Turing Tumble Progress Update #13: Production in Shanghai
I am about to tell you about one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I spent last week in Shanghai with LongPack Games and I got to see Turing Tumble in production.
I had two goals for the trip:
1. To learn. To see how the manufacturing is done - the people involved, the processes, the machinery. Everything.
2. To be a backup for quality control so that I feel confident in the quality of this production run, and also to learn how quality control works so that I don't need to fly out to Shanghai for every future production run.
First of all, let me introduce you to three people from LongPack that have been key to the manufacturing process:
First, meet Christina. Words cannot express just how important her contribution has been to this project. So let me try with numbers. Since we started working with LongPack seven months ago, I've sent 194 emails to her and received 340 back from her. That's roughly 1.7 emails per day on average that she sent to me. And her attention to detail in these emails has been outstanding. Take a look at this email, for instance:
My favorite is section 19, where subdivision into a, b, c, d, and e didn't cut it - section 19, subsection e had to be further divided into <1> and <2>. Without her attention to detail and hard work, this project wouldn't be nearly as close to completion or as high quality as it is now.
CY (right side of picture) has been a great help when it comes to solving mechanical problems. His spoken English and mechanical skills are very good, so he was a great help when we've needed to meet over Skype and troubleshoot complicated issues. For instance, CY was the one that came up with the brilliant idea of using rubber washers to slow down the gear bits.
And this is Sky.
Sky is a wizard when it comes to 3D modeling and injection molding. It was Sky who worked hard to solve the difficult problem with the ramps that I talked about in a previous update. When I sometimes pushed for fast, risky fixes to problems, Sky was the voice of reason and restraint, suggesting more iterative, safe solutions.
I was shocked at just how many different suppliers/factories are involved in the production of Turing Tumble. When you consider just the plastic parts, there are at least five different companies involved. We visited four factories while I was there.
Small Part Injection Molding Factory
By the time we arrived at the factory, production had already begun. In fact, five of the parts were already produced!
I took parts from various places inside the bags and they all worked perfectly. They were about as identical as they could be. It was a relief to see just how consistent the parts are from shot to shot.
At that time, an injection mold machine was making gears for us.
First, the machine pushes the mold together very tightly, then plastic is injected at high pressure, the mold cools, and finally it opens and the ejector pins push the plastic parts out of the mold. The slowest part of the process is the cooling step.
Here's a top view that lets you see the ejector pins a little better.
And here's the result:
In this case, employees manually pulled the gears off and used a knife to cut off any extra plastic. For most other parts, they had a robot arm set up that that automatically pulled off that extra plastic in the middle and dropped it into a separate pile. They had the robot arm set up when they made the bits:
What do they do with all those pieces of junk plastic? They recycle them. First, they chop them up in this machine:
And then they load the chipped up pieces back into the hopper to be melted and molded again.
The injection molds themselves were pretty interesting, too. There were a lot of them in the factory, so I asked to see which of the molds were ours and one of the employees there was kind enough not just to show us, but to open one of them so we could see the inside:
Here's what it looked like:
It turned out that it was good we were there, because Sky actually found a problem with the ramps. Soon after the factory began producing them, we stopped by to check them out and this happened:
Do you see how the ramp second from the bottom was a little slow? Sometimes it would even stop completely. It turns out there was a little gap in one of the 8 mold cavities that left a tiny wedge of plastic sticking out. The wedge rubbed against the board, making it stick. The owner of the factory figured out which of the cavities was the problem by reaching in the machine and grabbing a part from each cavity just after it was molded, but before it was ejected:
That evening, they managed to pull out the mold, fix it, load it back into the machine, and begin producing more ramps. They chopped up all the old ramps and started over.
We dropped by the next day and they all worked perfectly. That was some pretty incredible customer service. One of the days, they took us out to lunch at a place where we could meet our food before we ate it.
Large Part Injection Molding Factory
We also visited the factory that is making our large plastic parts. The molds for these parts are huge, incredibly heavy, and operate with tremendous pressure. They have to use a hoist mounted on the ceiling to lift the molds into the machines.
While we were there, they were making the board and the board supports. It was a little overwhelming to see so much thought and hard work put into making the parts. You just don't get a sense of that when you send an email from halfway around the world that simply says, "Ok, let's begin production!" Take, for instance, the computer board:
It's pretty clear why that's the most expensive part to produce. And by the way, if you were curious, the reason she presses on the back of the board while it cools is to reduce warp in the board.
While we were there, they were also in the process of producing the board supports.
The two halves of the board support look very similar, but are different. In order to be able to put the board support together, you have to have one of each part. They were worried they might accidentally mix up the two parts, so they had the clever idea of marking an ejector pin on one of them with a '0' and the other with an '8'.
Vacuum Mold Factory
The third factory we visited was the vacuum mold factory. They weren't producing our vacuum trays just then, but I got to see the process:
In the back of this machine is a long roll of sheet plastic. As it's drawn through the machine, the plastic sheet is first heated, then pulled out over a mold and sucked down as the mold is pushed up. Then water jets spray over the hot plastic to cool it before the mold is pulled out from underneath and eventually the formed plastic is chopped off. Here you can see the vacuum forming the plastic:
The next step is to cut out the individual sections. In whatever-the-thing-is-they're-making-in-the-video-above, there are 6 that need to be cut from each sheet of formed plastic.They use a big die cutter to cut them out one by one:
Even though they weren't making the vacuum trays for Turing Tumble that day (they'll be one of the last things produced because they'll take up so much space), I did get to see the molds.
The assembly factory is the last step of the production process. It's where they gather all of the parts from the various factories, make the boxes, put parts in little bags, load the boxes with vacuum trays and bags of parts, close them up, shrink wrap them, and put them in cartons to ship out.
The tools in the assembly factory were generally pretty standard except this one. It's the tool that wraps chipboard boxes with paper. I've always wondered how they stretch paper over the outside of boxes without any tears, bubbles, or wrinkles. Well, here it is:
Aha! Now you get it, right? No? Well neither did I, so they slowed the machine down for me and ran it again. See if this helps. They ran a box through without the paper wrapping glued to the bottom so I could more easily see all the steps in the process:
NOW you get it, right? Of course you do. Easy peasy. :)
Production is moving along, skillfully coordinated by Christina, and things appear to be running on schedule. Alyssa and I are figuring out the final details of shipping to our fulfillment centers now. We're getting there! May fulfillment is still looking good.
Thank you all again for your support and encouraging words. We're really proud of how it's turned out and I think you're going to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the final product.
Paul and Alyssa