Making Devices : From Idea to Factory and beyond


I have had the benefit of getting help and advice from a lot of people and resources, as I went along the journey of converting an idea into a product, the PhonePe POS. I have put together a few things to be taken into consideration as you go from an idea to a prototype to engineering samples to your pre-production builds, and to finally receiving that first lot of mass manufactured products.

More and more startups everywhere are building innovative hardware, and while I have put together my experiences doing this in India, I hope this can be of use to startups outside India as well. The considerations mentioned here deal with sourcing, engineering, logistics, compliance and the interplay of these and other elements. 

The document presented here is not a HOW-TO guide, but more like a framework to help you find and weigh opportunities as you race to getting your product out the factory and to market.

Godspeed !

Making it in Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a great place to be if you are building electronic and related hardware. There are a lot of great videos and books about this, most notably by Bunnie Huang [ Book and Blog ] and this map by Seeed Studio.

I had a reasonable amount of time there to roam Huaqiang Bei ( abbreviated as HQB) (Huaqiang North), the electronics street and catalog the marketplace there. I am sharing a few pictures / observations / tips / comments based on my time there :

  • PCBA factories
    They are quite professional, have multiple assembly lines, and almost always do more than just PCBA. They can do sourcing, PCB fabrication, assembly and testing, including making the test jig according to your PCB. They may or may not charge you for making the test jig, and they may or may not make the jig in house. They usually have partners for making the rest of your product i.e. peripherals, connectors, housing. The bigger PCBA firms will charge you for testing based on how simple or complex and how slow or fast the testing is. These factories can churn out hundreds of thousands of assembled PCBs, a month.Pick and place machinePick and place and inspection machines for assembled PCBs are very common, and you shouldn’t really be going with EMS / CMs which don’t have that anymore.
  • Components
    You can generally just walk up to stores and buy component reels (thousands of them) at a time. Samples are a little costly (relative term, nowhere as expensive as buying them in retail in your home country). Like Alex puts it, “you don’t really pay for the samples, you pay for the service of cutting them”. These samples might not always be the brand you are looking for, so if your design cannot tolerate small variances, you will be better off buying branded components from verified distributors. For most prototypes and designs though, you should be just fine.Of course, not all components are stocked, but another tip I picked up, says that if you can’t find it anywhere, see if it is possible to redesign your device using alternatives that are heavily used and readily stocked. This will save you long lead times later.
    Another great idea when it comes to components (thanks again, Alex) is having a sample book, much like a photo album, where you label and stock strips of common components (resistors, capacitors, etc). That will save you a lot of grief if you prototype frequently, the time saved in not having to go to the market / wait for your order to arrive alone is worth it.
  • Makerspaces
    There are quite a few makerspaces, and they have a lot of great equipment. There’s Chaihuo (and x.factory ) run by Seeed Studio which is a bit away from the hustle and bustle of the market. TroubleMaker on the other hand is smack above the market, you can literally just walk down and buy all the tools and materials that you need. Special shout out to Henk from Troublemaker, they have a modest but very well equipped lab, and if you ever need anything done or made quickly, just head there. Alex hangs out there as well, and is super helpful with anything related to electronics.
  • Markets
    Certain buildings are great for buying specific things, obviously. Here are some I found below :

    • SEG Electronics Store : First three floors for components, tools, and hobby modules etc. Other floors above for consumer goods
    • SEGCOM : Everything related to mobile phones and accessories
    • Huaqiang building 1 : Components
    • Huaqiang building 2 : Components,tools, and consumer electronics
    • Duhui : Electronic Tools and measuring instrumentsView from the middle of HQB

    Of course, these markets are dynamic in nature and shops keep on moving around too, so your mileage may vary. HQB was also shut in part for a couple of years due to some construction work, and that has lead to reduced footfalls and shops closing down. Certain buildings have entire floors almost empty. Hopefully these buildings will see a rebound, it is an amazing one-stop-shop for everything electronic.
    Most things will be cheaper than ordering on websites, but if they are not, bargain 😉

  • Food
    You’re going to have a hard time if you are vegetarian, but you will survive. There are Indian restaurants, vegan restaurants, and Buddhist restaurants, and they understand the concept of vegetarian perfectly well, so you won’t starve. Hit me up for specific recommendations.
    The Iced Teas and fruit teas there are simply heavenly, have them every chance you get.
  • Shopping
    Dongmen is an area near HQB that is very popular for shopping, street or otherwise. They have great fashion, accessories and all other kinds of stores, and they are open until 11pm or so, so you can head there after HQB closes.
  • Travel
    There are bullet trains to Guangzhou that will take you there in 40-90 minutes, based on which of the two lines you take. The G line is faster, and goes straight to Guangzhou, whereas the C line makes a few stops in between. The trains go upto 307 kmph.Train
    There is amazing metro and bus connectivity, so you should be able to get to any part of the city fairly quickly and conveniently without spending too much. Cabs are easily available too though they are of course not as cost-effective. Road traffic is bad in working hours, and cars from other cities are not available on certain roads during this time.
    The three cities of Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou literally blend with each other, there are almost no perceivable city limits.
  • Language
    Talking to them is hard, very few people speak English. Download Baidu Translate, it works a lot better than Google Translate .Also Baidu Maps. And everybody uses WeChat to message, call, navigate, pay and more. You can thank me later.

If you are an Engineer, no matter which discipline, Shenzhen is your Mecca. Of course there’s a lot more to Shenzhen than this, and I’ll update this post if you hit me up and remind me what I missed, with your questions.

Physical Integrity

Software can be tested. Test cases can be supplied, performance can be measusred and the output verified. In open-source software, the code can also be read and one can understand the thought and techniques and other intricacies and decisions that went behind making that piece of software. In other words, the entire body and soul of the product is out there in front of you.

All about coffeeThe same can be known about coffee, if you put in the effort. I recently came across an image that expresses exactly that. You can know where the coffee originated, the processes it went through, the people involved and other details. The complete life of the product (though to many people coffee is more than just a product, more like a piece of art) can be put in front of you, the user, the consumer, anyone who deigns to ask.

Why not with hardware ? And when I say hardware, I don’t mean electronics. Sure, hardware, electronic or otherwise can be “tested” for particular things. Stresses, strains, temperature responses, resistances, brittleness, opacity and a ton of other things can be “tested”. Electronic goods which are assembled have QR codes on every major component in them, but they don’t tell you where they were made, what processes went into making it and the like.

I can understand that there is the “too much information” argument, and about the usefulness of it. But I liken this idea to that of a “physical MD5 checksum”. There is an “MD5” checksum to check the integrity of code, to see if the product as it was packaged and supposed to be. Having a physical MD5 checksum, could open up quite a few possibilities.

– You could actually be able to check if things actually are what they claim to be. With the advent of 3D printing, this should be a pretty useful testing probe.

– You could distinguish your “Made in Taiwan” from “Made in Korea”. Win for activism and awareness, not such a pleasant thought for corporates and governments.

– You could know how your product is made, where it is made, if the product you got is the one you paid for or one with a “cheaper / less reliable / more hazardous” component

– You could actually know if and how your Apple product is worth the “premium” that you pay for it over other alternatives, without having to rely on marketing content manufactured for you by any company

There is quite an obvious con too. Manufacturing secrets and processes could be revealed, which in most cases are patented trade secrets and often minor things are differentiators between products, and wouldn’t do well to be revealed. But then, this entire idea is about accountability and openness, so I guess there are decisions and trade-offs that would need to be made.

One more disadvantage would arise from having too much information. Knowing too much and having too many things to choose from, can paralyze you. Nevertheless, choices can be broken down, information can be prioritized, and made manageable. There are complete industries and professions that do that. After all, where would we have been if we had not accepted use of fire because it could burn if improperly used ?

P.S. I hereby certify that this entire thought was not influenced by any sci-fi movies, but by the simple question I had when I was in a supposedly career-deciding examination – What if my food or drink which was instructed to be left unprotected in a common waiting area was tampered with ? There should be a checksum for that.

P.P.S. Feel free to start a discussion with me by dropping me an email 😉