The city has a long lasting international history with the UK dating back to the 1850 opium wars and the treaty of Nanjing.''
''The main assembly lines were very interesting, I just stopped for a second and thought, WOW!, this is really where most of the things in your house come from - China!''
The guys working on the assembly lines were assembling various different types of LED lighting products, from applying silicone gaskets to assembling the circuit boards to the die-cast housing. Each person was responsible for a different task, with a team supervisor responsible for ensuring production targets were met on time. The environment was very hot (outside temperature was 35 degrees) however the workers had a fan at each workstation to help keep them cool.
''An average factory worker in a rural outer city factory can earn around 2000 RMB per month (£150). In the city monthly wages are around 4000RMB per month. (£300). Most of the workers live on site in purpose built dorms.''
The company has a vast product range from small wall mounted 'flood' lights to larger decorative street lighting products. To achieve this they have invested heavily in high tech equipment, such as the rotary laser cutting machine (shown above). The rotary axis machine is able to cut detailed patterns in round and box section steel and aluminium, as well as other custom extruded profiles. The company also has a purpose built die casting, injection moulding and rotational moulding facility to ensure a wide range of products can be manufacture on site.
To end what was a very interesting day, Mike, Lulu and myself decided to treat ourselves to some well earned food and drink. Mike let me try out his new e-bike (designed and built by himself in China) and we made our way across the city to a nice Italian restaurant. The food was excellent, and of course we had a few cold beers for good measure, exactly what i needed after a busy day on the go, in 35 degree heat. Thanks to Mike and Lulu for letting me kip at theirs and of course for showing me around for the day, it was great fun/ experience!
And so that concludes my review of Chinese manufacturing, from the perspective of visiting 5 different factories scattered across different parts of China.
If you have read through this far I trust you have found these insights entertaining, interesting or of some value, hopefully all three.
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