Dive into Shenzhen maker ecosystem, by MakerTour

MakerTour is a global network of fablabs, makerspaces and corporate labs, fostering the exchange of best practices and promoting collaborations to create innovatives and positive solutions.

Article written by Marie Levrault and Lucas Graffan, labs explorers at MakerTour.

No need to spend more than 1 day in Huaqiangbei, its famous electronic market, to understand the immensity and the potential of this place. You can literally find anything you need to develop a hardware product.

It might take you a lot more time to understand how to navigate in this world. Especially if you are foreigner and non-Chinese speaker.

In this article we share an overview of this unique ecosystem through our visit of makerspaces and IoT accelerators.

Shenzhen, front-line player for [cheap and quick] mass-manufacturing

Fablab SZOIL: accompanying foreign hardware start-ups in first batch production

Arriving at SZOIL, Shenzhen, September 2017 with Lucas Graffan, Vicky Xie, Marie Levrault

We started our Shenzhen exploration with SZOIL (ShenZhen Open Innovation Lab), co-created by David Li in 2015. The intent is to connect foreign early-stage hardware startups, looking for manufacturing, to Shenzhen’s massive production ecosystem (designer, suppliers, manufacturers, …).

The makerspace’s methodology relies on open manufacturing, also called Shanzhai. Instead of wasting time on intellectual property and branding, the start-up has to focus on making and selling in the most efficient way: “concrete innovation is related to speed and creativity”.

That’s how Vicky Xie, SZOIL’s managing director, helped a startup developing a pet tracker from idea to the first production batch within 1 single month: by using existing hardware solutions and making a few adjustments.

Another mission of SZOIL is to promote the open hardware model of Shenzhen at the international scale. The makerspace recently initiated Hello Shenzhen, an exchange program between 20 makers from UK and China. It builds connections between makers and emphazises the share of knowledge and collaboration between countries.

Troublemaker: matching makers with projects and going from idea to production

The HQB Maker Center, where Troublemaker has its offices

In the same vein, we went to Troublemaker’s office 2 days later, located in the core of Huaqiangbei. Created last year by 3 foreign stooges, this makerspace aims to “help makers accelerate their project from idea to production at lightening speed”.

Henk Werner, Co-founder of Troublemaker

Highly connected to the bustling ecosystem of Shenzhen, the founder, Henk Werner, will be your guide. If you need support in design or prototyping, Henk will introduce you to one of his “gurus”, professional mechanical and/or electronic engineers. If you need to launch your first batch or go on mass production, the founder has a partnership with an in-town factory in Long’an and connections with another dozens ones in the area. At the time of our visit, a new office had just opened in Nanshan, Shenzhen, and 3 franchises already existed: Berlin, Norway and Myanmar.

Umberto, argentinian freelance member of Troublemaker

Here, we met an Argentinian freelance, Umberto, sent in Shenzhen 3 months ago by the start-up Newbrick. His mission was to prototype and manufacture 3 million hardware devices to enable hearing-impaired people to communicate with smartphones.

It’s called Usound. According to the engineer, the prices offered by Shenzhen are more than competitive:

  • To 3D print 6 parts of the prototype, it would cost 300$ in Argentina versus 8$ in Shenzhen,
  • To produce a 20-mm PCB, it would cost 140$ in Argentina and take 15 days versus 80$ to produce 20 of them within 3 days, for a similar quality.

HAX: hardware accelerator and venture capitalist both located in San Francisco and Shenzhen

To broaden our view of the hardware sector in Shenzhen, we decided to meet Ji Ke, program director of HAX, the 1st hardware accelerator. First located in the Silicon Valley, the venture capitalist opened another office in the heart of Shenzhen 5 years ago because “if it’s hardware it’s Shenzhen”. According to Ji, Shenzhen presents unequalled advantages for HAX’s 40 hardware start-ups per year:

  • First, speed is key. To adapt a PCB (Printed Circuit Board), you can cross the street and do it for 5RMB within 20 minutes (0,64€).
  • Then, the ecosystem is unique: “The whole city can be your team”. The 40 entrepreneurs per promotion can focus on the key core of their technology and delegate everything else to Shenzhen ecosystem.
  • Last but not least, the city’s expertise in hardware is uncommon: “You can make stuff very quickly and find someone who’s expert”.

Fully aware of the intellectual property threats in Shenzhen, Ji usually recommends his start-ups to :

  • protect the software because it’s hard to copy, all the more since it requires the data treatment: “you can copy the hardware product easily but what you can do with the data is more complicated”,
  • and focus a lot on marketing. The brand value of the business increases the level of client engagement.

Matching professional makers with industrials to foster innovation

X.FACTORY: the new maker hub for startups, freelances and companies

X.FACTORY Office, Vanke IOT City, Shenzhen

One week later, we stepped in X.factory, the brandnew maker hub launched by Seeed Studio dedicated to maker pros. It helps makers, designers or artists to build their project using the cutting-edge facilities, but also to find the right partners in Shenzhen to go from prototype to the market.

Another interesting fact: X.factory builds bridges between the “classic industry” (real-estate, agriculture, …) and those maker pros to help companies to innovate thanks to the maker spirit. In other words, they outsource innovation! And it’s no coincidence that Vanke, the Chinese real estate giant, offered x.factory to stay in its own complex “Design Commune” in the middle of the “Vanke Cloud City”, for free.

Yosun Fu, co-founder of “SHE”, an educational robot, member of X.Factory

The model is expanding, as an opening in Chengdu (Sichuan province) is already planned.

Workshop: from idea to product, the hardware bootcamp

Workshop office, September 2017

Kim Kolora Pen is a French entrepreneur living in Shenzhen. We first met him in August 2016, while he was launching his start-up Workshop. This French mechanical engineer has been working in Shenzhen for the past 12 years, speaks Chinese fluently and has a strong knowledge of the ecosystem.

Located in the suburbs of the city, Workshop is settled to ensure fast prototyping and testing of hardware products.

An assembly line for small batches manufacturing at Workshop

Teams are taken in charge from their arrival in Shenzhen until the end (hotel, meals, transportation…) to make sure they can focus all their time on the development of their product. Following the demand of his clients, Kim has integrated a design and innovation service to be able to offer a solution from idea to market.

The startup employs 40 people, and currently works on 30 different projects, with startups but also big companies looking to accelerate their innovation path.

Shenzhen shifts: from mass-copying to global innovation

Today, China faces a main shift:

  • the rise of the costs of living and workmanship and thus…of quality,
  • massive investments in innovation, creation and entrepreneurship by the Chinese government.

SZOIL told us that governmental grants proliferate to foster national innovation:

  • 385K€ to support makerspaces,
  • 256K€ to support maker platforms (space > 500 m² with a team of 20 members at least),
  • 19K€ to support individual makers with a very early stage team.

At the global scale, the Chinese governement aims to attract more than prototypes: talented people, in order to foster creativity. Thereby, more and more events promoting the innovation culture of Shenzhen are being organized: Shenzhen Maker Week, National mass innovation and entrepreneurship week, Shenzhen Industrial Design Faire or Shenzhen makers at world, an exchange program of makers with the UK.

Belt & Road sumit in Shenzhen, September 2017

To go one step further, the Belt & Road Initiative was kickstarted this year to connect China to Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa by building new infrastructures focused on transportation and energy. We attended the kick-off event of the Silk road routes renewal in September and saw maker representatives from Pakistan, Peru, Ethiopia as France, with us.

Shenzhen is a unique ecosystem for makers where everything seems to be possible.

However, on the long run, the rise of the Chinese workforce costs, the automatization of the production and the arrival of dark factories all over the world will have a definite impact on Shenzhen model.

Hence the importance for Shenzhen to switch from a city of production to a city of conception and production.

To connect with us, you can:

  • discover all the makerspaces explored in Europe & Asia on makertour.fr
  • follow our journey on Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Instagram & LinkedIn
  • or ping us at marie@makertour.fr and lucas@makertour.fr to talk about an awesome lab, a genius maker or a stellar project!

Take care & see you soon.

Marie & Lucas

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