Earlier this year, I travelled to Shenzhen (in China) and Hong Kong, to visit electronics trade fairs, catch up with my current supplier and meet prospective suppliers.
I have had my PIC training boards assembled in Shenzhen by Weiyuanda for a few years now, and, after a few teething problems (many on my side!), have been very happy with their quality and service. So when I went to get the new Wombat Raspberry Pi prototyping boards built, it made sense to go back to the same company. But to keep them honest, it also made sense to check out the competition - and if the price was right and I had a good feeling about them, maybe try a new supplier.
I've found in China that it's essential to visit suppliers to get a real feel for what they are like and to develop a good working relationship that can continue through whetever bumps might happen (and there is always something...) when I'm back home in Australia. So, before getting 100+ Wombats manufactured, to fulfil the initial Kickstarter orders, off to Shenzhen I went...
Luckily the timing coincided with a couple of electronics trade fairs, in Shenzhen and Hong Kong!
First, it was off to the "China Electonics Fair", or CEF, in Shenzhen:
It was a mixture of consumer electronics (huge TVs...), manufacturing equipment, 3D printers, and at the "hard core" end - vendor showing trays, or indeed goblets, of basic components such as transistors and resistors:
Components are interesting enough, but I don't buy large enough quantities to interest these guys.
Nevertheless, I was looking for products that I could potentially resell through www.gooligum.com.au, especially now that I have facilities for shipping direct from China in place. Sure, I'm not going to be able to compete directly with vendors on AliExpress (or eBay or Amazon...) who offer "made in China" products with rediculously-low (or "free") shipping prices, but with an established online shop with China-based shipping in place I can potentially offer some interesting, different and/or low-cost products to my customers that they might find difficult to source elsewhere, and save on shipping by combining orders, if they were already visiting my site to buy one of my products. That's the theory, anyway...
Robots are often of interest to people, such as my customers, who like to make things with microcontrollers and small computers. So I took note of some of the robot platforms on display:
I was happy to stumble across the LeMaker stand. They are one of two groups who developed the "Banana Pi", an up-spec'ed clone of the original Raspberry Pi, and exactly the type of product that it might make sense for me to resell - something that's potentially of interest to my customers, and a little bit different, not quite mainstream. But I'd never sell anything that I hadn't personally tested and could vouch for - reputation is everything and if I may not be able to compete with eBay sellers on price, at least I can offer a quality service. So I purchased a "Banana Pro", their updated version of the Banana Pi, on the spot, to evaluate when I got back to Sydney:
After leaving the fair, I also visited ITEAD Studio and Seeed, both located in Shenzhen, to discuss reselling some of their products. Seeed, in particular, have a huge range of products for makers - and they also already have an extensive distribution network in place, with many international distributors and their own portal for sales direct from China. So maybe it's not sensible to stock any of their products, when they are so widely available. On the other hand, maybe some of my customers might like the opportunity to pick up something from a company like Seeed, as part of their Gooligum order... I'd certainly appreciate any feedback on this!
And although I only made contact with them after I was back in Australia, Sinovoip (the other group who co-developed the Banana Pi) are also located in Shenzhen, and make a range of products that might be of interest to some of my customers, so I bought a few bits and pieces from them to evaluate as well!
This left me with a pile of things to play with:
It will take me a while to work through them all, but as I mentioned, I'm not prepared to sell anything that I haven't personally tested and can recommend.
I also visited Send From China (SFC), before selecting them as my logistics partner. Again, it was only by seeing their operation that I was able to trust them with fulfilling my Wombat board orders - looking at a website, exchanging emails, even a phone call, is not enough...
And on that basis, that you have to visit a factory to get a real sense of how big they are, a feel for quality and how they operate, I also visited a couple of PCB assemblers, and gave them the chance to quote on manufacturing the Wombat boards. There are many such suppliers in Shenzhen. Some are not factories at all - only agents - and it can be diffcult to tell that from their website. In this case, I was happy that I had a couple of great alternatives who were a little cheaper than my existing supplier, Weiyuanda, but I was able to use these competitive quotes to get Weiyuanda's pricing down, and ended up staying with the devil I knew - and I'm glad I did, becuase they did an excellent job with the Wombat boards, as I knew they would.
Moral of the story? If you find a good PCBA supplier, sitck with them - but also get competitive quotes, use these to get better pricing - and be prepared to jump ship if another supplier really does seem better. There simply are so many in Shenzhen that it really is a competitive market.
Finally, I couldn't visit Shenzhen without a visit to the famous electronics markets:
where entire floors are given over to selling everything from discrete components and connectors:
and ancient and more modern integrated circuits (real and some, I'm sure, fake...)
These photos really don't do the place justice - it's a cliche, but you have to see it to believe it!
Unfortunately, to get much out of a visit to the electronics markets, you really need an interpreter - there's not a lot of English (or anything other than Mandarin and maybe a bit of Cantonese) spoken here...
Finally, after a very productive visit to Shenzhen, I crossed the border to Hong Kong, where I visited the Hong Kong Electronics Fair:
It seemed quite "tame" compared with the CEF in Shenzhen - quieter, more polished, and not really aimed at low-level manufacturing - the focus was very much more on consumer electronics.
All in all, it was a very worthwhile trip! I was able to arrange quaility, reliable manufacturing and shipping, with cost savings that I'm able to pass on to customers. And I've potentially found some products that I could resell - but not sure about that idea just yet. As I mentioned, I'd welcome any feedback!