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Do you know how many specialized robots can be used to automate the production of a single LED? Read on…

(Part 1 of 2.)

A family friend introduced me to Mr. Liang, who owns and runs an LED factory in a large city in Zhejiang province. In his 40s, Mr. Liang came from an electrical engineering background and previously worked for several well-known large companies, including Foxconn. His previous company went bankrupt, and he, being a bit restless, decided to do something different with his life. Several years ago, he and his family moved from Shenzhen on the Pearl River delta to settle in Zhejiang, on the Yangtze River delta. He started Liang LED, Ltd. to produce LED bulbs for foreign companies.

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A story of hospitality

I had arrived in the city earlier in the day to meet with some other research contacts. Although I wanted to find my own hotel and visit Mr. Liang’s factory the next day, Mr. Liang would have none of it. He insisted on paying for my hotel for the next two nights, and accompanied me out to breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next two days. This hospitality mentality can be contrasted with my reception with Bryan and Mike (see Factory 2), who left it up to me to get to their offices from the train station, and took me out to a very simple lunch at a nearby fast food joint, where we split the bill. This difference can be partly attributed to my closer guanxi[1] with Mr. Liang than my guanxi with Mike and Bryan. Mr. Liang was introduced through a family friend who has known my parents for years. On the other hand, Mike and Bryan were introduced by a friend I met only after arriving in China.

Another reason for the difference, however, is generational. Mr. Liang grew up in the 70s and 80s, and had the traditional Chinese hospitality mindset. In relation to me, he probably saw himself as more of an uncle than a peer to me. Mike and Bryan were my generation, only slightly older than me, and had a more Western mindset due to their college education studying abroad.

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The tour

Liang LED Ltd.’s plant was located in a “high-tech industrial park” (高技术开发区), but to me it just looked like any other industrial park I’d been to: rows and rows of huge warehouse-looking buildings.

We climbed to the 3rd floor of one of these warehouse buildings. Inside, it looked dark, drab and gray. I felt, like previous factory visits, that the buildings were underlit. As we walked inside, Mr. Liang asked me to take off my shoes and change into anti-dust slippers. Wow, he’s serious about this, I thought.

We went through a white door…

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…and then walked straight through the other door. Ostensibly, the room between the two doors was a cleaning room to blow dust away for ESD protection, but Mr. Liang said he never used it.

We entered a large dark room with flashing lights and fancy equipment. The machines emanated a slight hum of 50 HZ[2]. I would’ve thought I was in a video game arcade if it wasn’t for the silly-looking slippers we wore. Mr. Liang proceeded to give me a hands-on lecture on LED production. “Feel free to take as many pictures and take as many notes as you want,” he said, noting my enthusiastic look.

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Microchip implanting

“The first step is to extract the chip,” Mr. Liang said. He held up a sheet of blue-green plastic film.

“Chip?” I was beginning to ask before I remembered that the tiny light-emitting diodes are actually on tiny semiconductor chips.

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The microchips come on sheets of plastic film. Red circle shows where the chips are actually located on the sheet.

Mr. Liang took me to the next two machines, which magically picked off the microchips, and placed them neatly into nice frames for the LEDs. Watching the robotic arm do its tiny back and forth with a shiny light was hypnotizing. Looking back, this machine is still up there on my list of coolest machines seen on my factory visits.

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The monitor of the screen showed up close the microchips being picked up by the robotic arm:

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The end product was something that started to resemble somewhat of a finished LED.

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I asked Mr. Liang about all this high-tech equipment. Made in China, by Chinese companies, it turned out. “It used to be that the Chinese-made versions of this particular machine were junk. But they fixed some kinks in the technology, and now they’re just as good as the foreign-made versions, but much cheaper.” He seemed proud to be able to say that to me. In his mind perhaps, the machine was evidence that “Made in China” doesn’t always mean cheap plastic toys and could stand for high-tech, high-quality products as well. After all, he wanted his own company to fall into that category.

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Baking

Mr. Liang took me to a side room. “Next step for the LEDs-in-production is to bake them.” Lined against the walls were several big blue boxes that looked like industrial clothes dryers out of the 60s.

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“Electric powered right? How much electricity do these machines use?” I asked.

“Probably 50% of the total electricity used in this factory,” Mr. Liang replied.

I noticed a sheet of paper adhered to the top right corner of one of the ovens:

产品型号:[product model]

进烤时间:[time of entry into oven]

出考时间:[time of exit from oven]

The contrast between this hand-written piece of paper for quality control and the high-tech equipment I just saw a minute ago struck me. To me, it was like a variation on an old mantra: “If it ain’t broke, don’t make it more high-tech.”

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Wiring

Taking me back to the main room, Mr. Liang showed me a corner of the room with a dizzying array of computer screens, wires and switches.

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“This is the wiring room,” he said, “where we insert the two pins to connect with the chip. This is maybe the most complicated part of the whole process.” I could see that.

Each machine was essentially a really complicated sewing machine, threading spools of wires into the tiny LED frames.

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I wanted to talk about the machines again, so I asked, “How much do these machines cost?”

“Each one is at least upwards of one hundred thousand,” he replied.

Okay, not bad, I thought, “So hundreds of thousands of yuan?”

“No, US dollars.”

The same smile I saw earlier when he explained to me the machines were made in China once again appeared on his face. Except this was a smile of personal, not national, pride. Mr. Liang had definitely made it from his childhood growing up in a peasant farm. His success was not shown so much in his personal belongings (he drove a modest compact Mazda sedan, in contrast to other factory owners I had met who ran small injection molding factories yet drove Mercedes and BMWs) as in his company. Mr. Liang, I think, was an engineer at heart, and I definitely connected with him on that level.

As if on cue, he took an LED-in-making, put it under a stereomicroscope, and studied it. “This one looks fine, no defects in the wiring,” he said.

With his lab coat on and peering under the microscope, the scene was perfect in my eyes… except he wasn’t wearing safety glasses[3].

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Coating

Onwards to the next step, Mr. Liang took me to another side room. The lab bench looked like a PhD student just tried to pulled an all-nighter doing a lab experiment. Beakers, empty and full, were strewn around. A leather bound lab notebook with some chemical blotches on its pages.

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“This room is the room where we develop the coating to make our LEDs white[4]. Getting the coating just right is the most critical step to our entire process. It’s so easy to mess up and end up with off-white LEDs.” He picked up a bottle with a green sticker on it labeled with a string of numbers and letters, and said, “And this is the most important ingredient.”

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I noticed that the bottle had the familiar Dow Corning logo on it.

“Hey, is this made by Dow Corning? I grew up in the town where Dow Corning is based [Midland, MI]. So many of my friends’ parents, and my parents’ friends, work there.”

“Yes. This stuff is so expensive. And you can’t have good quality versions of this made in China.”

So American companies still have the advantage in chemical engineering, eh? I thought. Midland, MI, holding the edge for American competitiveness…

“Right now, we have to buy this product through a middleman company. But if we can just get some guanxi there at Dow Corning sales directly, we can be a direct customer and it’ll be much cheaper. Say, do your parents know anyone who works there…?”

I was realizing that maybe there was a reason for Mr. Liang’s hospitality and generosity with his time. He wasn’t just doing it for the sake of educating a student. Perhaps he had some business hopes in our guanxi as well.

“Um, maybe, I’ll have to check with my parents on that,” I said, trying to punt the question.

“OK, and remember that whoever we find as the guanxi can reap the rewards of our cost savings too.”

I didn’t know how to explain that business at a U.S. multinational company like Dow Corning didn’t operate like business in China, and that bribes or kickbacks were not acceptable. Or maybe things like that did happen, just not so overtly. In any case, I didn’t say anything for a bit, then changed the subject.

Mr. Liang moved on and showed me another dark room where workers injected the coating onto the finished LEDs from the wiring stage:

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Testing

The rest of the production line was not that exciting. Mr. Liang showed me a color testing machine, as well as a multi-LED testing setup.

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Again, there was the contrast between the high tech, professional equipment and low tech, hacky, self-built rig. The testing array machine was a handmade plastic box with wires manually wired and taped into place.

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Finally, to ship these well-made LEDs, the LEDs were just thrown into big used cardboard boxes. I guess that shows Mr. Liang really had confidence in the durability of his product.

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[1] Guanxi (approximately pronounced GWAN-see) means relationship in Mandarin. A person’s guanxi denotes a special sort of social network or relationship web. For example, a person can have good guanxi with a specific person, such as a family friend. Look it up here for more info.

[2] For all you music nerds, that would be A1, two octaves below the A right below middle C. I checked with my metronome/tuner app.

[3] In all my factory visits, I have not seen a single factory where the workers were required to wear safety glasses. I’ve never been offered safety glasses either, so I always make sure to wear glasses and not contact lenses on tour days.

[4] White LED chips do not exist. To make white LEDs, blue LEDs are coated with a material that changes the color of the emitted light to white. See the Wikipedia article.

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