Metalworks in Shenzhen: The dreamers of Shenzhen's Maker's Revolution


If China is the factory of the world, Shenzhen is its electronics and research hub. More than 40% of international Patent applications from China come from Shenzhen; a considerable achievement for a city that was still a Chinese fishing village about 40 years ago.

When the Metalworks team was there in April, we were part of a group of aspiring hardware entrepreneurs and enthusiasts from North America and Europe. Most were looking to bring their hardware product ideas to fruition and were looking for ways to manufacture it cheaply in the city. Some of them would bring their product prototypes back home and raise money on crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter to get enough pre-sales volume to qualify for cheaper per unit costs. But all of them stumbled with language and cultural differences as we soon learn that everything in the city has a lao wai price and a local Chinese price. 老外 (Lao Wai), is what foreigners of European descent would be called in China, its literal translation would be “old outsider”.

A local Chinese would pay about 50% less than a foreigner when it comes to acquiring parts in the busy electronic markets of 华强北 (Hua Qiang Bei), a busy district where one can acquire anything from a circuit wire to a cloned Apple mobile phone with dual SIM cards.

A cloned mobile phone exists to cater to the mass market that needs an affordable alternative with additional features. The safety standards may be subpar and cheaper parts might have been used in place but the Shan Zhai phone serves its purpose. 山寨 (Shan Zhai), is a term that has long been associated with piracy where the resourceful makers in Shenzhen might reverse engineer the latest consumer product and turn it into a more colourful and affordable product, sometimes selling as low as 15% of the retail price of the original.

Silvia Lindtner, post-doctoral fellow at the ISTC-Social (the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing) at UC Irvine and at Fudan University Shanghai disagrees. “Shan Zhai is basically open source manufacturing. Following a similar trend of open-source software in the West,” said Lindtner, addressing a crowd of more than 100 industrial designers who were keen on the hardware maker culture. Lindtner has resided in China for more than 2 years and is fairly proficient in conversing in Mandarin and has been studying the evolving maker culture in China. She currently runs a research think tank called Hacked Matter, with her partner David Li: a local Chinese who started one of the original hackerspaces, Xin Che Jian, in Shanghai, China’s buzzing financial metropolis.

Li served as Lindtner’s translator throughout the presentation, making a case of a turning the old practice “Made in China” to “Innovate with China”.

“All successful Kickstarter hardware products (from the Pebble smart watch to Occulus Rift, virtual reality headset) have 3 things in common. Firstly, they’re invented in hackerspaces, where people of different skillsets share and work in a common space. Secondly, the products are a result of the maker movement. Lastly, they're all made in Shenzhen.”

Can a city that thrives on the Shan Zhai culture have room for innovation? Yes. At least that’s the goal for homegrown brands like Fiyta, a watch maker that has been established in Shenzhen since 1987. It is only watch brand in China that can manufacture a watch that can withstand the conditions of deep space and has been worn during China’s first space mission. One of the handful of brands in the world with the technology expertise to do so.

At ground level, the passion for making seems to be growing stronger. The Shenzhen Maker Faire this year was the first full scale maker faire seeing more than dozens of exhibitors, including Intel and Texas Instrument and tens of thousands of visitors. Its previous 2 editions were much smaller in scale.

Metalworks shared some of our projects during an 8 minute pitch session and conducted an Arduino workshop similar to the ones our team has conducted for planners in various offices. At the workshop, we met several hardware enthusiasts from Hong Kong who came to Shenzhen just to attend the 2-day Maker Faire. Given Hong Kong’s close proximity to Shenzhen, just 1 to 2 hours of travel time by car and a linked metro system which connects the 2 cities, Hong Kong is well positioned to tap into whatever Shenzhen has to offer.

Are these 2 cities the next Silicon Valley? Yes, but a different kind. At least that’s what Zach Smith, one of the original co-founders of Makerbot (a home 3D-printer manufacturer acquired byStratasys) seem to think so. Smith has been residing in Shenzhen for the last 3 years and is a mentor of HAXLR8R, a hardware startup accelerator, designed to help teams from around the world bring their hardware product ideas to fruition in 111 days.

HAXLR8R is one of the few hardware accelerator startups started by foreigners. The other hardware accelerators from Silicon Valley, like Dragon Innovation and PCH International made a conscious decision to base part of their operations in the city of Shenzhen as well, noting the manufacturing cost advantages.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, embodies the best of East meets West in terms of business friendly practices and minute efficiency while Shenzhen is its lower-cost production backyard whose economy thrives on global exports.

As a group of makers gathered in teams of 4 or 5 around the Metalworks workshop at Maker Faire, we spotted a young local 14 year old Arduino enthusiast who was leading his team. His parents watched nearby as he skillfully transitioned between code and hardware tinkering.

“Here’s a young boy who has a bright future ahead. He’s passionate about coding and working with his hands to turn ideas into reality. It’s like he’s dreaming wide awake and that makes him dangerous,” said Mithru Vigneshwara, the workshop instructor.

See the Full Flickr album at Metalworks in Shenzhen - a set on Flickr