The inside scoop on visiting factories in China
As a product design engineer, nothing beats a factory visit to gain confidence in their manufacturing process and vendor quality. Visiting is highly recommended, and once there, problems can be identified and fixed in hours instead of days. However, these vendors are often deep in China, and getting there can be quite an adventure. Having spent months of my life traveling to factories in Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the surrounding areas, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that may help you on your journey.
First things first, check that your visa and your shots are all up to date! Also, make sure it’s a safe time to travel, politically and biologically. The U.S Bureau of Consular Affairs is a good resource. I typically fly to Hong Kong International Airport, located on the island of Chek Lap Kok. If you or your company can afford it, fly premium economy or business class. You’ll be on the plane for around 18 hours, so you might as well be comfortable.
Once you arrive, take a taxi to the Futian border with Shenzhen. Budget about an hour for transit. Some folks have flown into Shenzhen or Guangzhou directly, but I haven’t done that.
Next, cross the border into Shenzhen. Budget about an hour to be safe, but it usually takes less.
I recommend having a company car pick you up at the border and not try to deal with taxis in China. Then, when you arrive, find your company car and get driven to the factory. Note: Be sure to not get in the wrong car! I did that once and had to be picked up off a six-lane highway at 7 a.m. around 2 hours in the opposite direction from my factory. I was still wearing pajama pants at the time.
How long to stay
Your length of stay largely depends on travel, but you’ll want to stay a minimum of three days, probably more. I tend to go for at least one full working week and sometimes two weeks. The weekends are free time. Depending on how close to Shenzhen/Hong Kong we were, I would go out there for the weekend and find a cheap hotel. Lots of fun times!
Typical schedule: Day 1
- Arrive early/mid afternoon, go to the hotel, shower, and change.
- Meet the general manager or team leads and tour the factory.
- Go to the production line and review the process.
- Inspect units and take notes.
- Eat lunch.
- Head back to the factory floor to supervise.
- Head to dinner with the team.
- Be back at the hotel by around 8 or 9 p.m.
Typical schedule: Day 2+
- Wake up at 7 a.m. Eat breakfast at the hotel. Note: I had about a solid two weeks where I was just eating soup with meatballs in it for breakfast for some reason. These trips tend to break your brain a bit.
- Hop in the company car to the factory around 8 a.m. Note: In some areas, the traffic patterns are chaotic. It’s fun to just go along for the ride and trust the process.
- Get to the factory and do another factory floor walkthrough.
- Observe any changes they made overnight from your requests the day before.
- Eat lunch.
- Wait around a lot.
- Go back to the factory floor.
- Wait around a lot.
- Go to dinner.
The farther from Shenzhen or other major cities you go, the less cuisines you’ll find. However, I’ve found amazing Indian and Turkish food near some factories. During my travels, I’ve had fish skin, cow heart, chicken feet, pig knuckle, gizzards, you name it! I avoided dog/cat, and thankfully, it wasn’t offered much.
Breakfast at the hotels tends to be “continental” and varies with the quality of the place. Most are really good, and it’s usually the only time you’re really in full control of what you’re eating.
Lunch is usually a menu from a local restaurant. Use Google Translate but beware that sometimes the translations are garbage. “Quicksand Table Tennis” was once one. I once ordered fried chicken, thinking it would be like KFC, but it was the entire chicken with the head still on. Just fried. And I had a spoon and chopsticks. I was alone and had one napkin. That was a wild meal.
Food allergies and dietary preferences aren’t really a thing out there. I once had a McDonald’s burger with a surprise shrimp inside. My boss was vegetarian, but they just took that to mean more vegetables with the meat. I would eat the meat off his dish for him.
Other food tips:
- Szechuan = spicy, numbing and sizzling
- Cantonese seems to be more veggie and fish-focused.
- Durian and stinky tofu are local delicacies, but they smell a lot. I didn’t like them.
- “Gambei” = “Cheers”
- There’s always lots of beer or rice wine with dinner.
What to do at night
I’d usually get back to the hotel around 8 or 9 p.m. and grab beer and eat peanuts at the bar. Some places had a walkable downtown area to explore, but there’s not much to do aside from finding a dinner spot or shopping mall to explore. Back at the hotel room, it’s time to rest up and email summaries of your day.
How to behave
Many of these factories are very used to visitors and put up with your quirks and weirdness. Prepare to be stared at a lot. I tend to walk with my hands behind my back at the factory just because I don’t want to get in the way. Be sure to always ask before taking pictures of things.
Bear in mind that if you focus on a defect or issue on the line, prepare to have a bunch of people swarm over to see what the issue is, along with some intense conversations. Usually the issue is resolved the next day. It’s incredible. But it also means that anything you focus on might cause unwanted attention.
Outside of the factory, be prepared to be one of the few foreigners if you’re far from Shenzhen. Behave yourself! Drinking alcohol is common at dinner, and you’ll probably have beer/shots sent your way from the factory team. Feel free to indulge yourself but not too much. I’ve seen that happen and have done it myself. I once witnessed my colleague drink beer through a fish head after a few too many drinks.
Google Translate works really well for most instances. Download it and make sure the Chinese translation pack works offline.I once used it to negotiate out of having to have prostitutes join us at a karaoke bar. Apparently “princesses are necessary.”
Get a good travel adapter or two, a rechargeable battery pack, and a VPN subscription, if possible. I use Google FI, and it works well for my phone in China. You may need a SIM card.
Download offline modes of Google Translate and assume your Internet access will be spotty. Offline books, movies, and music will prevent you from getting bored.
If you’re there long enough, browse Taoabo, buy silly stuff, and get it delivered to the hotel. And if you have the opportunity to go to a Xiaomi store, do it! It’s amazing. Finally, if you have time, go to Shenzhen and walk around the electronics malls. You can get anything you’ll ever need there!
In general, try to enjoy the chaos of being somewhere so different and out of your control, if you can. Go with the flow. Embrace the cultural differences. For instance, yelling seems to be our talking. Everyone yells, but it doesn’t mean that they’re angry! Bear in mind you’ll likely get laughed at (but in a good way) if you try speaking Chinese. Pro tip: “hao” means “good” and “N G” means “bad.”
At the factory, workers tend to be kids in their teens. It’s a weird dynamic. They’re making more money at the factory than in their hometown, and they tend to do this for a few years, then go home. There’s a ton of labor churn for that reason. Most employees stay at dorms on campus and eat in the meal halls. You also may notice that it’s common for factory workers to have a long fingernail to make removing stickers easier. It’s strange at first but super smart!
Remember to take photos where allowed to remember this journey. It’s really incredible to get a peek behind the curtain on how things are made.
Last but not least, I guarantee that the factory tables will have a green mat on top of them. I’m not sure why, but it’s at every place. Tell me if I’m wrong.
And don’t forget to buy a funny hat or shirt with a poorly translated English phrase on it. They’re great mementos.
I hope sharing my experiences helps make yours a bit smoother!
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