What happened in Shenzhen
Apologies not to have written an update for a while. I have just got back to London from Shenzhen and I thought it made sense to wait until that the trip was over and then give you a proper download. So this update is going to focus on that trip and on the hardware and manufacturing, and I will write another in a few weeks about what we have been up to on the software front.
[This is a long update and if you’d prefer to watch something rather than read I’ve also made a video and thought I’d mention it here as well as at the end.]
I’m really happy with how the trip went. It was great to be able to spend two weeks working side by side with Janek and Ting A Lin, who has joined the team to help us coordinate with suppliers in China. It was also really nice to be back in Shenzhen. Having visited three times last year this was my first time back in 2018 and I’d missed the place!
The good news is that we were able to bottom out all of the uncertainties around the supply chain and we are still on our production schedule.
The thing I was most worried about before I got to Shenzhen was the cardboard parts for the robots. Because most of the cardboard boxes I’d encountered in China weren’t very good, I’d been stressing about being able to get hold of good quality cardboard. I’d also been worrying about how we would actually manufacture the parts. I wasn’t sure if the small holes for the bolts that hold the robots together, and details like the slots for the Unicorn’s horn, would be too intricate to die cut. I knew we would always have laser cutting as a backup but I was keen to avoid that if we could.
Luckily, Janek and Ting found a factory that they thought would do a decent job and they ran some samples for us and then we went there to talk it all through. The people that run the factory turned out to be really nice and the factory itself is perfect - big enough to have good equipment but small enough to be still be flexible and engaged in a job like ours which, in the world of packaging manufacturing, is pretty small.
There ended up being a few things wrong with the samples, mainly around the colour of the cardboard and the printing, but we all worked together to sort them out on the day of our visit and the factory ran another set of samples, which I was able to approve just before I left China. Remarkably, this set included some Unicorns made with an actual die, which they made to show us that they could do all the intricate details. These look fantastic and provided me with a huge sense of relief.
It has also been great to see the packaging come together and the samples they made of the box look lovely. I think the kits are going to look and feel brilliant, so hopefully anyone who unwraps one on Christmas will be really happy with it!
The other high risk part of our supply chain is the kitting - making sure that the correct bits all end up in every box. Janek suggested using a factory he has worked with before to kit a similarly sized run of electronic products. The factory specialises in making and packing mobile phone cases and accessories, which need to be presented just so. They have a really design-led vibe - the place is full of Swiss Railway Clocks, nice minimalist furniture and great typography. They also have amazing technology for keeping track of what is going into every box. We worked out a testing and packing scheme with them and Janek is now in the process of building a test jig that they will use to test every circuit board before it gets packed. Hopefully all of this should ensure that every Smartibot kit has all the right bits in it and that they all work!
I also used my time in China to check out samples of all of the other bought-in components that are going into your kits and fix a few issues that had arisen in the testing we’ve been doing.
The biggest issue we’ve had has been the wires sometimes coming detached from the motors, if they get tugged too hard. I have been really keen to sort this out, because, if you don’t have a soldering iron it is really annoying. We did some experiments adding heat-shrink to the end of the motors and we found that it did a really good job of providing strain relief (stopping the wires becoming disconnected) without interfering with the robot build. We’re going to get the motor factory to do this on all of your motors.
We also tracked down some really good quality elastic bands. In the prototypes I have been using natural rubber bands, but I’ve been finding that these degrade fairly quickly so, if you’ve not used your robot for a while, you might stretch the elastic band to attach your phone and find it would break. To prevent this happening with your kits we have found a supplier of synthetic elastic bands, which are really high quality and come in lovely colours. I’ve also redesigned the wheels slightly so that they now have a small recess that can take another (smaller) elastic band that works as a tyre, which helps improve traction, particularly when the A.I. bot is carrying a really big, heavy smartphone over a smooth surface. You’ll be getting some of these smaller elastic bands in your kits along with the larger ones for attaching your phone.
We’ve also had fun choosing marbles and spanners, and continuing on our quest to find the nicest battery box in production (there is an incredible choice of manufacturers making nearly identically sized battery boxes, but each with slightly different detailing).
The process of paying for things that are going to be exported from China is a bit more complicated than I had initially imagined. To cut a long story short, any money that is paid in has to match up perfectly with what is exported. This means that we have to have all of the costings confirmed before we can pay for anything. Right now our test jig is holding up the process because we can’t do a final price confirmation with the kitting factory until they have had a go with it. All of this should be sorted out next week though and we will be placing orders then. None of the suppliers are expecting our jobs to take more than a few days though and most things (apart from the kitting) can happen in parallel so I still think we will have everything manufactured by the end of this month.
This has been a bit or a monster update, and, I’m sure if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already got more detail than you really wanted. However if you do want to know more about what we got up to over the last couple of weeks, see inside some of the factories and get a feel for what it is like to be in Shenzhen, I’ve made some videos!
There are three. The first covers the first half of the trip, the PCB factory and has quite a lot of bits about life in Shenzhen (including an amazing LED light show on all the buildings in the centre of town and a drone swarm). That’s on YouTube now:
The second video has the second part of the trip and is mainly focused on the cardboard factory. I’ll be putting that up next week, so if you’re a keen YouTube user please subscribe. The third is a video about a robot (Tugbot) we built to try and see how much power the Smartibot board could handle (turns out quite a lot). That will go up the week after next. I’m aiming to keep up with this rhythm and post a video about either an aspect of the Smartibot fulfilment process, or a project you can do with your Smartibot, every week from now on. If you’re not a keen YouTube user I’ll link to the next two videos in the next update!
Thanks for reading all the way and, as always, for your support,