I recently took a trip to China to meet suppliers and conduct a thorough quality control process with BuffaloGrid’s manufacturers there. Here’s a snapshot of my experience and some tips on how to do quality assurance abroad.
Me: 你好你好吗 “Hi, how are you?”
Receptionist: 好好。我该怎么帮忙？”Good good. How can I help?”
Me: *Stares blankly*
Me: *Pulls out phone-opens Google translate*
Despite the best efforts on the flight over, it was evident my mastery of Mandarin left a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, I had arrived, back to the country I had visited once before, but had been longing to return to.
My home for the night? A hotel on the outskirts of Zhongshan City, in the province of Guangdong. Once at the epicentre of the Opium Wars, this particular area is also home to the infamous cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Its location at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, along with its proximity to the South China Sea has made this region of China the poster child for modern day Globalisation.
While goods such as silver, silk, porcelain and tea flowed in abundance under the Canton Trading System of the 17th and 18th centuries, the focus here is now on the manufacture of electronics.
It is here, among the fidget spinners and Segways, that many hardware startups go through the process of nurturing their first Engineering/Design prototypes, before (hopefully) scaling; drawn by factors such as pricing, access to technical know-how and the availability of components.
China is undoubtedly still shaking a reputation for low quality goods, and startups are right to be cautious. However, given the right approach, China is more than set to challenge any preconceptions it may have held in the past.
Here’s three things I learned during my journey that I hope other hardware companies can see value in.
#1 The devil is in the detail
The first stop on my trip was a visit the manufacturer of much of what you see externally of the BuffaloGrid Hub, an important component of the BuffaloGrid Network. Through a series of manufacturing processes including CNC machining, injection moulding, die casting, electroplating and screen printing we eventually get to the final product; an empty version of the Hub
Choreographing these processes through what’s known as Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Control (QC) is how you end up with a product that ultimately meets or exceeds the customer expectations.
As with anything, communication is key, and when dealing with physical products, failure to communicate effectively can cost you months of delays. In manufacturing, contact with the customer is defined largely around the transfer of CAD files and engineering drawings. But this process is far from simple.
#2 Nothing beats being there in person
As the customer, achieving finished part that meets your expectations often requires a series of back and forth between yourself and the manufacturer. Painstakingly going over minor details: text alignment, final finish and colour matching being some of the easiest to resolve. This entire process can be made significantly easier during early product development by applying Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) and correct partner selection practices, both highly important areas in of themselves. For the team here though there is no substitute for feet on the ground.
Being onsite I was able to condense what would have been a series of emails and calls over 5 weeks into a brief 5-minute conversation. I was able to review existing quality procedures and run through the QC documentation for each part; listen and work through any thoughts and concerns firsthand, then immediately have this reflected in the overall plan. Being onsite and having the opportunity to meet face-to-face with partners is as much about building a relationship of trust between parties, as it is about ensuring each and every detail of processes was understood.
#3 No surprise, is the best surprise.
Before I knew it my two days in Zhongshan had passed, and it was time to board the high speed from Xiaolan station to Shenzhen West to meet with our second partner; covering a distance of approximately 147km in just 55min (including transfer).
Arriving at the station soon found my host and we headed north out of the city. At this point, the heavens had opened, but you could just make out the offices/factories of Foxconn and Huawei — small cities in of themselves, with past estimates putting the population of ‘Foxconn City’ at 350,000 workers.
By comparison, our second partner operates from a much smaller site, but despite its size, still produces millions of cables a year. My time here was brief and centred on reviewing inspection reports, existing Quality Control procedures and conducting an on-the-spot inspection.
Next food was on the agenda so we head to the city. Specifically Shenzhen’s OCT-LOFT complex; some 55,000 sq mtrs of redeveloped land, now home to not only numerous restaurants, bars, galleries, but also the Chaihuo x.factory, Shenzhen’s first formal maker space. It wasn’t long before we’d settled upon one of China’s many seafood restaurants where I was tasked with the moral dilemma of starring my meal in the eyes before deciding its fate.
China plus one: Made in India
With the cast of Finding Nemo now being escorted to the kitchen, my interests soon turned back to my host. He had previously worked as a Quality Assurance (QA) engineer at Huawei, before moving to his current role several years ago, which sees him in charge of all QA operations.
Part way through the meal the conversation turned to the topic of India; perceptions of the country, it’s people and ongoing trade relations. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that like our first supplier, this company had also looked at the potential of opening up shop in India. This thinking is far from new and has long been associated with the ‘China plus one’ strategy. The strategy centres around companies with operations in China looking spread to other parts of Asia to not only stabilize or lower operating costs and access new markets but to diversify risk against fluctuating currencies, tariffs and policy turbulence.
We spoke about ongoing relations between the US and China, the most recent blow being dealt with tariff hikes by China on June 1, 2019. Tensions show no sign of subsiding with the US recently announcing that it will be adding Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd to its ‘Entity List’ while China opens an investigation into FedEx (US company) for diverting shipments away from the country. However he believed it is amongst the ‘smaller’ manufacturers that the effects are being worst felt, with customers in the EU now making up an increasing proportion of new clients.
India is no doubt an attractive option for both Chinese and other foreign manufacturers, in part because of low labour costs (roughly a third of that in China), increasing government support (see Made in India) and a growing domestic market. However, navigating India’s sea of bureaucracy still remains a constant and costly battle. Furthermore, companies face additional challenges, such as limited power availability, poor transportation/logistics infrastructure..
In my opinion this has meant whilst India is no doubt a rising star, it still has some way to go, and companies truly capitalizing in this region remains somewhat limited to the likes of Samsung, Foxconn and Pegatron.
That being said, given the current state of play between the US and China, the diversification to India is accelerating fast, and in 4–5years expect ‘Made in India’ to be commonplace.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BuffaloGrid in any topics discussed