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Recap of our trip to factories in China

Assembly line in China 

Over the past week, I’ve ventured into five different portable speaker and electronics factories in three different cities including Shen Zhen, GuangZhou, and Donguan.  Typically when I have the opportunity to travel overseas, I am filled with excitement in getting to see a new culture and experience new things.  Unfortunately, this trip was heavily weighted on the business side of things.  Along with that comes an inevitable moral dilemma that all of us have to eventually confront.

As a consumer, everyone has the ability to vote with each dollar that they spend.  Some of us choose to buy local, organic, all natural, or German engineered.  At the end of the day, most consumers are heavily influenced by price, which is the reason that so many of the products we buy are made in China.  If you’re reading this right now, you’re guilty because the monitor you are reading off of is made there and the mouse you might be using to click to another website is also made in China.

Beyond just working on product development this trip, I really wanted to gain a better understanding of the factory conditions.  Even though our company is a growing startup, we can still make decisions to move towards being more socially responsible.  The first step in doing so is to see what we are working with firsthand.

Speaking of socially responsible…. On the first evening that I got into Shen Zhen, I went in search for food.  Surprisingly, it is hard to find food downtown, but a guy offering to send plitty girl for ma-sa-gee solicited me.  Massage is the euphemism for sex here.  This is not news, but I was a little surprised at how hard it was pushed in my face.  SUPER aggressive.

On my first day, I went to our injection mold facility where our portable speaker housings are made.  The building was a five-story structure with the bottom floor having a lot of the heavy machinery including a full machine shop, injection mold stations, die-casting, and CNC.  Each injection mold station has one guy that sat next to it.  Each time a part was pressed, he would reach in to the machine and pull the plastic piece out.  The plastic comes on a frame just like the pile of parts you get when you build a model airplane.  At the time, the guy was making clear windshields for a die-cast model car.  He would clip the part off the frame and discard the frame.  There were literally stacks of plastic waste piled up in the back of the factory.

On the second floor of the building, they did all of the assembly and cleaning up of parts.  There was a table of about twenty workers varying in age from twelve to sixty sitting there with files and a garbage can full of portable speaker housings.  Once all of the parts were filed or finished, and then they were brought into the actual assembly line.  There was a full room of these long tables that have a conveyor belt running through the middle of them.  At this factory, they were not permitted to do any electrical work or else they would be heavily fined.  The government regulates which regions could partake in a certain trade.  The government controls everything.  Each worker was assigned a single repetitive task where they pulled the assembly of the line, performed their task, and then put the parts back on the conveyor belt.  They didn’t operate at a frantic pace, but it was just fast enough that they could barely afford to take a glance at me as I hovered over them.

Screen printing in China

On the third floor of the building, they did the portable speaker screen-printing.  I was already developing some proper nausea from the pollution, but this room compounded it even more with the aroma of oil-based paints.  The machine used to transfer the ink onto the portable speaker is shown above.  A tool is made for each screen print design, and the part picks up the paint and transfers it onto the part.  The worker operating this machine removes each part by hand and then replaces it with another.  Sometimes more than one dip is required to get the full ink transfer in place.

The top floor of the factory was purely dedicated to painting operations for enamels.  This is not often used on our speakers because we do not use a lot of metal parts, but it was still pretty interesting to see the contraptions.  The entire floor was routed with these creepy hooks you see below.  It was almost like a meat refrigerator.  All of the parts hang on there and then they circle the building.  Eventually they would venture into these vacuum deposition chambers where the paints were evaporated onto the parts.  This offered a really uniform coating for larger metal parts.

Vacuum deposition chamber

After leaving the mold facility, we went to the main office where most of our product was actually assembled.  This factory was actually MUCH nicer than the molding factory.  The lighting was better, and the floors were all very clean.  Anytime you are working with electronics, cleanliness is key to not introducing any impurities to the system.  As far as the redundancy of the assembly line, there was no escaping that.  Specialization on tasks has increased efficiency since Henry Ford coined “Fordism.”

Each station had a very detailed procedure for every part of the assembly.  Again, the pace was not fervent, but fast enough that these workers could not really afford to do much more than pass a quick glance from the corner of their eye.  They usually do this twelve hours a day, six days a week.  Suddenly your little nine-to-five isn’t looking so bad, right?  I was fortunate enough to come in April when the temperatures are just warm and humid.  In the summer months, this place heats up to around a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and turns into a stinky sauna.  They have ceiling fans but chances are you are going to be sweating bullets.

Reflecting on the whole trip, I got to see a lot of good and a lot of evil.  The good thing is that these workers are getting the opportunity to have a job, eat food, have a place to sleep, and even have some purchasing power.  The tough thing was that there was some level of neglect on some safety conditions.  Sorry, but if you’re screen printing with toxic paints all day, you need to wear a respirator mask.  Some of the larger factories were much better about this because larger American companies really enforce the standard.  They can afford to.  Looking forward, I’d certainly love to have the opportunity to support improved working conditions for our partners.  One of the best places to start is education.

If you’d like to take  a couple more looks at my entire trip, I’ve captured some of the footage in this video:

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