DIRTY TUESDAY: Chinese Shipping Apocalypse


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:

  1. Shipment notification goes out
  2. Xiao Tang drops the shipment at Espeed’s office
  3. Espeed batches up a bunch of orders
  4. Orders are transferred to an agent and you get a tracking number
  5. The agent drives the packages to the shipper, possibly through Hong Kong Customs and into Hong Kong
  6. The package is transferred to DHL, UPS, or Fedex
  7. At this point, several days later, you actually start to see tracking info
  8. 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.





Join the Conversation


  1. Great read. I’ve never had a problem with DirtyPCBs, and I’m realistic on how long it takes for parcels to hit the UK when you’re paying very little for both the product and postage.

    Keep it going, it’s a winner.

  2. Classic hustle-bustle Hong Kong / Shenzhen capitalism. Business at a fever pitch… *Holds a pint up to the great guys at DP* Amazing time to be alive!

  3. I’ve made a couple purchase through DirtyPCBs and I love it! Done both the standard shipping and the 11 day mad rush so I could put together a 3 axis talking skull mounted on a cauldron creeps body in time for Halloween. Sad to see all the trouble it can cause you guys, it’s an excellent service and I hope everything goes smooth in the future…. Solution: Why can’t we just celebrate the long Chinese hollidays?

  4. At work we’re waiting on an order expected yesterday. The shipping guy here says they’re on holiday or something, sounds like it might take even longer than his estimate.

    Neat info! I don’t think I would’ve heard it anywhere else.

    1. Thats me :) Your order came at the beginning of the holiday. We expedited it for free to 24 hour processing (as we did with all rush orders made during the holiday), the courier has not showed up yet today though. Usually he is same day, but sometimes he is next day from the factory depending on load. We are getting everything out ASAP though. As I said in the post, I feel really bad for people disappointed about orders and didn’t realize there would be a delay. In the future we will just shut it down instead of putting a notice up.

      Good news is we just got a batch of tracking numbers for yesterdays shipment, so things are going MUCH better than two weeks ago.

      1. Err, we didn’t order something from here from work, sorry for confusion. It’s a Digikey order. Actually, do they go through the same place/people?

  5. When you get those “I didn’t read the webpage I ordered from but expect you to JUMP for the $0.18 you make off of my order!” messages, you should post them up somewhere for public mockery^H^H^H^H crowd-based support.

  6. Sorry to hear you’re having problems with some unrealistic customers. I hope you’re able to keep the service up :)

    Have to agree with Dave on this one – the best solution seems to be celebrating the long holidays with China.

    (Awaiting order that was just shipped via HKAM, not going to expect 1 week delivery, still likely to be happy with boards :P )

  7. Thanks for this update, Ian. I have some Dirty PCBs on order (shipped 9/21) and some eBay stuff that I ordered (also around 9/21) and haven’t gotten any of it yet. I’m happy to hear it’s only the result of a few circumstances hitting at once: holidays and CSA (Chinese Shipping Apocolypse). The goods will get here when they get here.

  8. Thanks for that write up, it was very insightful.

    I too lost some sleep over express tracking despite being aware of how the logistics company handles the express packages.

    The fact that the tracking number did not work at all kept it suspenseful until delivery.

    It all worked out in the end: I’m quite happy with the boards quality.

  9. Insightful post.
    On dirtypcbs.com, you say you’re going to stop using a Logistics company and use DHL directly. Is that a permanent switch? If so, that would mean that shipping would be exclusively via DHL and nothing else?

  10. Thanks for posting this, really useful insight. I always wondered how an ebay parts vendor could ship from China for $3 or less, yet it cost me minimum $15 ship anything to a relative in Europe. Now I know.

  11. All packages are NOT inspected individually, none of my packages get inspected.

    This was a clampdown on misrepresented goods and covers ALIBABA and TOUBAU as well.
    The problem is, many of these so called ‘shipping companies’ are operating illegally , like many of the so called ‘businesses’ in China.

    Many of these companies are engaged in smuggling, so they use ‘suckers’ by offering really cheap shipping prices then load all the consignments into a 20/40 foot container hoping the customs guys will not bother to inspect, or they drive through customs in their private cars and hope they don’t get caught.
    every so often there is a clamp down.

    The really ‘cool’ thing is that EVERY package in the illegal shipment has the delivery names and addresses recorded, that way they know who to look out for.

    1. We called the logistics company and screamed at them, Xiao Dou “Little Bean” sent a bunch of links to news reports saying that currently every vehicle is scanned with the passive RF thing and every parcel checked. Our DHL rep said this at our last meeting as well. I’m certainly not there to verify it first hand, but everybody I’ve talked to seems to think this is happening. Could be salesman crap of course.

  12. Excellent Ian. I now understand why there are more and more parcels from SG or mainland china and why it’s getting worse but still getting there at the end.

    One more thing to do before you quit on this. Pack a gps/accelerometer/logger/… and ship it somwhere, one every day 365, and this could get to the monitoring page: “today the test chipment #3 is … stuck there’.

  13. What excellent details and explanation! great feedbacks altogether, A++

    I was really hoping my [free] item would show up within a few hours after being ordered. The DP drone system might need a few minor adjustments before that quickness is remotely possible.

    1. I’m not an expert or anything. Besides the obvious being good for the sake of being good, I think they want to look good on the international stage, but also people are quite unhappy about (especially) local corruption and graft that effects everyday life in smaller cities. I’ve never seen it personally, Shenzhen feels like a european city, though I’m obviously clueless as some bad stuff was going on a few minutes from here and it always looked honest to me.

  14. It’s so damn true about how logistics works in China, I’ve been here for around 5 years, and lived exactly in Shenzhen for 3 years, and is amazing how cheap you can ship from China through all the major companies such as fed-ex, dhl, ups and more for the fraction of the price but the catch is it will take around 1-2 days before the tracking shows up, but I ship via aliexpress so I probably getting even better deals with shipping.

  15. I’ve been waiting for a lost PCB delivery for a month now (not dirtyPCB though!). I usually get them delivered via the Post Office and have had zero problems.

    This time for some reason, it went via DHL. I hate DHL and all the other parasite Couriers with a vengeance!

    In my country we have an excellent Post Office who do a great job. They have outlets in even the smallest county towns with Post Boxes for those who live out of town.. DHL etc don’t even have a depot in my town. Their business model is to cherry-pick all the high profit areas and sod the rest.

    So your parcel floats around in the back of some contract courier until it becomes “lost”. I’m sure they throw them away on purpose. Three times now I’ve had school kids bring me my parcels which they found lying on the side of the road.

    So bottom line for me is, I refuse to do business with companies which don’t use the normal Post Office for deliveries.

    1. DHL, Fedex, UPS all operate from China. If you have serious stuff, get Emirates, Finnair, etc to airfreight it directly.

  16. Thank you very much Ian for explaining shipping issues with China.

    In urgent cases I use dirtypcb’s recommendation with DHL China, which worked great so far, but on most orders via Aliexpress for example you only see DHL Express, so my last order on parts from a Shenzhen company offering DHL Express. It nearly took a week tracking number appeared on the order. Than again it had the status “Information received” nearly a week.

    On dirtypcb’s you have clear information on what to choose and what to expect, but the rest just don’t care.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.