Shenzhen Maker Faire – Hack your Product Development

By Tito Jankowski (@titojankowski), Crowd Supply evangelist and founder of Pearl Biotech and BioCurious Lab.

This summer I travelled to Shenzhen, China for Maker Faire and decided to stay for a full month to tour and learn more about its bustling manufacturing industry. What I learned could help you integrate the power of China into your startup and improve your production time.

For a bit of background, I spent 2 years building OpenPCR, an open source PCR machine (copy machine for DNA) for amateur biotechnologists. Our final DIY kit was priced at $650. We started the project because the PCR machines biologists could buy in America were $2,000 - $10,000. We wanted to create a cheaper, open alternative.

Everyone there told me to check out Taobao, an online marketplace for practically everything. There, I found a Chinese-made PCR machine for $450. It’s their own design - not a knock off. And since PCR technology hasn’t changed in at least 20 years, it’s probably been that price for a long time. Had we had known that $450 PCR machine existed when we started in 2010, what might we have done differently? Rather than building OpenPCR from scratch, perhaps we could have worked with that factory to open-source their design, build awesome English software, run it through a gauntlet of testing, and release it in record time.

While this approach may not work for everyone and every new product, why reinvent the wheel when the building blocks already exist?

Rocket Parts

Maker Faire Shenzhen can best summed up with these two words: rocket parts.

All sorts of parts for building giant rockets were on display at Maker Faire Shenzhen. I’m talking actual rockets that blast off with liquid fuel. From what I could tell, this wasn’t a startup company that says they care about democratizing rockets, and they’re not making rocket parts for hobbyists. They’re making rocket parts that entrepreneurs and hobbyists can make USE of to build something new. Maker Faire was full of rows and rows of similar projects, like prototyping platforms, 3D printers, and wearable electronics that can be integrated or used for making new technologies.

Most people talked to thought that Maker Faire Shenzhen was commercial - too sales-y, too corporate, and not Maker enough. Yes, Maker Faire Shenzhen wasn’t like any Maker Faire I’ve been to. What I saw was the term “Maker Faire” turned on its head.

I’ve been to San Mateo Maker Faire in California for the past 6 years. It’s a great time! You can go see what other Makers are doing, show off your own inventions, eat a giant turkey leg, and see a fire breathing dragon. Shenzhen Maker Faire struck me as more of a Faire for Makers, chalk full of tools and resources for Makers to build on and make use of like electronics parts, Arduino knockoffs, hardware platforms and so much more. There were products that might have had a little bit of branding… but if you wanted to talk with the factory and rejigger or remarket the product in a new place, you could do that. Everything was accessible and relevant for Makers.

Inspired by Maker Faire Shenzhen and the realization of my missed opportunity for building OpenPCR much faster, here are three ideas that can amplify your own startup project.

China: Hack Your Product Development in 3 Steps

Did you know that a $500,000 Illumina DNA Sequencer is mostly off-the-shelf scientific components? The components are integrated together in a way that makes them worth 10x or 100x more than the sum of their parts alone. For example, there is an off-the-shelf Dlink USB hub connecting the different modules together (check out this $500,000 DNA Sequencer Teardown at BioCurious).

While this approach will certainly not make sense for every new product idea, you can build an incredible end product by sourcing components (or even complete builds) to rapidly fast-track your development time at a fraction of the cost.

First, look to see if your product already exists.

  1. Search Google, DuckDuckGo or Bing.
  2. Then, search Chinese sites like Taobao and Alibaba to find everything Google missed (use Bing Translate).
  3. If your product already exists (or similar), talk with the developers/factory. You may be able to use their design and supply chain that’s already in place.
  4. Cut years off your development time.

Find large chunks of your product already waiting for you.

  1. As an example, rather than spending weeks building a touch interface from scratch, you might consider integrating a $25 Android Tablet into your design.
  2. Go higher level than just components like resistors and chips…try to find sub assemblies for your product.
  3. Talk with the developers/factory to figure out how to work with them.

If nothing useful turned up…

  1. Repeat Steps 1 and 2
  2. Build a simple prototype and wander around China yourself doing all this again in person - Taobao doesn’t actually have everything.
Heading to China?

You might be planning a startup trip to China, or even sending a teammate there. A trip to China is more than an opportunity to lower the cost of your resistors, capacitors, and LEDs - you can accelerate your entire product development process.

I met several of entrepreneurs who were in China just to lower their costs of manufacturing. A device or part that might cost this $10 in America could be developed for $2 in China. I think this approach misses out on an enormous opportunity to crack the product development process and manufacturing and supply chains.

As hardware entrepreneurs, we often go to China to lower labor costs, get injection molding, and “make it cheaper”. Basically, they’re putting a Herculean amount of work into recreating their supply chains from scratch, every 3 person startup team reinventing the wheel. My reaction after visiting China is that I am missing a big opportunity – and others are too. If creative entrepreneurs can integrate existing products and off-the-shelf components into their devices, or work with factories that make similar products already, they can move lightning fast.

I’ll be returning in September and I hope to try some of these out. Many thanks to all the people who spent time with me and shared thoughts in Shenzhen!

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