Building an iPhone from Scratch in Shenzhen: Interview with Scotty Allen
AAC met with Scotty Allen, who built a 16GB iPhone 6S from scratch in Shenzhen, China, to discuss his process and his views on the future of Shenzhen as a manufacturing hub.
Shenzhen has been a hardware manufacturing hub for decades. As more and more people flock to Shenzhen with plans to prototype and produce the next big thing, how accessible is the marketplace? Scotty Allen, the creator of Strange Parts, headed there to see if he could build a 16GB iPhone 6S from the ground up (spoiler alert: he totally did it).
Founder of AppMonsta, Scotty Allen, was formerly a software engineer for Google who left Silicon Valley to pursue another goal: building electronics from scratch in a variety of locations around the world. The idea to build an iPhone came when he heard mention of all the phone parts available in the cell phone repair markets in Shenzhen.
After about two months and $1,000 in parts (about $300 of which ended up in the finished product), Allen had a working iPhone 6S. The cell phone repair markets in Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen, China provided everything he needed, both the phone parts and experts who could help him with everything from laser cutting to screen repair.
Scotty Allen, software engineer and iPhone building extraordinaire. Image courtesy of Strangeparts.com.
AAC recently met with Scotty to discuss his experiences in Shenzhen and to get his take on the larger Shenzhen manufacturing ecosystem.
All About Circuits: You came from Silicon Valley. Saying that Silicon Valley has a different “feel” than Shenzhen is probably an understatement. Can you tell us about the major differences you witnessed between these two tech centers?
Scotty Allen: The first big difference is what people focus on. In Silicon Valley, there’s a huge focus on coming up with the next new thing. There’s emphasis on new ideas, new markets, and new products. In Shenzhen, the general focus is much more on efficiency and manufacturing. That focus comes out of Shenzhen being a manufacturing center for decades. There’s already a lot of innovation happening in Shenzhen but it doesn’t look the same as the innovation in Silicon Valley. Shenzhen innovation centers on making something cheaper, more efficiently, at better quality. That’s rapidly changing. Shenzhen is really embracing this idea of producing new things and coming up with new ideas and business models.
An example would be Mobike. Mobike is rapidly changing Shenzhen, and I’ve heard that it’s rolling out in Silicon Valley as well. It’s huge in Shenzhen and they’ve done a great hardware/software mashup which breaks the mold of only focusing on production volume.
Image courtesy of Mobike.
I’d say the next big difference I’ve noticed is that when people are building hardware in Silicon Valley they do it really differently than how they build hardware in Shenzhen particularly at the startup level. In Silicon Valley, if you have an idea, the assumption is that you’re going to use what you have available to make everything yourself. In China, it’s much more of a network of people. It’s all about who you know and who has the right machines to help you with your prototype. There is not a lot of vertical integration where one company can do the entire project soup to nuts.
The other thing is that the availability in Shenzhen is phenomenal. I can walk to the markets 10 or 15 minutes from where I’m staying and find a lot of the parts I need. Anything rare that I can’t find myself can be delivered to me within a day. In the States, for hobbyist level stuff it takes closer to weeks and it is many times the price. The effect is that not only do people do prototypes at a much more professional level, but once they’re done; they’re much closer to final production since they’ve already been designed for manufacturing. In the States, a lot of products people use such as 3D printers and laser cutters are not suitable for high run production. They’re great for someone who wants to do everything themselves and produce a prototype and be able to iterate quickly, but they’re not great for them to make that step to manufacturing.
AAC: What’s your take on the place of open-source hardware in Silicon Valley/US markets?
SA: I think it’s great and more people should do it. There’s a significant benefit for everybody involved. I think that generally for the companies that embrace it, such as Dangerous Prototypes in Shenzhen, open-sourcing has really made the company. It is because they embraced it that they are what they are today.
AAC: You mention on your site that many of these components available in Shenzhen are from recycled/discarded tech and that much of those component markets are geared towards repair. What’s your opinion on the Right to Repair movement?
SA: People should be able to repair the stuff that they own. If I buy a phone, I should be able to repair it no questions asked. That should be legal. In addition, I think that it's good to be able to have access to the tools, parts, and information you need to repair your stuff. It shouldn’t be a proprietary, hidden away thing. The state of repairing phones here in China is way, way higher than it is in the US and that should come to the US. The level of repair that I have seen people do to phones is phenomenal. They’ve saved phones that in the US would be considered trash and they do it in a way that still makes money. I’m a huge fan of Right to Repair. It’s obviously a discussion right now in the broader ecosystem. I don’t really understand the argument against Right to Repair. It seems so obvious to me.
AAC: Has Shenzhen changed your opinion on the issue of counterfeit tech?
SA: I haven’t seen a lot of counterfeit technology here. What I’ve done with the iPhone is refurbish it. It’s no different from buying an old car and going to the junkyard to buy parts to fix it up. The fundamental component of what I built was the logic board, and Apple made the one I used for sure. It came out of a real phone. It was repaired and when I got it, it was working for the most part. As you can see in the video I had to get one thing repaired, which was no problem because the part was under guarantee.
The four main parts for a working iPhone showing the inside of the case. Image courtesy of Strangeparts.com.
AAC: Speed is so crucial when it comes to getting an idea to market. Did you come across many international engineers looking to source parts for their products/startups so they could get their idea out quickly?
SA: I meet a lot of Westerners all the time who are coming here to build prototypes and trying to get their products manufactured. Shenzhen is a very common place to come and do that—probably the most common place.
AAC: Have you read bunnie Huang's book The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen? What are your own tips for designers coming to Shenzhen for rapid prototyping?
SA: Yes, I've read it. bunnie’s book is great, and he’s obviously one of the foremost speakers on Shenzhen in the Western world. He gave me some advice about my video and I definitely look up to him and am very indebted to him for his help.
My tips might be duplicates since it’s been awhile since I’ve read the book but here they are:
My biggest tip for people coming to Shenzhen is to be prepared to dive in with both feet. This is not a situation where you can show up with a design, throw it over the wall, and expect to get back a perfect production run or a perfect prototype.
Doing business in China is all about relationships and part of the relationship is doing the work. So expect to go to factories to get your hands dirty, to talk with the engineers and the workers, and to help when there are problems. Also, expect that things will go wrong. Manufacturing is hard. It won't always go right. But if you approach it from the perspective of a partnership, that you're working together as a team with the factory, you can get really high results. You're going to need to put in the hours.
AAC: Shenzhen’s often hailed as the “hardware capital of the world”. What’s your take on how Shenzhen handles software and firmware and will it evolve or stay a manufacturing hub?
SA: I’ve been telling people that Silicon Valley in San Francisco is no longer Silicon Valley. It’s really Software Valley and Shenzhen is the new Silicon Valley in terms of hardware production. Even if some things are still getting designed in San Francisco still, it’s all being manufactured here in Shenzhen for the most part. Or, if it’s not getting manufactured here, there are still parts coming out of Shenzhen.
I think China has a reputation for producing software of poor quality. I am seeing that change rapidly. It still does happen that you have hardware manufacturers trying to produce firmware or software, which really isn’t their specialty so it ends up being low quality. However, the reality is that this happens for US hardware manufacturers too.
There are some great examples that show China is producing some beautiful software. Again, Mobike is a current example. I’m blown away by the quality of their iPhone app. It’s beautifully designed, has a great user interface, and it’s beautifully translated. I think that there’s a lot to expect in terms of improvements in software quality over the next few years. Like everything else, you’ll still see a wide spectrum, but I think the bar is going up significantly in terms of improvements in software, particularly in Chinese startups.
I should say that all the big players, such as WeChat and Bijou, have excellent software. Some of it is catered to the Chinese market, which means it’s hard to use from a Westerner’s perspective, but the quality is quite high and the capabilities are phenomenal.
Shenzhen is growing rapidly. It was one of the fastest growing cities in 2016. It has an energy of growth—the same energy I felt when I first came to Silicon Valley 10 years ago. To some extent, the energy is still there in Silicon Valley, and it’s a very intoxicating vibe of "go go go go". I don’t think Shenzhen will continue as just a manufacturing hub. I think it’s going to grow into a pretty formidable city, but it’s hard to say what form it will take for sure.
I’ve been telling people that Silicon Valley in San Francisco is no longer Silicon Valley. It’s really Software Valley and Shenzhen is the new Silicon Valley in terms of hardware production.
AAC: You clearly learned a lot about hardware during this adventure. What are your biggest takeaways?
SA: My biggest takeaway during the phone adventure in particular is that this isn’t just about phones. Also, the technology in phones is way more accessible than I ever thought as a software person. I always thought of my iPhone as a blackbox that was inaccessible, and that I wouldn’t be capable of opening it up and doing anything with it. I learned that it’s not much different form opening a desktop computer. It’s just a lot smaller and so you have to be a bit more careful. But there’s no “black magic” going on in there.
AAC: Have you developed any strong feelings about surface-mount components and the skill it takes to work with them by hand?
SA: In terms of service mount components and the level of skill it takes to do it, I have a deep respect for the amount of practice that it takes and the steady hands necessary to do the kind of rework people do.
That being said, I think I’ve had enough of a taste for it that it doesn’t feel impossible, it just feels like a skill that you need to learn and, again, it’s not black magic. It’s something that I want to do more of soon. It’s something I’ve spent a couple of weeks on during this last project and I didn’t end up including a lot of the footage from it because I didn’t feel like I had finished the story there, but it’s something I really want to come back to.
AAC: Can you share some of your ideas for future projects? (Are you going to go round two with the logic board?)
SA: I am ready to go round two with the logic board! I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but I definitely want to do that. I have more videos coming up and I want to build more stuff. The goal is to do things at the intersection of adventure travel and technology, and I think this first video checks those boxes. It’s not going to be just phones. In fact, it probably isn’t going to be just electronics and it definitely won’t just be in China. I would love for people to subscribe to my YouTube channel Strange Parts and stay tuned!
Not to rain on this parade too much, but the title is a bit clickbaitish: he “totally didn’t do it”. He did something altogether different, and arguably more inspiring (and certainly more interesting to watch than someone like me assembling a panel of fine pitch SMT parts).