This post is the first of the Shenzhen trip series. Read more at:
For the last month’s we’ve been looking for factories to manufacture in Europe. We’ve reached the conclusion that it is viable but risky and very expensive.
During the last few decades the world’s factories have moved to China because of the cheap labor and as a consequence, all the knowledge moved there too. Decades of experience manufacturing electronics mean that you can create faster and with less margin of error.
Minimizing errors is something very important for any young hardware startup. A manufacturing error could cost several hundred thousand dollars.
To create a high-quality product in a reasonable amount of time, costs and with low risk, we only had one option. To go to Shenzhen.
Shenzhen: the Silicon Valley of Hardware
In 1979 China designated Shenzhen as their first Economic Social Zone and was the beginning of the change. 40 years ago Shenzhen was a small fisherman’s village. Today, 30 million people live in it and it’s the top tech city in China. It’s the Silicon Valley of hardware.
If you are interested in knowing more about Shenzhen I highly recommend this Wired documentary.
Shenzhen felt like another world. It has grown so fast in so little time that it’s full of contrasts. It’s a massive city that feels like a village.
The majority of the population is under 35 but nearly no one speaks English. There are barely any westerners but there are western brands everywhere.
Family business and small commerces are everywhere selling anything you can imagine. Skyscrapers are everywhere too. You see people eating a street food meal for $3 and kids jumping in puddles. 200 meters away you see executives of massive corporations walking into skyscraper area full of western luxury brand stores.
The business trip
Our goals for the trip were to finish Raise’s design but got so much more. We visited over 25 factories, several design houses, and prototyping experts. We learned a lot about business culture, manufacturing in China and made invaluable contacts.
Visiting factories in Shenzhen was challenging. Their employees usually didn’t speak English and most factories are at least one hour by car away from each other.
We hired three consultants that translated, drove us to the factories and were experts in fields relevant for us. Their areas of expertise were computer peripherals, electronics, and manufacturing.
We learned that there’s basically two ways of manufacturing. With a big factory that manufactures the whole product or with many small factories which manufacture a specific part of the product.
Big factories make business by volume. They have high automation and manufacture thousands of units per day. They produce medium to low-quality products because that’s the most common market which to sell so many units for. Their workforce is trained for optimization and they do the same processes nonstop.
Small factories have manual lines with close to none automation. They manufacture small batches and they build many different products. As a consequence, their workers are more flexible and easier to train. And the factories that have a high level of quality control are ideal to manufacture high-quality products.
With Raise, we aim to build the highest quality gaming keyboard in the market. It’s a complex product and our first batch will be just a few thousand units.
Working with many small factories is the correct decision although the logistics will be more complex. We hope that the quality meets our standards and the extra complication pays off.
We’ll need to work with a few of the following factories to manufacture Raise.
Most gaming keyboards are made of plastic and many feel cheap. One of Raise’s distinctive features is the full aluminium body. This will make it extra endurable (and sexy!)
Materials and finishings
We’ve been considering different kinds of paint but most likely we will go with an anodizing finish (Macbook’s finishing).
PCB stands for Printed Circuit Board. It’s the board where all electronics components are soldered.
PCBs are made by squeezing as many as possible inside a standard sized frame.
Printed Circuit Board Assembly. One factory creates the PCBs and another puts all the components on the board and solders it.
We visited a few switches factories. We were very impressed about the level of automation and quality control of Kailhs.
Our cable is a challenge for cable manufacturers, it’s much more complex than any keyboard’s cable. We weren’t able to find a manufacturer for it, it’s one of our pending tasks.
Design houses can design from scratch your product with only a specification sheet. They can also control your production to make sure it meet your quality standards. They’re very important because they can help you avoid expensive manufacture pitfalls and mistakes.
Our design is nearly finalized and we were looking for experts that can check our work. Finding a design house was one of our main goals of the trip and luckily we found a very good one.
We visited three design houses but the first one was a love at first sight. They had over 10 years experience creating gaming peripherals for top brands and clearly understood our project. They were very excited to see a new company trying to create a premium keyboard.
- We have to finish Raise’s design and prepare it for manufacturing.
- Receive samples from the factories we visited to double check their quality.
- With the design house’s help, find the last few factories we weren’t able to find during our trip.
- Build a few functional prototypes in Valencia and test them to check our design modifications.
We are getting close to manufacturing. Exciting times to come!