Made in China: Skill

One of the most remarkable things about working in China is how much skill the workers have out there. I think the video below speaks for itself.

[Youtube link for those who cannot view embedded SWF.]

This guy works at the factories that sew the chumby bags. Apparently, he’s not their fastest employee. They have one who is about twice as fast, and he has been with the company for about seven years. I went to his workstation, but when I got there he was already gone to lunch because he had finished everything. And I mean, there were two enormous bins of finished cosmetics cases next to his workstation.

I think it’s also interesting to notice that the guy in the video above is listening to his iPod while he sews.

Another thing that’s pretty amazing is how rubberized tags are made in China. These are the tags you see all over clothes–chances are you are wearing a piece of clothing or you carry around a bag with a tag like this. I always thought that the tags were pressed by a machine.

I was wrong. All those words, colors, and letters–they are drawn by hand.

Amazing.

[Youtube link for those who cannot view embedded SWF.]

I asked PCH if they had any mechanized factories for this kind of stuff. They told me that they exist, but the minimum order quantity is enormous–hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions–because of the extraordinarily low cost of the product and the relatively high cost of the tooling for the automated process.

This is consistent with a comment someone made to me once about the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. If you look at the bottom of one, it’s held together with screws. That’s because it’s cheaper pay someone to screw together that toy over the whole production run for it than it is to make a steel tool with the necessary precision so that it just snaps together.

There is a similar trade-off inside the Chumby hardware. There are four connectors on the internal chumby electronics. One had a best price of about $1 US, and the other three had a best price of about $0.40 US each–using the US-based vendors that I could source. PCH’s very talented sourcing expert (she has a reputation that is feared and respected by every vendor) managed to find me connectors that cost $0.10US and $0.06US respectively–saving almost a full $2 in cost. There’s one catch: these connectors don’t come with the sacrificial plastic pick and place pad that enables them to be machine-assembled.

The solution? Witness the man below.

On every chumby, he hand-places these connectors, for about a nickel per chumby.

Thanks to him, chumbys are $2 cheaper–which frees up more money for us consumers to spend on $2 coffees at Starbucks.

40 Responses to “Made in China: Skill”

  1. teemu says:

    thanks for sharing these stories, very interesting and entertaining, even if your not in electronics anymore.

  2. [...] Skill: Factory work in China isn’t unskilled labor — anything but. Watching the expert sewing in one of Bunnie’s videos is like going to a close-up magic show, an astounding and effortless-seeming exhibition of manual dexterity. Contrast that with the skill of the people — some children — making rubberized tags, by hand, their arms branded with character logos burned in by accidental brushes with hot molds. And then there’s the guy who can get rid of a $2 component by substituting $0.16 worth of parts and $0.05 worth of labor, paying someone to join together tiny sub-components all day. [...]

  3. [...] The second thought is that Chinese manufacturing must be fantastically skilled: much of the workmanship on display that afternoon in Debenhams was pretty good. The videos on this Blog post illustrate that pretty vividly. [...]

  4. Roland Dobbins says:

    Don’t you have any moral quandaries about exploiting what’s essentially slave labor? These people can’t unionize, they’re paid a pittance, they live in barracks, they’ve no freedom of expression, and the reason they stay with you until 3AM is that they’re terrified of losing their jobs and being left destitute, along with their families, if any problem has even the appearance of having anything to do with them.

    When you proudly recount how you found your various parts in China for a pittance of the price of US-made (or at least -assembled) components, as a U.S. citizen, don’t you feel guilty about undercutting your countrymen this way? Or is the Chumby so important to you that it doesn’t matter what you do in order to produce it, as long as you can save $2/unit by having some poor guy manually put in screws for each one?

    • kanocubano says:

      I’ve visited similar factories in China, and yes they work very hard, very long hours for very low wages (compared to Western Countries). but they eat several meals a day and earn a higher salary than if they’d stayed at home. at night the streets are filled with these same employees who walk arm in arm, window shopping or enjoying a small snack. they are friendly and smile easily. Their lives are hard, but they didn’t look like slaves to me…

  5. Marko says:

    Roland,
    Are they pitiful slaves of capitalist scum or leeches stealing away the lifeblood of the American working man?

    Either way it sounds like you are more than happy to condemn the ‘poor guy’ to destitution with his family (which the Chumby is currently preventing, no matter how late he stays in the factory).

    Also, when does it become morally acceptable to have some poor guy manually put in screws? When it saves $5/unit? $100/unit? Or is manual assembly intrinsically morally unacceptable.

    When you get a chance, let’s see your master plan for taking them straight to $30/hr union jobs with full benefits.

  6. Roland Dobbins says:

    My ‘master plan’ consists of not directly (it’s impossible to avoid it indirectly, unfortunately) propping up the whole rotten edifice of tyranny in Communist China through direct entreprenurial capital transfer.

  7. Roland Dobbins says:

    And, yes, they are indeed the pitiful slaves of capitalist scum who collaborate in their exploitation. And, yes, that whole rotten system and its collaborators here in the West (read: big business) undermines the livelihoods of people in America and elsewhere.

  8. Roland Dobbins says:

    I’m an Idiot and my big fat face is as dumb as a butt

  9. Vanwall says:

    Over the years, I’ve seen the major factory processes here in the States trim off more and more human interaction with the product, and in China it seems just the opposite, but only if you don’t view them as just so many machine parts that would look interesting on a parts breakdown sheet for repairs. This is the crux of the matter – skidillions of repetitive motion injuries will be an interesting legacy, along with massive environmental changes. In my own light manufacturing industry, there is still considerable skilled hand work and physical labor involved, and the longer the time in the shop, the more wear and tear on the best of them, and that’s not an easy fix; to say nothing of the strict hazardous waste disposable laws we adhere to. This all seems like a bit of déjà vu for me, when compared to the previous wunderwerks in Japan and the maquilladoras just over our southern border. As ye sow, so shall ye reap, and the China price is beginning to look more expensive in the long run.

  10. Robert Walsh says:

    If you have an issue with this, the solution is simple: vote with your wallet and don’t by stuff.

  11. Robert Walsh says:

    … oops – I mean dont _buy_ stuff, of course…

  12. Mio says:

    This is a fantastic blog series. Certainly Chinese production and factories is very, very different than in the US– but it is not as simple as labeling it “slave labor” and walking away, as Mr Dobbins and above posters have suggested. To understand the relevance and impact of Chinese labor practices, one must try to understand Chinese culture– the pride in a job well done, and production, is very unlike anything we have in the US. I’m not saying the “contentment” of the “slaves” legitimizes anything– rather, that this issue is thornier than a reduction good-vs-bad assessment can provide.

    All humans deserve to be treated with dignity, of course. But as an American living now in Shanghai, I realize more daily how we must stretch ourselves to understand the different ways that people in other cultures define “dignity,” first. It is occasionally instructive to turn off your moral outrage and just try to look, listen, and learn. Ignorant outrage does nothing.

    If the factories were mechanized, there would LITERALLY be no jobs for all these people. As is, there are already job shortages in China. The break-neck shifts in their political/economic status, plus the need for enough money to access Western goods we now consider basic to human life (medicine, for example– you don’t propose they give that up, do you?) necessitates this. If you want to eliminate these factories– then what do you propose happen to all these people?

  13. Truthful James says:

    This is not unlike my observations in 1969 at a National Electric Company (Panasonic now) plant in the Tokyo area. The plant was assembling those small (for the time) portable radios. On the line I observed workers at each station, but timed only one. He as doing fourteen hand movements per minute, from picking up a partially assembled radio, to performing his function, to returning it to the conveyor belt and picking up another unit.

    He did this on a ten hour work day plus one half an hour for lunch and one ten minute work break. (He also participated in group calesthenics before work time, and in line performance evaluation at the end of the day — providing management with suggestions for improvement.

    The women line workers came off the farm and lived in company dormitories. The company acted “in loco parentis” and dis such things as arranging marriages, after which the worker did not remain on the job and stayed in her new home.

    I also observed parallel worker discipline at the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company, where they were cutting steel for installation into 100,000 dwt tankers. The precise cuts were made from photo projections on the steel plates. Clearly no multiple hand operations but the same company loyalty and “devotion.”

    In American during the 60′s and later, U.S. corporations were not making capital investments in the basic industries — investments which would make more efficient use of labor. Rather, we we were seeking the ephemeral (and I believe non-existent) Sweet Bird of Synergy as they invested in non-related industry. Corporations frittered away billions in this quest, being responsive to institutional investors and increasing EPS.

    Serious case in point in the basic steel industry here. It traditionally took about fourteen days to go through the processes to turn hot rolled steel (out of the blast furnances) into cold rolled steel useable in manufacturing.
    The resultant product, done to customer demand for thickness, etc., was not perfect. Metallurgical characteristics were not constant edge to edge, which meant that there was waste, affecting value.

    In Japan they went another direction. A plant at Hakata, Japan was built by National Steel. Everything was computer controlled, using specifically designed software. Hot rolls were welded opnto the end of the last roll, and the whole process from pickling to shaping and sizing to making cold rolls was continuous. Instead of fourteen days, eleven hours. Edge to edge it was tailored for each customer. Hot spots were eliminated. It was totally useable and the roll could be dumped on the back of a semi for trnsportation and delivery.

    Inland Steel saw the light. The did a joint venture with National Steel in Indiana. The investment was over $500 Million, It was so successful that another $500 Million was raised and three galvanizing lines built, serving the auto industry.

    The savings in labor costs and in inventory costs made this a winner, more than offsetting the capital costs.

    Inland as a corporation became more valuable and has since been sold to a world wide Steel Corporation owned by Indians (not ours.)

    As for Panasonic, even with the efficient workers, the labor costs became too great and manufacturing was exported to China, and now to Malaysia and the Philippines. Indnesia and Afric are on the next rung down.

    Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China is sitting on $1,2 trillion of our dollars.

  14. Wei-Shin says:

    Thank you for this excellent series of posts. I look forward to reading more about this topic of manufacturing in China. I’m hoping that my product will one day get popular enough to necessitate outsourcing to China. Right now, we’re planning to be a USA-based cottage industry. Crunching the numbers tell me that we really won’t turn much profit due to the high labor costs here. When we get a big enough contract, I’ll definitely look into working with PCH China Solutions. It is so hard as an entrepreneur to know where to begin looking for things. I’m posting my own Blog, in fact, on how to start a business (agoodnightssheep.com). Thanks again for posting your experiences!

    As for the comments about slave labor, these workers look pretty content on the whole and the food (though different) seems nutritious too. I know that to get ahead in the US, I’ve had to work darn hard myself. I’m glad there are many useful things made in China because if they were made in the US, I would not be able to afford a comfortable living standard.

  15. learnsigma says:

    [...] Boing Boing reports that Bunnie has started blogging his China thoughts in detail, with a series of great posts: Skill: Factory work in China isn’t unskilled labor — anything but. Watching the expert sewing in one of Bunnie’s videos is like going to a close-up magic show, an astounding and effortless-seeming exhibition of manual dexterity. Contrast that with the skill of the people — some children — making rubberized tags, by hand, their arms branded with character logos burned in by accidental brushes with hot molds. And then there’s the guy who can get rid of a $2 component by substituting $0.16 worth of parts and $0.05 worth of labor, paying someone to join together tiny sub-components all day. [...]

  16. Robert Thau says:

    Ummmm… if you’re going to contrast the relative rights of American and Chinese workers these days, unionization may not be the right place to start. U.S. employers still have to put up with some inconvenience to keep unions out (to the point of Wal-Mart closing stores where a union manages a successful organization drive), but by and large, they’ve managed to do it; union representation in the States has been dropping for decades, and is largely confined these days to government and to industries that were organized decades ago.

    Beyond that, Bunnie’s already reported here that the market for the kind of skilled labor that he’s looking at in high-end factories in Shenzhen is actually pretty competitive — that dissatisfied workers can and do vote with their feet. Which, of course, says nothing about what trainees have to put up with, what’s going on in other provinces, or the civil rights situation in general; he discusses that as well, and it sucks. (As someone once said of the devil, the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest feat has been convincing American capitalists that it doesn’t exist).

    But the situation of American workers these days isn’t all that great either. If you want it from a source with less interest in the matter than bunnie, here it is from James Fallows, discussing the same Shenzhen factories as bunnie in the current Atlantic:

    Some Westerners may feel that even today’s “normal” Chinese working conditions amount to slave labor — $100 a month, no life outside the factory, work shifts so long there’s barely time to do more than try to sleep in a jam-packed dormitory. Here is an uncomfortable truth I’m waiting for some Chinese official to point out: The woman from the hinterland working in Shenzhen is arguably better off economically than an American in Chicago living on minimum wage. She can save most of what she makes and feel she is on the way up; the American can’t and doesn’t. Over the next two years, the minimum wage in the United Sattes is expected to rise to $7.25 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour week, that’s just under $1200 per month, or about 10 times the Chinese factory wage. But that’s before payroll deductions and the cost of food and housing, which are free or subsidized in Chinese factory towns.

    America, of course, should be held to a higher standard than that. But it’s relevant to the discussion, I think, that we aren’t doing even that well…

  17. Is there a sub class among the workers themselves?? I mean, the QA manager doesnt know about the internet, yet the guy sewing the chumby bags has an IPOD. I don’t own an IPOD but Im guessing you need a pc and internet access to load it with music.

    (or then again, maybe it was a ipod looking clone.. but still)

  18. Great series. Thanks. Truly enlightening.

  19. [...] Skill: Factory work in China isn’t unskilled labor — anything but. Watching the expert sewing in one of Bunnie’s videos is like going to a close-up magic show, an astounding and effortless-seeming exhibition of manual dexterity. Contrast that with the skill of the people — some children — making rubberized tags, by hand, their arms branded with character logos burned in by accidental brushes with hot molds. And then there’s the guy who can get rid of a $2 component by substituting $0.16 worth of parts and $0.05 worth of labor, paying someone to join together tiny sub-components all day. [...]

  20. Jim Rockford says:

    I don’t think this is sustainable, and China has some major problems. I look at your story and see disaster.

    1. Over time, capital investment will always beat labor. Yeah those current connectors require hugely expensive tooling for massive runs, but who says that’s how it will always stay? It’s possible and quite likely that re-engineered connectors with machine-assembled runs could be profitable in far smaller runs at far smaller costs with much higher efficiency.

    2. You don’t understand China: China deliberately tries to soak up as much labor as possible, their department stores are a great example of this, i.e. make-work stuff just to soak up labor. And every huge private factory has an equivalent ten SOE (State Owned Enterprises) that makes tons of stuff that no one wants but cannot be allowed to fail (and put all those people on the street).

    This Chinese dependence on soaking up labor for social stability retards capital investment and retards also efficiency. There’s always someone who can work cheaper, it’s a fool’s game to play for long.

    3. Chinese lack of laws and enforcement have led to Chinese products being known in America as cheap, unsafe, and often deadly poisonous. “Made in China” is a mark to be avoided: the toothpaste and dog food is deadly poison and will kill you or your pet, the tires will explode and kill you, the toys have lead paint that will kill your kid or make him/her retarded.

    American consumers have already figured out what Chinese products provide, and there is no “do over,” or quick fix. At best China is looking at 30-40 years of sustained efforts to change consumers minds about the nature of their products.

    I fully expect MORE deadly products from China to find their way to the US, killing more consumers, and the start of wholesale bans of Chinese products. Rising oil prices will also make shipping their stuff here far more expensive, making their cost advantage go away. Not to mention what happens if a nuke goes off in a city smuggled in by a shipping container: that right there would bring to a complete halt the trans-Pacific shipping. To be restarted at minuscule levels with intensive inspections.

    Fundamentally Chinese trade rests on cheap labor beating mechanization, cheap oil for transport, willingness for consumers to trade low price over quality, and a secure transport system able to handle high volumes of container shipping trade. I don’t think any of these will hold for much longer.

  21. Interesting series of posts. I have blogrolled and linked to this category from China Economics Blog.

    There are very useful insights for economists from reading and watching this series of blog posts.

    Good work.

  22. Anonymous says:

    China is a ninety percent polluted nation ruled by

    a small group of merciless, ruthless, power-craving

    leaders who has intentionally killed millions of their

    citizens every year and still try to deny this hideous

    truth. It is stupid to try to smooth talk over any

    serious subjects with these leaders, who would

    never actually comply by rules. Over the recent

    years, the hypocritical Chinese leaders succeeded

    in widening the social inequity gap and producing

    thousands of spies aboard. It

    is frustrating that so little attention has being paid

    to this heavily launched spying efforts of China and

    the rapid military buildup under the command of

    these hypocritical Chinese leaders.

    Anyone smart enough should be able to figure out

    what China, a nation that is responsible for most of

    the planet’s warming temperature and pollution, is

    trying to do.

    CLEARLY, LITTLE TAIWAN HAS GROWN TOO

    SMALL TO SATISFY THE RAVENOUS HUNDER

    OF THE PRC LEADERS.

    TO PROTECT OUR HOMELAND SECURITY FROM

    these ruthless tyrants, please BOYCOTT ANY

    IMPORTS FROM CHINA. NOBODY NEEDS ANOTHER

    BATCH OF POISONOUS DANGEROUS PRODUCTS

    FROM WASTELAND CHINA, MADE BY MORALLESS

    CHINESE EXPORTERS IN COLUSION WITH THE

    MORALLESS CHINESE GOVERNMENT.

  23. steve says:

    How about making them in the USA, too? I bet you could have high school students at minimum wage at the local votech or computer club make them.

    That way we can have the product in two “versions”.

    We can then “vote” with our wallet AND get the product we want. Buy American or Chinese? YES?

    What would the made in USA price/cost be?

  24. Brad says:

    But where is the lead paint!?

  25. [...] The inside was interesting — I wasn’t expecting a bunch of little pushbutton circuit boards and a ton of fly wires (bundled together with cellophane tape), but I guess it makes sense. In China skilled labor is cheaper than automation, so a bunch of little boards with hand-soldered wires probably cost less than one big board made by a machine. [...]

  26. copper says:

    no,the man do not work for the consumer to save 2$.it is for the capitalist to gain 2$ more out of nothing.
    exploitation is a dynamic thing:from year to next year, although manual or intellectual labor is a necessity from production stand point(the capitalist cannot disparate/un-pair with),the costs (in percentage reported to total cost) of human labor diminish.
    so,no object can be produced without humans,but they,the humans(or “ants”,i haven.t map their.s gene) earn few and few.this is not technological progress ,it.s exploitation.
    in the 40.s in electronic industry at most a human worker needed to ware cotton gloves-in the electronic-tube branch.in the 90.s an fore on a worker is wrapped in a plastic suit-in silicon fab.AND THAT FOR THE SAME AMOUNT OF EFFECTIVE MONEY.in 40.s a turner at lathe needed to know how to use a gauge of some sort.today (without advanced knowledge in computer programming he is worthless) with advanced computer programming training he EARN THE SAME EFFECTIVE AMOUNT OF MONEY.

  27. copper says:

    and ,to be frank,i will point to the real dealers and wheelers:THE MERCHANTS.
    they do 2 things:they push the producer to the ultimate limit of production cost(at the expense of the ant-worker,from him the money can be denied easy.u cannot deny money from a supper duper “litho” machine.if u do not bring money to the monster that make the n_th mettal interconnect,all production stops)
    second THE MERCHANT suck the money out of the consumer(haha,what a perverse choice of words: consumer instead of money-pit/gold-mine/
    techno-sucker/)
    i ask who want an accelerated techno-progress?we?the consumer?the workers?THE MERCHANTS?

  28. copper.2 says:

    and ,to be frank,i will point to the real dealers and wheelers:THE MERCHANTS.
    they do 2 things:they push the producer to the ultimate limit of production cost(at the expense of the ant-worker,from him the money can be denied easy.u cannot deny money from a supper duper “litho” machine.if u do not bring money to the monster that make the n_th mettal interconnect,all production stops)
    second THE MERCHANT suck the money out of the consumer(haha,what a perverse choice of words: consumer instead of money-pit/gold-mine/
    techno-sucker/)
    i ask who want an accelerated techno-progress?we?the consumer?the workers?THE MERCHANTS?
    by the way:why cocacolanotshugar costs the same with cocacolayesshugar ? does .05oz of cum sweet cost more than 200g of sugar?
    i.m not revolutionary,the current state of affair is beyond my power (of
    will) to change.but is in my power to comprehend,to contemplate.so before bursting some mental flatulence to the world please reason.
    “for us consumers to spend on $2 coffees at Starbucks”-maybe u got to much money,next a merchant will come to alleviate that.

  29. Pone says:

    I agree with “copper”, the cost savings are not really passed on to the consumer, and most of it goes to the bottom line. There’s a designer golf shirt at Macy’s that costs $138, and is made in China at a labor unit cost of $1. It would cost $4 to have it made in the US. Do you suppose that the price was reduced from $141 to $138?

  30. anon says:

    I am completely unsurprised at the concept of responsible, dedicated individuals working for a company.

    Such phenomena occurred to me here in the the US, when I first began working and noticed the actual effort and work put in by young employees (minus any of the typical encounters that we’ve all experienced).

    You must remember, however, that while most PEOPLE work hard, a lot of CRAP is produced through cheap companies.

    Be they here or in China.

  31. anonita says:

    So, yes, there are skilled workers in China. There are also skilled, quick workers in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere. This is not a phenomenon particular to China.

  32. [...] Made in China: Skill – “One of the most remarkable things about working in China is how much skill the workers have out there. I think the video below speaks for itself. ..” [...]

  33. whichdokta says:

    You know, I’d happily do without that cup of Starbucks for a higher quality chumby.

    As the world allegedly becomes more and more wealthy the things we make just become cheaper.

    Where I use the word ‘cheap’ as in ‘worthless & without value’

    Ironic isn’t it?

  34. Ralph says:

    Howdy,
    There is reference above to slave labor. Bunny visits these factories and I don’t think he would keep working with factory owners like that. But, I am pretty sure that some Chinese factories are staffed by political prisoners who are forced to work. My biggest objection to buying Chinese made goods are that I can’t tell what kind of place they are made in. Is there any way I can find out more?
    Good day

  35. Ralph says:

    Howdy,
    The video does not speak for itself. Since it is a Flash video, I can’t see it and it tells me nothing. It is time to move to html5 and open formats for video.
    Good day

  36. [...] Ci sono alcuni video molto interessanti, guardate quelli in questo articolo ad esempio: Skill. [...]

  37. David Makin says:

    Greetings. Initial I need to say that I really like your weblog, just determined it the past week but I’ve been reading it constantly since then.

    I appear to come to an agreement with most of your thoughts and opinions and this post is no different. completely

    Thank you for any fantastic webpage and I hope you maintain up the excellent perform. If you do I will continue to read it.

    Have a very wonderful day.

  38. Well, the article is really the freshest on this notable topic. I agree with your conclusions and also will thirstily look forward to your approaching updates. Saying thanks will certainly not simply be adequate, for the significant clarity in your writing. I will instantly grab your rss feed to stay privy of any kind of updates. Pleasant work and much success in your business efforts!