A Dive Into China’s Hardware Innovation

Supported by swissnex China and Gebert Rüf StiftungChina Hardware Innovation Camp, known as CHIC, is a hands-on program bringing engineering, business, and design students from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne EPFL, University of Lausanne UNIL, and Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne ECAL, together working on their business ideas from scratch to fast prototyping. First, selected groups of students with interesting proposals work in Switzerland for few months to analyze technical problems and define requirements for their product ideas. Then, with a clear product statement, the students travel to China, including Hong Kong and Shenzhen, to assess the product’s value and adjust its concept according to what they have learned during the trip. Eventually, a local hardware company, Seeedstudio, provides necessary equipment and components for them to actualize the prototypes by the end of the trip and all prototypes will be presented in Switzerland. This year, as the second edition of the program,  four student teams AimoHeaböxOkeep and Tikku were formed and they were lucky to get a dive into China’s hardware innovation scene and actualize their prototypes in two weeks.

Let’s start from Hong Kong

1After several months of work in Switzerland, CHIC students finally began their journey from Hong Kong. In the central district of Hong Kong, they had the opportunity to participate in a pitch night hosted by Brinc. It was their first time to pitch their projects to experts and talk with startups from different countries, where they also realized how important it is to come to Asia and saw the opportunities this continent offer. The second pitch came very soon during their visit in Hong Kong Science Technology Park HKSTP. This time (thanks to their first experience in Brinc), the teams were more prepared to answer sensitive questions such as pricing and limitations of their products. Practice makes it better – the students were becoming better and better at presenting their projects.

But this program is not only about pitching and working on their projects. CHIC students also visited the Hong Kong harbor and the company Panalpina. It was interesting to see how goods were distributed and the challenges behind the scenes. They even had the chance to visit the control station with an impressive view on hundreds to containers and moving cranes. Through this visit, students understood the importance of having efficient distribution – a factor that they need to take into consideration if their business gets real in the future.

Made in China now has a label of quality

2In Mainland China, the students visited Huawei, a company now stands for quality made-in-China products in the global market. Established in Dongguan, a city located next to Shenzhen, students had a look at the production lines of this company. They learnt that Chinese companies are investing in automation in order to improve not only their speed but also the quality of its products. Besides Huawei, the students also visited Star Prototype, where they had the chance to see how to produce components on small scales, 3D printings, plastic moldings and got to know the challenges to work in China. These two visits allowed them to gain insights about two totally different manufacturing processes, which made them think further about their own business models.

In Shenzhen, the students were pleased to go to DJI, an innovative company that is currently leading in the market of drones (actually, the branding and design are so well made that some students thought DJI was American at first). And at HAX, a well-known accelerator in the hardware community, some startups (including Rovenso, a Swiss startup making robots to carry out dangerous tasks in hazardous environments) were invited to share their experiences and tips in starting-up in China. All of their products were made in China and the production process got so much faster thanks to Shenzhen’s unique hardware industry.

Might be the first Humanitarian Hackathon in history

3As a program with solid partnerships both in Switzerland and China, a special Humanitarian Hackathon was organized thanks to the collaboration with Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab and International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC. This activity was special because it involved not only CHIC students but also local students coming from different majors. An icebreaker activity was held beforehand to let students get to know each other. Even though communication was sometimes difficult, it was still delightful to discuss cultural differences or other points in common.

The day after, different teams worked on three different problem statements: crutches, a patient tag, and a medicine reminder. Students began to work together first by imagining a scenario from the users’ perspectives, and then drawing a sketch of the product. Collaboration and communication were already critical at the beginning! For the crutches, a couple of teams imagined using the strength of springs to help users to stand up, some groups imagined a bracelet which could be assembled to identify someone, and a group had the idea to make the medicine reminder like a tamagotchi game!

Let’s not forget that this hackathon only lasted one day, which meant being efficient was essential in order to not waste time. Cardboards, modeling clay, pieces of Lego, tapes… everything that could be used easily to show the final form of the product was welcomed. At the end of the hackathon, a Skype call with two experts from ICRC was invited to give feedbacks to the teams. This event taught the students how to work with local Chinese in a multi-cultural environment, sometimes even with difficulties in communication – visuals could help, body language could help, all they need is a bit more patience.

Why Shenzhen

4Known as the Silicon Valley of Hardware from a recent documentary produced by Wired, Shenzhen hardware manufacturing is all about speed, and this is one of the main reason why CHIC students were there. In order to get electronic components, CHIC students could just go to Huaqiangbei market where they could find everything they needed from LED lights, cables, 3D printings to PCBs… However, students still had to negotiate to get the materials at the best prices, and that took skills even though few of them spoke Chinese.

With the help of Seeedstudio, the prototypes could be assembled much quicker than they could be in Switzerland. Even though working with local people is challenging, the students could still communicate with drawings or learning by watching what they do. For them, it was a totally different environment they had to work in, an experience they cannot find anywhere else! Sometimes problems such as different quality of materials, missing pieces, different shapes of components showed up at the least expected moments… but this is why students had to learn to adapt and find solutions to deal with those issues.

At the end of the stay in China, CHIC students got even closer by working together. By spending days and nights on their projects, they finally were able to create their first prototypes. Several months ago they just had an idea of a product, and now they succeeded to turn this idea into reality – in just two weeks! Congratulations to all of them and looking forward to seeing the demo in Switzerland!