The Future of Hardware Prototyping is in China

I‘ve been writing an awful lot about our stuff at Startup Roots, so I thought I’d shift gears a little and share what I learnt on my trip last week to the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen in southern China. I was there to meet with an interesting early-stage hardware startup, and once we got work out of the way, we made a quick hop by train to pay tribute to the holy Mecca of hardware sourcing and parts distribution, in the electronics wholesale markets of Shenzhen. I don’t remember the exact name of the place, but will update it here once I find out.

Condensation on my camera lens - it was that humid!

Unfortunately, we arrived past the main electronics wholesale centre’s closing time of 6.30pm, and had to contend with a brief walk through an adjacent wholesale centre focused on mobile phones and its accessories. The experience was still worth the hour-odd train ride from Guangzhou though. There wasn’t much happening on the 1st floor, but once I took the short escalator ride up, I was hit with a warm air current thick with a weird potpourri stench of sweat, grimy RMB bills and ozone. The air conditioning had been turned off, in a weak attempt to encourage the merchants to leave the building. All sorts of paper and plastic trash lined the aisles, a reminder of the fast and furious commerce that had taken place in the day. Every small merchant seemed to own a cash counting machine, as stacks and stacks of 100-yuan bills were lined up to be counted. Cartons and boxes were being repackaged and taped up to be shipped out.

Handwritten price list of mobile phones and accessories.

Several merchants must have noticed me taking photos, because a security guard approached me soon enough and demanded that I delete all photos taken in the centre. I complied readily to avoid trouble, and retrieved the files from the SD card using FileSalvage afterwards.

Trash was everywhere. The more trash I saw around a merchant, the more prosperous I assumed he was.

I also learnt that there were other merchants who you could hand a phone to, and for a fee, they would disassemble the phone layer by layer and scan for you the schematics. You could also buy schematics of phones and walk over to another merchant and have them replicate one from scratch for you, for a fee of course. To these merchants, the roar of cold hard cash and their worship of the Golden Calf have drowned out any calls by religion or political change.

I managed to sneak a video segment of my walkthrough. See if you can spot who I was hanging out with 😉 no prizes for guessing though. He’s the real expert in hardware manufacturing in China.

Shortage of iPads? Certainly not in China! I wonder if these were snucked out of factories.

HTC phones stacked up, waiting to be transacted.

I was told that China is probably also the only place in the world where people would sit down and manually de-solder electrical components from PCBs and sorted to be reused. Prices are super cheap even when buying just 1 or 2 of an item in these wholesale markets; a pair of white iPhone-compatible earphones with volume control had an asking price of around US$4 sans negotiation. One could easily rent an apartment in Shenzhen and rapidly prototype hardware products in a matter of weeks, given the ample supply of reference schematics and cheap components on sale. I can’t think of a better place elsewhere in the world than China if I was to found a hardware startup.

All sorts of Apple-compatible chargers and power adaptors.

My visit was too short. I’m definitely heading back there soon.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.