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  • Electronics for Absolute Beginners at MzTEK

    Posted on January 24th, 2010 Iain No comments

    My friend Sophie asked me to do a workshop on Electronics for Absolute Beginners for the group MzTEK which ran yesterday. Hard work as a presenter, but I had a really good day. The unflagging enthusiasm and excitement of everybody was great to see and really inspiring. Also lots of fun ideas on different things to do with the circuits in the course. I was also impressed that (almost) everything worked for (almost) everybody. Good building skills all round.

    For anybody that wants to see the notes – follow the link above.

  • Visiting the electronics markets at Shenzhen

    Posted on January 6th, 2010 Iain No comments

    Visiting the electronic markets at Shenzhen is becoming a bit of a geek right of passage.  I was fired up to go by reading Bunnie’s Blog and Evil Mad Scientist. When I was in Hong Kong at the end of 2009 I took the chance to hop over the border and see what all the excitement is about. I found this guide useful in getting to the right area. Once there I just explored to my hearts content.

    The SEG Plaza seems to be the preferred destination for foreigners. It is pretty impressive starting with little booths selling components on the ground floor and then different types of gadgets on higher floors. However the areas that really blew me away were in other less well marked buildings down the street from SEG or across the other side of the metro station. These buildings are where parts are sourced for manufacturing operations and component factories sell their output. The scale of the whole operation defies believe – there are tens of buildings with huge markets spread over multiple floors and I am guessing I only found a tiny part of the whole thing.

    Resistors for sale

    The atmosphere is what a London Victorian street market must have been like. Families and friends man the booths. When not working people are eating, gossiping, flirting, joking and just getting on with life. People pushing hand-carts piled high with “ST Microelectronics” boxes wizz up and down the aisles. Salesmen drop their unused receipts on to the floor and the old bent cleaners shuffle around picking them up. The energy, dynamism and sheer chaos of the place is amazing.

    The markets aren’t really set up for casual visitors but as long as you don’t get in people’s way then nobody seems to mind you being there. I saw a few other westerners wandering round in a dazed state so I think the “clueless foreigner come to gawp” is a recognized type. Taking photos is a bit more interesting – people I asked generally said “no”. I suspect perhaps general caution about not wanting to stand-out, but maybe also not everybody has all their paperwork in order. Snapping a few discreet shots should be possible though.

    In the market

    In terms of what you can buy the answer is everything and nothing. Components are really set up to be sold in industrial quantities – unless you want a whole reel then forget it. Test equipment and tools you certainly could buy, but based on my few sample questions I would say the prices are not that much better then you would get on eBay for similar things. Needless to say the whole place is awash with knock-offs, seconds and fakes of all kinds. If you want to buy a set of fake Sony-Ericsson labels to stick on your fake Li-Ion batteries then no problem. I saw one guy lovingly polishing the outside of a dirty old HP spectrum analyser with toothpaste to make it look better before it went on sale. In another stall a couple of guys were pulling surface-mount chips out of a big bag and scrubbing them clean before putting them in individual packaging.

    As well as components and manufacturing items you can also buy complete electronics. The PCs and LCD screens were not so exciting, but the vast arrays of fake and real mobile phones are just amazing. The fakes are cheap, but not cheap enough to tempt me to buy. One market had lots of little booths crammed with people working on mobile phone PCBs with surface-mount rework stations. I couldn’t really figure out what service was going on in this place – repair? manufacture? Whatever it was this was painstaking, minute work being done in really cramped conditions.

    Visiting the markets is like a glimpse in to some slightly crazed alternate reality in the near future – a Douglas Coupland book made real – I half expected to bump in to Steven Lefkowitz from JPOD around one of the corners. Go there, be amazed but don’t buy anything unless you really know what you’re doing!