Technology culture like you haven't seen before

Shenzhen Shanzhai

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The reclaiming of used components isn’t the only notable activity in Shenzhen’s electronics district. Throughout the busy halls and corridors of several huge buildings I observed an entire process culminating in the (re)birth of phones.

At first, the scale of the phone market is overwhelming. What are all these shops selling and to whom? How can thousands of shops survive when they all seem to be selling the same thing?

There are days I walk around for several hours without having to double back, at times losing track of what floor on or even which of the interconnected buildings I’m in.  When have no interpreter,  I’m sentenced to perpetual strolling as sitting down at any of the shops leads to all kinds of confusion.

It takes a while for it to sink in that this isn’t a conventional market where merchants exclusively buy and sell items. While these shops do trade in specialized products like shells, screens or processors, most stores actually modify their wares before reselling them.

Somehow the linear assembly line of the conventional manufacturing process has been shattered to pieces and distributed among independent entrepreneurs. Phones are being built here, by many hands in many workshops.

Although there are plenty of exceptions, shops are generally grouped by product or activity, such as the section notable for its many stalls that are dedicated to cleaning, buffing and selling newly minted shells.

Rather than just waiting around for customers, the people working at these shops keep busy with all kind of meticulous tasks.

When keypad buttons come from the factory, they often have extraneous bits of plastic attached that the production process doesn’t remove. With a small knife and a bit of time, these buttons leave the shop more finished than they came in.

Specialization is key here. Many stores carry a single type of component. Need vibration motors? Go to one of the vibration motor shops.

Need internal cables? Go to an internal cable store. If there is a niche market for any type of part, you’re likely to find several shops selling nothing but that part.

If you want to build phones from scratch your first step would be to pick up some motherboards. Lucky for you, there are plenty shops selling slightly-used PCB’s…

…or new but slightly fake ones.

Components sold in these market are usually either reclaimed or (less expensive) copies of brand originals. While these stalls are willing to sell them to anyone, their main clientele consists of other shops within the market.

All knowledge and skills needed to build an entire cellphone seem to be available in this area, albeit divided between all these specialists. I’ve heard mention of experts that have comprehensive knowledge of the overall process. These freelance ‘advisers’ can apparently be hired to help in the early stages of design and planning by those wanting to produce a new handset.

Clients ‘contract’ shops to supply a specific assembly, and these shops in turn sub-contract others for specific sub-assemblies who might in turn sub-sub-contract other shops seemingly ad infinitum. On my walks, I also see evidence of ‘supply side production’, i.e. people building sub-assemblies of known models with the expectation that someone will be interested in buying them.

There is an optimistic mood among the young entrepreneurs here. Some of them have a formal education in electronics but many began their career with a ‘master’, learning enough to start their own shop in a relatively short time.  They tell me about their dream to be CEO’s of their own multi-national electronics company.

While I get a kick out of the crazy Blade Runner-esque equipment on display, I suspect that most of the advanced facilities are located behind the closed doors in some of the upper hallways. Unfortunately, the pick-and-place machinery has remained hidden from me so far, partly because the people I encounter in those corridors seem the least tolerant of my presence.

Some of the tools I run into are being held together with tape but they still do the job.

I wonder if the availability of skilled manual labour favors the production of relatively small series’ of a particular model. It might be a way to avoid the start-up costs associated with automated assembly, a boon for designers with more optimism than capital.

After phones are assembled, a quick trip to the authentication specialist will give it that extra bit of shine.

You can even add a bar-code to those Blackberrys you assembled out of reclaimed components.

The lower levels of most buildings are dedicated to stalls that sell finished products. More fascinating than the blatant copies of name brand models are the Shanzhai phones. These easily distinguishable handsets seem to pay tribute to admired designs. Most of them are based on the electronic innards of existing models, running a rather poor operating system, rumored to be supplied by Taiwanese developers.

No one could possibly mistake these for the real deal, but the design elements and logos quite obviously refer to famous brand products.

These phones aren’t likely to be sold to European or American customers, but for many in Africa, South America and Asia, having an inexpensive phone with ‘2.0 MEGA PIEXLS’ is good enough. Even if these ‘China phones’ don’t exactly have a reputation for longevity.

While the original brands are probably not happy with these homage devices, I’m quite excited by this idea of sampling and remixing consumer products.

Written by dkousemaker

July 18, 2011 at 9:51 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Great report! Indeed, the possibility of small series application specific devices is there. The problem will be quality controll. These are the ‘workshops’, probably the ‘offices’ are behind the closed doors ..


    July 28, 2011 at 8:01 pm

  2. […] highly recommend a wonderful blogpost that describes his amazement at the work-shops he found there. He describes what he considers to be a distributed factory. Previous postMobile […]

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