Admit it – whenever you hear the phrase ‘Made in China’ about an electronic product – you immediately conjure up an image of a cheap, plasticky, poorly made, extremely ugly and a very shabby product. Despite the fact that China is the world’s factory, despite the fact that every luxury brand gets almost their entire line made in China, despite the fact that the biggest tech manufacturers including Apple and Samsung exist and are profitable today due to their China outsourcing business model – the China tag is still synonymous with ‘won’t last a week’, the copycat kings and the emperors of crappy products.
Double Shock: When I was invited to visit China to take a look at how a mobile phone is made from scratch – I was doubly surprised. First, because Chinese assembly-line factories and sweatshops don’t ever allow journalists or TV crews inside. Second, exposing your entire line-up of manufacturing is like giving away all your trade secrets to competitors. Well, if they wanted to commit
business (suicide in Mandarin), who was I to argue? Off I went to Shenzhen; the onetime sleepy little fishing village that in a few years has been converted into China’s all-new mega industrial hub.
Off Topic for a minute: Every time I go to China, I discover one non-techie thing that blows my mind and makes my jaw drop. This time was no different as even before I got my first look at a giant factory of mobile-phone making, I saw a giant factory of art. I will admit, I am a recent art convert (for the most part I still don’t understand it, find most of the people involved in it to be very pretentious, but have been very drawn to the creativity and beauty of it all) and had already set up to go straight from the airport to Dafen Village on the outskirts of Shenzhen.
Inside this very laidback art centre are about 5,000 painters, 3,000 sculptors and about 2,000 other skilled artists that are hard at work. To take art, a very individualistic passion and skill – and convert it into an efficient, highly organised, perfectly tuned
factory is China at its core best. This one little village is currently exporting 60 per cent of made-to-order art to the world! 60 per cent!
Truly humbled and suitably awestruck, I moved back to my core – tech. First up was the launch of the very phone that I would be shown being manufactured from start to finish. The Gionee E6. Yes, I thought the same thing too. Gionee? What is that and how do you even pronounce it? And for those in India who have heard of the brand, the first reaction is always – ‘Oh no, another Chinese knock off brand trying to sell in India’. Well, in China I was to learn how the dynamics of brand recognition change.
Gionee (pronounced JinLee in China and JoNee in the rest of the world) is the No 2 brand in terms of open market sales, right after Samsung. And they sold US$ 2.5 billion worth of phones last year. And the E6 was their top-of-the-line flagship phone. The E6 is a great-looking phone, full unibody design, a five-inch One-Glass-Solution Full HD 1080p AMOLED display, a pixel density of 441ppi, runs on a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor, is super thin at 6.18mm and has a 13-megapixel camera. Pretty high end specs and apparently will be released at a very aggressive price in India. But that wasn’t the main reason for me to be here. Show me how this is made!
As I was being driven to their factory in Dong Guan (also famous for being China’s Hub for Gentlemen’s Clubs) my mind was still conjuring up images of thousands of underage children, huddled over rickety wooden tables, toiling away under a naked light bulb, each holding a screwdriver or a soldering iron, horrible sweaty conditions – jamming together phones, one screw at a time. Boy was I wrong!
This was a state-of-the-art 3,30,000 square-yard industrial centre with 48 fully automated robotic Surface Mount Technology (SMT) lines, manufacturing floors that make every single component in-house, assembly lines that span all categories, design and R&D centres at every level, stringent quality checking testing zones at each stage and 6,000 workers that have apartments at the factory premises itself (including supermarkets, banks, basketball courts and other facilities).
Two Huge Questions:
The amazing thing isn’t how different this is from my original thoughts – but the precision and scale to which this was built. These are mega enormous factories and the one I went to is just an example of thousands of others that dot the Chinese landscape. Just how does any country hope to compete in the long run with capacities and economies of scale like this? And what happens if the numbers and quantities that these factories can generate are no longer in demand. It’s a huge double edged sword that China brandishes right now and just like the saying goes – a double edged sword can cut deep both ways – including the one who swings it.
China v/s China War:
China’s giant mobile-phone manufacturing capabilities also brings up a fascinating future scenario for India. Almost all these top-tier mobile manufacturers were the original equipment makers for all Indian mobile brands. This is where your top-of-the-line-but-priced-so-well mobile phone was made and branded with an Indian name. Today, the likes of Gionee and almost all others have sprouted new aspirations; they no longer want to be the silent manufacturer. They nurse ambitions to be a huge brand name of their own, forcing Indian brands to switch to second tier manufacturing companies.
So starting now, Chinese brands are going to go head to head against the very companies they were making phones for. This starts an enthralling new war – a China v/s China battle of epic proportions – which is a battle I will take you through next week, in Part 2 of my China adventures.
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, August 4
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