First of all, thank you for continued patience. We just got back from the craziest week of our lives.
We have an extensive and long overdue update so here's the short summary first. For those of you who want the full breath, please continue reading to the end.
Our original aim to get the pens out by mid September turned out to be far from realistic. We were overzealous when we set that goal, and apologize for getting all of your hopes up. After 4 rounds of production samples and small improvements in each round, we were still not happy with the quality of the pieces we were getting. In an attempt to sort out the quality control issues, we paid a visit to our manufacturer in China this past week.
In short, they are way in over their heads. After a week of working with the factory, we were repeatedly mislead, met with errors and got all kinds of excuses for obvious attempts to cut corners. With a significant amount of time and cash invested with this factory, on our last day in China we decided to cut our losses and arrange a meeting with a different manufacturer.
On the last morning of our trip we met with the new manufacturer. By coincidence, one of their factories was only 15 minutes from where we were staying. Meeting with them was an entirely different experience compared to everything that happened earlier in the week. We walked through every step of the design and went over how each part would be produced. They're a mix of Chinese and American engineers from Stanford, who understand what we mean when we talk about quality. They also have a mission to improve the lives of their workers in China.
We left with smiles, knowing that we have the beginnings of what looks to be a mutually productive relationship. So, we're behind schedule, but on our way to meet our goals. At this moment, we still have a lot of details to work out before we can promise a delivery date, so we don't want to make that mistake again. The pens will be ready when they are perfect. Right now it looks like we're at least a month away from our first production run.
That's the short version. Here's the long version.
Rewinding to day 1… this is long, but might be interesting to some, especially those who make stuff!
The past few week was a roller coaster of insanity. Our trip began with our frustration over receiving pre-production samples that continuously had small errors. For each round, we were assured that the next would be perfect. On our 4th sample, we decided it would be the quickest and most productive to pay a visit to the factory for a week and work out all the kinks to begin production. Our factory assured us that by the time we landed, we would simply be there to check the quality of the final pre-production samples, and sign off on the first production run of 500 pieces. So we arranged a time with our factory, booked our tickets and headed to China.
The week of insanity started with Che-Wei getting stuck at the Hong Kong airport and having to spend the entire week in Macau. He has a Taiwanese passport but was born in Japan, so China and Hong Kong don't recognize his passport and it was impossible to get him in the country. Fortunately for the interwebs and skype...he was with us much of the time.
Adding to our good fortune, Che-Wei's Mom, Meiling had already arranged to fly in from Tokyo to join us on our journey for overall moral support and translation help. We cannot express to you how much of a trooper she is and how lucky we were to have her as a sidekick. On the first day she arranged to bring along a high-school friend of her brother's named KP who has 20+ years of experience with Chinese manufacturing. KP was crucial in giving us the perspective we needed for the rest of our trip.
After our rocky start, things at the factory did not look up. As a reminder, this is the factory that made our original prototypes, and they were close to perfect so we had no reason to think they were not capable of making the rest. We will spare you all the details, but the number one pitfall was that the place was poorly managed and the engineers and the QC department that we had planned to meet there, simply did not exist.
Step by step manufacturing
One look at the factory floor and it was clear, they weren't even close to ready for production. With nowhere to turn, we got straight to work. We had to teach them how to setup a proper workflow to produce consistent pieces. Our first challenge was to go over each step to build every part and identify where things were going wrong. With Che-Wei on Skype, and their engineers, we went over every process to devise jigs to ensure consistency and accelerate the manufacturing process. This sounds a lot easier in writing than it was in practice. We did our best and some progress was made.
Within every part there were often details that needed to be worked out. For example, the surface finish of the ruler case was not to spec. We had specified a dull (Ra 3.2) finish that would resist nicks and scratches more than a polished surface. But they couldn't get it right and kept over polishing it, leaving the grinder's finish, or rounding the corners from hand polishing it. Another example, was a problem we had with the screw part. In order to cut out the centered coin screw slot, you need to hold the screw in place while it's machined. Up until that point, they were holding the screw in place with a clamp which was chewing away at the threads, then they would grid the chewed up screws to cover up their mistakes. We had to devise a jig so that the coin screw slot could be cut without ruining the screw. *(see images below)
Moving along to QC, we decided that for the first 500 pieces every dimension must be individually measured, bagged and numbered so that we can identify the records of each measurement on a spreadsheet. It might sound like an outlandish amount of work, but KP assured us that this is the way things are done. It is not out of the ordinary and it's the only way that we have a remote chance of getting the quality that we are looking for. Once again, very grateful that KP was with us.
Aside from the jigs for constructing the pieces, we also had to devise go/no-go jigs to quickly check if each piece had met our tolerances. Each piece has one or more go/no-go jig. If it passes all its critical dimensions, it's measured to see if it meets the rest of the specs. If it fails, it gets tossed away. We designed a set of jigs with our manufacturer and the plan is for us to have a duplicate set, so we can also run a secondary QC check in New York before the pens ship.
Outsourcing in China
On our last night on the mainland, Meiling and I were brought to what was supposed to be the factories that are laser etching the ruler and machining the screw. It was a mad rush because it was past 9pm and everyone knew at this point that meeting our revised goal of having two perfect samples by the end of the day was far from realistic. But hey, we had come all this way and it was our last night…so we chased the rabbit deeper into its hole.
As we got into the car to head to the other factories, the factory owner conveniently disappeared and we were whisked off with his assistant and a machinist. It was unclear where we were going. After a long drive, the car stopped and we were told to get out. There was no factory.
We were on a dark, narrow road where every storefront was some variation of a live/work machine shop. Each one different. Each one specialized. A whole town of them, crammed side by side on narrow streets lit only by the glow of naked fluorescent bulbs. Think Bladerunner meets pre-industrial metal shops. The energy was palpable. Clean? No. Could we find it on a map? No. Could we have ever imagined that a factory work is outsourced to places like this? Definitely not. And even though we had never seen anything like it before, we could recognize it straight away. Every shop was run by highly skilled, passionate, self-taught makers. A lot like the shops many of our friends back home run. They are their own bosses. They live for and are proud of their work. This was nothing like the factory where we spent the past few days. It was invigorating.
The man that machines the screw parts is awesome and his setup is incredible. He has six CNC swiss screw machines in a storefront garage, in the back room is his office, a small kitchenette, a toilet (which you flush by pouring a bucket of water into it) and a small room off the back where he and his wife sleep.
Do you know how many people would kill to have a setup like this in Brooklyn???
The screw parts were perfect! yes perfect. We moved along (down the street) to the shop that was doing the ruler etching. We were led to think we were going to a laser etching shop, but in fact it was chemical etching. This was not what we had in mind, but it was really late and we had nothing to lose letting them try to etch our ruler. They did their best but it was obvious that their hole-in-the-wall shop was definitely not set up to make 5000+ pieces.
This was an amazing part of the trip, we never imagined what it would mean for a factory in China to outsource its work to local fabricators. The people that do this work are very skilled and proud of the work they do. It is incredible to see.
After leaving the chemical etching place, the factory owner told us that he was at a place with a laser etching machine and that they were etching the pieces. It was 11:30 at night and he promised to meet us there right away. We show up a few minutes later at a machine shop with 2 CNC mills, not laser etchers. And none of our samples were being etched. Things were very tense at this point. The factory owner tried to tell us that in China laser etching is synonymous with CNC milling. We were not amused.
It was obvious that we were not walking away with our pre-production samples. The factory owner had mislead us in many ways before, but this was the last straw. We had a pretty sour car ride back to the hotel. We'll spare the details.
When we arrived in China, the factory owner told us that tooling was well on its way and that we were very close to having the first 500 pieces complete and perfect. Upon our arrival, we were completely blown away by the unprofessionalism and lack of preparedness of the factory. There were no tools or jigs. Everything was being made by hand. And the factory owner continuously scrambled for excuses and assured us that everything was ok. Everything was not ok. And if we continued on this track, it would surely take years to get perfect merchandise (if ever).
That night we had to make a choice. Spend our last day on the mainland beating a dead horse, or we could cut our losses and forge a relationship with a new factory.
We chose the latter. That evening while we were out in post-apocalyptic bladerunner machinist land, Che-Wei was in Macau on Skype arranging for us to meet up with a different factory.
The next morning Sheng and Yoo Yo met us at our hotel. We automatically got great vibes from them. Sheng was born in China, in the area where we were, and his family immigrated to the US where he got his engineering degree. We went over the details of the pen straight away. Communication was clear and we are confident they will be able to produce the pens. Things are finally looking up.
This has already been a long update. Sheng and his crew are currently making the prototype.
We feel really lucky to have gotten the chance to sample the gamut of making in China. Yes, we were only there for a week. We barely skimmed the surface. But for a short week we had an incredible and diverse learning experience.
We feel real pangs of anxiety / hair falling out each time we receive your "where are our pens?! arg" messages. We completely understand your frustration and hopefully you trust that we really really want to deliver the pens as much as you want them.
We will have more progress to report within the next week.
Thank you for your continued support. We really appreciate all of you who are familiar with our situation and understand what it takes to make something like this at such large scale.
Lots of love to you all and HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHE-WEI !!! yes it is today !