Made in China: Dedication

This story needs a little background to fully appreciate.

There is a microphone in the new chumby. The particular microphone I decided to use has an integral pre-amp FET (an “electret” type). As such, it must be inserted in the correct orientation with respect to the circuit so the FET receives a proper bias current.

The first samples I got back from the factory had the microphone in backwards. So I called the factory and told them that they need to reverse the polarity of the microphone. I was going to come in for a visit the next week, and I wanted to see corrected samples. When I got to the factory and tested the microphone, I found out to my dismay that the microphones were still not working.

How could this be? There are only two ways to put a microphone in.

It turns out that they had two operators on the line assembling the microphone. One solders the red and black wires to the microphone. The next solders these red and black wires onto the circuit board. The operators were told to reverse the order, and both of them dutifully complied…giving me a microphone that was still soldered in backwards, but with the color of the wires swapped. This is actually a pretty typical story for problems in China…

At any rate, this leads up to the real point of this post. The next day, we had a first pilot run of 450 circuit boards scheduled up. Everything had to go perfectly for us to be on schedule. We had stencils rebuilt (we were debugging a yield issue with the QFN packaged audio CODEC as well) and ready by around noon, and around 6PM I had the first boards in my hands to test. As I was running the final factory test, the device failed again–at the microphone.

Needless to say, this was not a happy moment for anybody in the factory, as the factory is liable for any manufacturing defects. I donned my smocks and marched onto the line to start debugging the problem.

That’s me at 3 AM later that day. I’m still in the factory, and so is every manager and tech involved in the project. The pressure was fairly enormous–right next to us was a line churning out 450 potentially defective circuit boards, and I was unwilling to pull the plug on it because I didn’t know what the root cause was yet, and we had to stay on schedule.

I literally had a panel of factory workers standing by me the entire night to help me with anything I needed–soldering irons, test equipment, more boards, X-ray machines, microscopes. The remarkable thing is that not a single one hesitated for a moment, not a single one complained, not a single one lost focus on the problem, people cancelled dinner plans with friends without even batting an eyelash. If they weren’t needed that moment they were busy overseeing other aspects of the project. And this went on until 3 AM. With one exception, I hadn’t seen blind dedication like this since I worked with the autonomous underwater robotics team at MIT.

Embarassingly, the problem wasn’t their fault in the end. It was the new firmware release that was given to me earlier that day by the team in the US–it had a bug that disabled the microphone due to a hack that was accidentally checked into the build tree.

I think even more impressive is that when they found this out, nobody was angry, nobody complained (well, the sales lady gave me a hard time but I felt I deserved it; nevertheless, she was kind enough to accompany me on the production line all night long and be my translator, since my Mandarin isn’t up to snuff). They were simply relieved that it was not their fault. We all parted ways and I came back into the factory the next day at 11 AM after a good nights sleep. I saw Christy and I asked her when she came in. She told me she always has to report in by 8 AM. Now, I was starting to feel really bad–she stayed up late because of our bug and she came in early while I slept in. I asked her why she stayed up so late even though she knew she had to report to work at 8 AM–she could have gone home and we could have continued the next day. She just smiled and said “it’s my job to make sure this gets done, and I want to do a good job.”

On the right is Christy (PM), and to her left is Xiao Li (QA manager). The equipment they are observing is the chumby production tester, a bed-of-nails device developed in the US by me that facilitates the automatic firmware programming, unique keying, and testing of every circuit board.

Here’s another interesting story. On our way out of the factory floor one day, Xiao Li asked me what does a chumby do? Well, I don’t speak chinese very well, and she doesn’t speak english very well either, so I decided to start with a few basic questions.

I asked her if she knew what the world wide web was. She said no.

I asked her if she knew what the internet was. She said no.

I was stunned. Here is a girl who is an expert in building and testing computers–I mean, on some projects she has probably built PCs and booted Windows XP a hundred thousand times over and over again (god knows I heard that darn startup sound a zillion times that night on the factory floor, as right next to me was a bank of final test stations for ASUS motherboards)–yet she didn’t know what the internet was. I had taken it for granted that if you touched a computer today, you were also blessed by the bounties of the internet. I felt like a bit of a spoiled snob and a pig all at once for forgetting that she probably couldn’t afford a computer, much less broadband internet access. If she were given the opportunity, she was certainly smart enough to learn it all, but she’s busy making money that she’s probably sending back to her family at home.

How do you describe the color blue to the blind? In the end, the best I could do was to tell her it was a device for playing games.

24 Responses to “Made in China: Dedication”

  1. Oh Sangjin says:

    I’m sorry, I don’t get it. You speak as if it is a good thing that they don’t complain when they have to cancel their lives in order to make squishy computer toys. I’m sure your sense of awe at their compliance does wonders for their children. How joyful for everyone involved.

  2. jim vandiver says:

    I don’t think you’re saying it’s good, or bad; just describing a work ethic and what any competitor is faced with. That type of loyalty has been attributed to older workers in the US and contrasted with young ones who quit work at the normal hour even in the midst of a crisis that needs all hands on board in order to protect the company which is the source of each person’s job.

  3. Travis Pepke says:

    I’m always amazed (and sometimes bemused) when I witness fellow Americans goggling in awe over the Chinese production machine. I mean – where did we think our goods were coming from? Of course there are massive factories, staffed with hundreds and thousands of dedicated workers. Of course their work ethic is intense! Can you imagine a similar scenario in the U.S.? No? Well, that’s why the Chinese star is rising with a serious quickness and the American one is, well… not.

    Get used to it. It’s a whole new paradigm, people.

  4. Mark says:

    Wow, this brings back memories.

    About nine years ago, I was in a Korean factory trying to get an analog cell phone production line running. I had designed a bed-of-nails fixture, but one of the RF tests that had passed every time in our quiet office in the US was failing intermittently. After hours of head-scratching, the Korean line manager digured it out: the test firmware was not shutting the mic off, so when we were making noise in the screen room, we were modulating the RF signal. I think he figured this out by swearing at the test fixture during the failing test.

    This is an excellent series of posts. The description of factories is exactly as I remember it (but the scale is about ten times bigger!)

  5. Chris Robison says:

    Travis, I think most people (who don’t put a lot of thought into it) are assuming that typical consumer goods, whether they’re made here or in China or elsewhere, are made in “factories” that fit the modern idea of what a factory is, to people in the Western world. Huge arrays of large noisy machines molding and packaging products in parallel like you see in file footage on the news as the talking head spouts something about trends in production numbers for various domestic industries.

    What I think many people don’t realize is that in China, the environment is different because the economics are different. They have so many people, it doesn’t make sense to mechanize everything. In a land of 1.3 billion people, *people* are cheap. So for an operation that might be served by half a dozen huge machines, in China you’ll find vast oceans of human labor, doing it by hand. The numbers are nothing like anything that exists in western industry … and that, in my opinion, is legitimately awe-inspiring.

  6. betatron says:

    “I don’t get it”.


    get it now?

    (fab series, btw. I enjoy it greatly)

    *pacific rim in general, not necessarily “only” PRC production

  7. First Time Visitor says:

    You must be in a pretty remote area, because everywhere I went on my trip to China, they were very familiar with the Internet and it was available almost anywhere. Nice articles anyway.

  8. learnsigma says:

    […] Dedication: When it’s production crunch time, Chinese factories run to a romantic idealism that’s part Bushido, part IBM Song Book. Bunnie describes the final stages of the manufacturing setup for Chumby, and the intense personal dedication the factory workers showed — and recounts an amazing story of a talented senior engineer who didn’t know what Chumby was for because she didn’t know what the Internet is. […]

  9. bunnie says:

    A lot of people in China, especially in the cities, are familiar with the internet–but even if China has 300 million internet users (the population of the US!), that means there is still a full billion people who haven’t used the internet. I guess that’s why China is such a huge potential growth market.

    My guess is that many of the workers were raised in remote areas, and they emigrated to the city to find work. While they may have a traditional education, the factory dorms don’t provide computers for free and I can believe that many of the workers in the dorm don’t put getting a computer at the top of their priority list, as many of them plan on returning home to their remote village after a few years or they have other things they want to save for. One thing to remember is that in China, it’s quite common to save all your money and not spend a cent of it on anything but bare necessities…it’s very unlike the US assumption that money will be spent on goods that improve your life.

  10. […] Here is a short example of what happens when Configuration Management goes wrong. bunnie’s blog is detailing the manufacturing arrangements in china for Chumby. Along the way the author has gained a new respect for the high level of skills evident in the Chinese manufacturing sector and hopefully a new appreciation for configuration management. […]

  11. Raphael Jacquot says:

    I’d gladly take either those 2 wonderfully looking ladies as wife :D

  12. Chris says:

    I would like to know why…EXACTLY why any of this couldn’t be done in the United States by Americans. And “because it would be too expensive” isn’t good enough anymore. For years, that’s what we’ve been told for why everything is made in China now. The reason is simply because corporations figure why pay an American a decent wage if they can simply outsource and pay a Chinese worker pennies. It has nothing to do with cost, just greed.

  13. Chris says:

    Oh, and by the way, we aren’t “competing” with China, as if it were a level playing field. It’s American companies that are outsourcing and getting all the components for their products made in China. I’ll bet it’s only the company headquarters that are actually in the USA anymore. Just offices. I’ll bet even American cars aren’t really made here – half the parts are probably made in China “because it’s cheaper.”

    I say a new federal law should be passed…any company that is incorporated in the United States MUST have a certain minimum percentage of its products manufactured in the US, and a minimum percentage of its employees MUST be American citizens. The penalty should be immediate seizure, with all their assests sold off and the money given to all the workers they’ve displaced by outsourcing to China. The CEOs should then be arrested, tarred and feathered, and deported to the South Pole. They can make little toy penguins, labeled “Made in Antartica.”

    Anyone remember the scandal with Walmart putting “Made in USA” labels on all their stuff…and then it turned out that NONE of it was made in the US? I was only in 8th or 9th grade when that happened, but I remember.

  14. F ZUMPANO says:


  15. John R. Pritts says:

    They tell me someone has to invite me to join joost, an existing member. I don’t know if you can help me, but I am trying. Sorry to impose but can you help me?
    John R. Pritts

  16. J.R. says:

    I get so disgusted going into stores and finding everything that I pick up to purchase has a label that says “Made in China”. Come on now. Can’t manufacturers find an American that’s qualified to make a decent product anywhere. I have refused to make purchases because of “Made in China”, only to find myself doing without some things. I have nothing against China; but I am very dissapointed with manufacturers not willing to put anything back into our economy that would allow for more jobs and opportunities here in America. Sure the Chinese are hard working people, but you cannot convince me that Americans over the years could not be taught the same work ethic. We had it generations ago, when my grandparents worked to provide a better lifestyle for us then they had.

  17. nwachukwu mayor says:

    nigeria has gone to like made in china phone we phone distributors has confirm that so i wil like to have one company in china which i could be a distributor here in nigeria

  18. j says:

    To all the naysayers who say Americans lack a work ethic… what are you talking about? If you go to a startup, there’s a good chance they’ll be working long hours. In Hollywood, people work long hours. Even at my current work at a labor organization, they work long hours. People are there at 7, sometimes 11, sometime 1 or 2. We do what it takes, if the goal is sufficiently important to us.

    What these Chinese workers need, is better pay, so they can afford to buy what they produce.

  19. aaron says:

    Thanks for sharing, it’s interesting to see the globalization of production from a ‘ground level’ perspective.

  20. […] Made in China: DedicationI literally had a panel of factory workers standing by me the entire night to help me with anything I needed […]

  21. […] factory manager). Today, her salary would be about $10 per day. Three years ago, factory workers built but had no idea what it was they were working on exactly. It looks like with the new generation of Chinese factory […]

  22. […] there’s cool stories about cultural values (and culture clashes). Or the care and feeding of factory […]