How was China?
When I came back from the factory in China two weeks ago people asked me how it went. With a smile on my face and a ton of enthusiasm I would give the short answer: Very very very good!
And of course, there is also the detailed answer which I want to share with you.
Actually, let me walk you through the factory:
Before getting onto the assembly floor we usually meet in out small office that we have inside the factory. We usually first get through a quick planning session on the white board and then everyone gets ready with the "very fashionable” ESD clothing - from shoes (sort of Birkenstocks) to cap (sort of a baker’s cap). You of see some of that on the picture of Jessica and David below.
When you arrive at the entrance of the production floor you would maybe be a little bit surprised about the high level of security. You can roughly compare it to inernational airport security - apart from the important difference that in our factory’s case you are not allowed to bring in (or out) anything just like that. On this level that type of security is pretty standard especially though given the fact that some of the largest brands in the world manufacture just next to us in the same facility.
Imagine a hall the size of a target supermarket. When you walk in you see hundreds of white pick n’place machines and reflow ovens. For those of you who are not familiar with such machines - it looks a bit similar to the x-ray machines at airports -just much bigger. The noice level in the hall is not particularly high but you will notice a lot of beeping signals from all the machines. These machines are the place where the PCB boards get assembled - or more precisely - where all components get placed and soldered onto the bare PCBs. Anyways - first time visitors might gaze at another type of machine even more: There are about a dozen of self driving vehicles that are driving raw parts and products from one end of the hall to its destination. It’s fun to watch those little vehicles which look like sort of a wheeled robot version of a turtle. Those so called “AGVs" are even sort of friendly, if you stand in their way they will stop, talk to you in Chinese and just wait until you step aside.
I saw this a couple of times now but still -everyday I think it’s special to arrive in such a different world. You can really dive into it as you are pretty isolated from the outside world as you don’t even have your smart phone with you.
To get to the coolest spots in the hall, you walk down maybe 200ft to our reflow line and then you follow it all the way to the other end of the hall. In between you get to the assembly line of one famous product that I like very much. I have to admit I can never resist to walk by without quickly looking at what’s going on at their line and sometimes I watch a couple of units being made. The craftsmanship of manufacturing is something beautiful. If you continue to walk for about 300ft you arrive at the NEEO assembly line which is itself about 100ft long. Look, maybe I’m strange. As a kid I loved seeing documentaries of things being manufactured. I was (and still am) especially fascinated by human and machine working together harmoniously.
The moment when I arrived at our assembly line now seeing all the adapters and fixtures in place and a big team working on them was unbelievable. Seeing dozens of awesome operators running every test with every single unit and also seeing raw parts on one side of the line and final products going into the gift box on the other side is a crazy feeling that is hard to explain. I’m extremely proud of everyone who is involved to make this possible. Thousands and thousands of thoughts and work-hours went into the development of such a well working manufacturing line.
During my time in China I worked on most of the stations myself to get a better feel and idea of how well things work for the operators. The operators laughed sometimes when they saw me being not even half as fast as them, but hey - I tried! ;) We optimised quite a list of things with them to improve their daily work environment. We made sure everyone gets the best conditions like better table height or we improved things like the visual feedback during tests so the guys could read it easier and from distance. I was impressed how well everyone there understands the specific manufacturing details of our product. They also clearly all aim for the same high quality standard. There is quite some manufacturing knowledge - especially in the field of mobile devices - that you find exclusively in China today. Let me tell this very clearly: I’m so thankful to have those guys being part of this. I believe we have a much stronger than usual link to the entire manufacturing team over there. Most of us don’t speak Chinese but with the help of translators and body language we got to know everyone better and also during lunches and sometimes dinner we had fun and beautiful moments beside work. We all worked hard but we also laughed a lot and I’m pretty sure everyone agrees this is not “just a job”. I was pretty touched when one of the operators told me (via a translator) that they will miss me very much when I leave.
I look forward seeing them again soon! But - I had some good reasons to travel back: I brought the official serial #1 NEEO back home!
So - What’s next?
Toward the end of this month we plan to start making higher volumes. Here is the updated list.
Points form last month:
- Manufacturing another badge of ~300 units DONE
- Mid to late March: Running one last reliability and durability testing round with these latest units DONE
- Mid to late March: Approving slightly changed docking station top lids (we scrapped the last batch of 10K units that I mention in the last update as they did not fully meet quality standard) DONE
- Mid to late March: Full round of quality checks on the 300 units DONE
- Late April/ Early May: Getting into production of thousands of units
- Getting the golden master version of the firmware ready and install it onto the flash stations in China
- Optimize some production tests (won’t cause a delay)
- We currently see no bigger challenges remaining