A few months ago we started a private PCB website so our team can get cheap PCBs from our fab in China. Someone spilled the beans, and it hit Hack a Day, Hacker News, etc. We almost shut it down, but it was too much fun to hack and refine the process. Dirty Tuesday is a weekly post about our misadventures accidentally starting a PCB service. As a design shop with Seeed Studio doing fulfillment, we’ve never been on this side of the fence and want to share the terrifying experience.
Espeed Post is a logistics company in the Huaqiangbei electronics market in Shenzhen, China. They batch up shipments from tons of small shops, eBay sellers, etc, and negotiate bulk discounts with big carriers like DHL, Fedex, and UPS. They also do Hong Kong Airmail, 112RMB ($18) per kilo gets you anywhere in the world in 1-8weeks.
We are familiar with Espeed from the return address on packages from Seeed Studio and tons of other Shenzhen businesses. It was the immediate, easy choice when we needed to ship free PCBs for giveaways, or send prototypes and materials to team members around the world. Dirty PCB orders first went via free airmail only, then later by DHL, Fedex, UPS, Russian Airmail, Singapore Post, Netherlands Post, and a dozen other options that were sucked up via the Espeed API. More on the backend another week.
We have access to both China and Hong Kong versions of all major carriers. Prices are drastically different depending on destination, and there’s no consistency. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are essentially the same city, so the logistics companies truck stuff over the border into Hong Kong.
One thing is for sure, receiving a package handled by a logistics company confuses the hell out of some customers. It’s drastically different than your friendly Boys in Brown kicking a package onto a big brown truck:
- Shipment notification goes out
- Xiao Tang drops the shipment at Espeed’s office
- Espeed batches up a bunch of orders
- Orders are transferred to an agent and you get a tracking number
- The agent drives the packages to the shipper, possibly through Hong Kong Customs and into Hong Kong
- The package is transferred to DHL, UPS, or Fedex
- At this point, several days later, you actually start to see tracking info
- 18-24hours later your package is delivered
Espeed sells this service as 3-5 business day delivery. That is transit time only. It doesn’t include drop-off day, pickup day, or weekends. Sometimes delivery is amazingly fast, sometimes the window is stretched to the limit. It is, however, cheap. ~$16 for a 0.5kg UPS package to the US.
The 3-4 day window without a tracking update terrifies some people. Here’s slight mocking of some of the reoccurring themes:
- It’s been 2 days with no updates. The order is lost. I order 100s of things from China and I always get my tracking number right away and immediate updates. Call your shipper now!
- No, you chose dirt cheap DHL via Hong Kong and some guy is schlepping it there on a truck.
- There’s no tracking update because you didn’t really ship my order. You just pretended because your board house messed up and you redid the order.
- No, we’d just tell you and say sorry.
- I paid the princely sum of $11 for express shipping and there’s still no updates after two days! It’s going to be late and I have a deadline for my (class/thesis/contest/project).
- It will get there. The carrier provides 24hour delivery, it just takes a few days for logistics to get it to the carrier.
And on and on. There are days when we swear we’ll stop doing express shipping because it’s more work for us, and seems to make some customers manic too. We’ve even had a customer try to contact our logistics companies on their own.
Quality fade sets in. This is when a service starts out very strong, but creeps towards unusable. For us it was Espeed’s tracking API. Our system asks the API for any new tracking numbers every hour, and sends an email when available. This worked great for a while, but then got really intermittent and random. Some days it’s a crap shoot – you might get a tracking number, you might not. The tech is super responsive on QQ, but the problems never seems to get fixed permanently.
Remote area delivery is drag too. Some addresses, rightfully or not, are flagged as a remote areas. Parcels are held at Espeed until we pay an extra 249RMB ($50). Yes, the address may be in the middle of a huge city and nobody else hesitates to ship there, but the Chinese/Hong Kong DHL, Fedex, or UPS database says otherwise. We don’t control it, Espeed doesn’t control it, there’s absolutely nothing we can do. Espeed has an API to search by zipcode before taking the order, but it flags every postcode in the world as remote area and has yet to be fixed. Our current approach is to refund the shipping and send it Hong Kong Airmail. This is an area we absolutely must improve.
China has a ton of holidays. Long ones. Especially notorious is the National Day holiday. It’s ten days over the first week of October. That is exactly when the rest of the world is trying to get the latest hotness on store shelves for holiday shopping. Planes are full, trucks are full, customs has a huge backlog, then everyone just takes off for a week. Anyone doing business in China plans for this. We see more regular visitors, here to personally see things ship, than at any other time of year. Despite a giant red warning on the order page, we received 10+ emails asking why orders were not being processed. Probably the best thing to do, which Seeed has done in the past, is to not take orders at all during this period.
Then came the Chinese Shipping Apocalypse. The new President of China is moving swiftly to crack down on government corruption. Thousands of local, provincial, and national Chinese Governors have been fired or arrested for all manners of crime and corruption. In the midst of the holiday shipping glut, at the busiest land crossing between China and Hong Kong, officials found a van full of crystal methamphetamine and 2 tons of fake currency. 500 customs officials were fired for corruption, and now every package leaving China is inspected individually. Shipping times exploded from 3-5 days to 7-9 days or more. We had 10 orders, all on the same truck to Hong Kong, get stuck in customs for more than 10 days. Lots and lots of anxious and angry customers, absolutely nothing we could do. Several logistics companies and our DHL contacts all confirmed that this is a nation wide problem, not just something effecting Espeed. In response we extended our delivery time estimate, though things seem to be calming down a bit now with the holiday over.
By dealing directly with DHL, rather than a logistics company, next-day and even same-day shipping are available. A DHL rep claims that we also get priority clearance through customs. It’s not nearly as cheap, something that’s passed on to customers, and we’ll have to write a new module to interact with their API. It’s also not easy. In the US and Europe you can signup for an account online. In China two suit clad reps visit several times and there’s an extensive application form and contract. Even then, it takes 10 days or longer to find out if the application is approved and there’s no guarantee. We’re currently waiting on approval, and hope to dump Espeed for express services and jump to faster, more reliable services straight from DHL.
We love being a design shop. We like to make things, and we let Seeed Studio do an amazing job handling the manufacturing and fulfillment part. This is our first taste of what it’s like to put things in boxes and deal with customer orders directly. DirtyPCBs was a unique chance to get a taste of that part of the business and hack it. It’s really gratifying to help people with projects, and the great feedback and comments keep it going. Every Tuesday we’ll share something about our experience with DirtyPCBs.