This article was written by Dr. John Pritchard, HabitAware co-founder & lead hardware engineer. It is reprinted with his permission from his blog.
Shenzhen is a fascinating place. It lives up to its reputation as the electronics mecca of the world and isn’t afraid to show it. Some of the largest manufacturers of LEDs and LED strips are located here, so it’s no surprise that the buildings are completely laced with them. Additionally, everywhere you turn there are massive, high-def billboards scattered around main intersections that are impressive but obnoxiously bright at night.
KK100 Building in Shenzhen
I suppose the only comparison I could draw to relate would be Vegas, but it feels a lot different here. These flashy displays and billboards seem to be extensions of the buzzing activities in electronics going on in the city. It’s everyone too, not just engineers and people in the maker scene. Just about everywhere I turned I would run into some weird little kiosk selling the most random electronics on the street, or a group organizing the different batteries they somehow acquired. I’ll never forget eating at a restaurant and noticing a group of kids sit at one of the tables and tear apart about ten cell phones, organizing the common parts into little bags. I thought, “What could they possibly do with them? I mean, I suppose they could use the parts to make something interesting, but really why do you need that many?” After being introduced to Huaqiangbei, I realized what the fuss was about.
Huaqiangbei Electronics Market
You can’t talk about Shenzhen without mentioning Huaqiangbei. The place is a maker’s dream. It is the mother-load of electronics. Located at the heart of the city, it’s comprised of about three big malls (HQ1, HQ2, and SEG) with maybe 6 floors each and they only sell electronics — components, computers, screens, tablets, phones, cables, loads of fake stuff, drones, power bricks, microchips, development boards, passives, pick-and-place machines, re-flow ovens, you name it. It is insanely overwhelming but a super exciting and energized place to brainstorm your next cool invention or pick up parts on the fly. Imagine Fry’s Electronics, Best Buy, Radioshack, Digi-Key, and Mouser met at a party and decided merge into a behemoth of a parts shop but gave absolutely no directions on where things are and no consistent pricing. As a test, several of us ran around and all bought Arduinos at all different prices (ranging from $1.50 — $10, all but one were fake by the way).
This is when I began to realize why the kids had salvaged all the components from the phones. Each booth specializes in something and will buy or sell (but mostly sell) components of interest. I imagine they popped over to the market to make some cash.
One really interesting thing after spending hours (and days) trolling around the malls is that there is actually an internal network that expands out to the original manufacturers of some of the parts. A little bit of organized chaos you could say. For example, I stopped by one of the booths for a specific surface mount resistor and was eventually directed to an office that had reel after reel of resistors.
Each of these reels carries about 10,000 parts, so it’s clear that there are easily millions of parts in this corner. The manager of the shop has connections with some of the factories that make these parts, so if I wanted to get these in bulk I could go through him.
So let’s recap this. I walk into the mall, find someone to sell me a resistor, they introduce me to a manager of a resistor shop, and this manager can connect me to the local factory to buy in bulk at a low cost. This is one of the beauties of Shenzhen.
It takes someone really special to be a pro at navigating around these different shops and to source genuine parts properly, and I am not one of them. It will take me a lot of time and it might benefit for me to learn Chinese. Many people here speak English, but I find it at least a courtesy to have some of basic things down. However, it’s been getting easier, especially now that brilliant minds such as Bunnie Huang have been creating resources to help.
Overall, I am ecstatic about the opportunity here, and inspired by the dedication Shenzhen has to the electronics industry.