When we think of Chinese manufacturing, what immediately comes to mind is production of commodity products, subcontracting for multinational manufacturers, and knockoff retail products. It’s a rapidly growing maker movement, however, that’s at the heart of a new Chinese manufacturing paradigm. An agile, flexible, and open ecosystem that’s producing innovative branded products in the consumer electronics space and beyond.
Eric Jiang, chief executive officer at Yeelink, a platform designed to assist makers and traditional enterprises in developing electronic products, explains why the maker movement in China has taken a different path than in the rest of the world.
“Most makers in other parts of the world got their start pursuing a hobby or solving problems in their own lives,” Jiang says. “On the other hand, China’s so called makers are engineers and entrepreneurs who are looking to start their own businesses.”
Chinese makers tend to keep a low profile because of cultural barriers which often inhibit openly expressing thoughts and insights. As a result even the most successful makers are little-known outside their own business circles, Jiang says.
“But, more and more, manufacturers and engineers are beginning to pay attention to branding themselves, often starting with creative video promotion on Kickstarter and similar websites,” Jiang says. “Chinese startups are learning quickly to build their image and are beginning to communicate with and sell their products directly to international customers as opposed to the export agents and third-party brands that Chinese companies have based their businesses on for the past 30 years.”
But the most unusual aspect of the maker movement in China is the “shanzhai” ecosystem. The literal meaning of shanzhai is mountain village, and it refers to bandits who opposed corrupt rulers and hid the in countryside, similar to the Robin Hood tales.
A decade or two ago, the term was applied to Chinese producers of knockoff products such as low-end phones based on copied designs.
But even shanzhai producers have discovered they have to innovate in order to distinguish themselves from competitors, producing, for instance, unique mobile phones with dual SIM slots, ideal for Africa and India where users often switch networks to reduce costs.
More recently, this network of knock-off producers has evolved into the open collaborative shanzhai ecosystem that is unique to China and is used by makers to design and manufacture innovative products.
David Li, a co-founder of Hacked Matter, a think tank that focuses on the maker movement in China, describes shanzhai as a highly distributed social network of factories, vendors, components producers, distributors and design houses that are based closely together and interact on a regular basis. He calls this open source with Chinese characteristics, a collaborative approach to manufacturing motivated by necessity as opposed to counterculture ideas. He points to open reference boards (called gongban in China), open bill of materials (BOM) and open form factors as key characteristics of shanzhai.
Proximity to shanzhai networks makes it easier for Chinese makers to turn prototypes into mass-produced products. Suppliers and assemblers are located in clusters so that companies can easily form symbiotic relationships. Informal social networks serve to coordinate the supply chain. Suppliers of components and subassemblies take on much of the responsibility for design and coordination.
“Right now, Shenzhen in the Pearl Delta of Southern China is the city for makers and the location of the most prominent shanzhai ecosystem focusing on consumer electronics,” Li says. “Shenzhen and this ecosystem draws makers to the city. Shenzhen is increasingly popular for the makers not only because of the cheap components but also the open collaborative environment that meshes so well with the principles of the maker movement.
In addition to the production of makers’ goods, various tours, educational training and maker faires take place in Shenzhen, making the city not just a place for production but the playground of makers around the world.”
Jiang’s company exemplifies the shanzhai ecosystem by providing a free Internet of Things (IoT) platform with over 20,000 users. The IoT refers to the interconnection of embedded computing devices ranging from heart monitoring implants to smart thermostat systems within the existing Internet infrastructure.
Yeelink has worked with many makers to enable their existing hardware for the IoT. One of the company’s recent projects: telescope manufacture that wanted to manage its equipment remotely and upload pictures automatically to the cloud.
Li’s company is also heavily entrenched in the shanzhai ecosystem as a think tank that focuses on the Chinese maker movement. “We have conducted field studies, interviews, panels and conferences to explore the maker movement in the past few years and provide consulting services to companies interested in the maker movement,” Li says.
Li is also one of the co-founders of XinCheJian, China’s first makerspace, which was founded in 2010 and is based in Shanghai. Makerspaces are community centers that provide manufacturing equipment, networking opportunities and educational resources to help makers design, prototype and manufacture new products. Today there are over 60 makerspaces in China. XinCheJian also co-hosts the Shanghai Maker Carnival which is an annual gathering of makers that includes an exposition that is open to the public. The 2013 Shanghai Maker Carnival attracted over 400 makers and over 30,000 visitors.
Li says companies like Seeed Technology exemplify the next stage of the maker movement in China. Seeed Technology provides open source components to help makers build prototypes. When makers are ready to take their projects to the next step, SeeedStudio provides agile manufacturing services to produce hundreds to thousands of pieces. Makers pitch their designs on the company’s website and if they garner enough support SeeedStudio will manufacture them.
DFRobot is another example of company that has arisen out of the maker movement to develop a branded product. Founded in 2008, DFRobot designs and builds robot platforms, 3D printers, sensors, and other open-source hardware targeting makers and do-it-yourselfers. The company has grown to over 100 employees and has sold more than 1 million open-source modules. The company recently introduced a line of 3D printers that start at just $500.
Li predicts that over the next five years, China’s unique shanzhai ecosystem should spread to more cities and we will see more frequent and closer working relationships between global makers and China’s manufacturers, especially in the creation of wearable, smart devices and IoT related tech.
“Chinese maker startup companies are eager to have foreigners with capabilities in design, sales, marketing, public relations and management join their team as partners. So if you are looking for a new adventure, instead of working for Google or Facebook, consider joining a Chinese startup,” concludes Jiang.
Photo courtesy of David Li