China Shenzhen Electronic Market & HopeRF Factory Visit

For the past two weeks I have been travelling out to the South of China from the UK via overland travel. I have always wanted to visit China but could not bring myself to justify the carbon impact of flying*. My journey took me from the UK to Moscow via European trains then the Trans Siberian Railway across Russia and Mongolia to China. It was a fantastic adventure, we broke up the travel by stopping off in various locations on route. I have posted a couple of blog posts on my personal blog accounting the journey.

Even though at OpenEnergyMonitor we do most of our manufacturing and assembly locally in the UK there are many components that are only possible to source in China e.g CT sensors, power adapters and RF modules. In fact most electronic components originate in some way from a factory in China. Even though we do our SMT assembly and PCB fabrication in the UK we still rely heavily on Chinese manufacturing. For heavy items like power adapters and CT sensors we purchase in bulk (pallet load) and ship via ocean freight rather than air cargo to reduce carbon footprint.

I wanted to visit China to experience the culture and see for myself the working conditions in the factories that supply some of the components we use. No doubt attempting to trace back every factory and company in a supply chain for a complex items such as electronic components is a big task, something large corporation (think Apple and Samsung) have struggled with. We have all heard the horror stories of overworked and under-age employees in Chinese electronic factories.

My epic train ride to China rolled me into the North of China and Beijing first. After being a tourist for a day and visiting the very 'great' Great Wall of China I took a fast train down to Shenzhen. This train was seriously impressive, cruising at a smooth 307 Km/hr. I was glued to the window watching countryside and cities larger than London that I had not heard of fly by. I was aware that China is home to many, many people however this was really evident looking out the window watching huge cities and row upon row of skyscrapers flash by. In every town town and city it seemed many more tower blocks were in the process of being built, there is no doubt that China is undergoing an economic boom. After 8hrs of fast train blur we arrived in Shenzhen, nicknamed together with it's neighbouring city Guangzhou as the ‘factory of the world’; it's almost certain that the laptop/tablet/phone you are using to read this was made in factories in these cities.

During my time in Shenzhen I visited the world's largest electronic component market and the HopeRF factory where the RFM12B and RFM69CW RF modules that we use are designed and manufactured. I didn't manage to visit the factory where our CT sensors are manufactured since this factory was located in the north of China, however I did post up some photos I was sent from inside the factory a while back.

Electronic component market in downtown Shenzhen (I'm pictured with the seller of encapsulated DS18B20 temperature sensors that we stock)

Visiting the electronics market in downtown Shenzhen was a fantastically crazy experience. It was amazing to see all types of components carefully organised under the glass counters. There is something satisfyingly tactile about being able to hold different types of connectors and switches to compare quality and dimensions and chat to the seller about the pros, cons and cost of each item. Assuming you could speak Mandarin shopping for components here would be a far more social experience than an online parametric search tool! Obviously prices for these components are significantly cheaper than in the West.

Before I started working in electronic manufacture I assumed (like I think many people do) that most electronic manufacture is performed by robots. This is mainly true for pick-and-place assembly, however there are many more manufacturing steps which require significant human effort such as thru-hole soldering, testing and final assembly.

I am happy to report that the HopeRF I visited was clean, air conditioned and all employees were at least the minimum age, paid at least the minimum wage and worked 8am - 6pm with a 2hr lunch / siesta break. Overtime is common but employees are paid accordingly. All employees I met seems happy, although I did happen to arrive just as they were leaving on their lunch break! On the wall in the corridor there was a notice board with photos showing various company employee group outings including activities such as hill walking, running, swimming and group dinners. I also noticed an employee suggestion box.

Hope RF Factory Visit

I did get a chance to speak to an engineer at Hope RF who is involved in the design of new modules. As I had presumed the RFM69CW using a more standard IC package is much more suited to reflow soldering and less susceptible to humidity ingression than the older RFM12B design that often used a 'black blob' IC package. Second photo down on the left shows a naked RFM12B before receiving it's 'blob' dressing! Interestingly I learned (and witnessed!) that each and every single module is hand tested before leaving the factory. Modules that fail the test are debugged by hand. I was told that they have no plans to halt manufacture of the older RFM12B modules as long as there is demand.

HopeRF factory in Shenzhen where RF modules are designed, manufactured & tested.

* Travelling via train emits 80-90% less carbon then flying [Source:].

The international 'safe' level of emissions per person is around 2T/yr to contain global temperature changes at or below 2 deg C which will 'hopefully' keep runway climate change and subsequent rise in sea levels at bay. Return fight from London to Málaga will emit 2/3T of carbon per person

6.5T to Auckland Australia or 2T to New York. [Source: Only Planet, Ed Gillespie 2014]
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