Beijing: The controller shop

Our first stop was to Lan’s place, the engineer who makes the controllers, and is at least partially responsible for their design. My business task was to assure that the physical layout constraints of the controller and the connector details were understood. And of course I wanted to make a little human contact with this person whose work is critical to my company’s success. I accepted his customary offer of tea and we got to work at his bench.

assembly/test benchHe had a single prototype closely matching my specification on hand, almost finished. I was relieved to see it, because the night before Kenny had indicated to me in the hotel lobby that he had used an out-of-date, draft sketch of mine from November as a reference, instead of the substantially different, definitive specification I had sent in January, that he had acknowledged and that we had subsequently discussed in some detail. Baffled, I indicated to him then that I really did require the later specification (at least in its feature set if not every detail of its execution; after all, perhaps there were reasonable obstacles that had been too difficult for him to communicate). Anyway, this is one reason I could sleep only four hours in spite of my extreme fatigue: I was dreading some kind of angry confrontation if I would arrive to discover a whole run of wrongly-made controllers. I am extremely conflict-averse, but everybody has limits.

I suspect a wee-hours phone call from Kenny had roused Lan from his bed to make a prototype matching the spec. While it annoyed me to consider an unnecessary disconnect costing somebody some sleep, I realized immediately that my trip to China had already paid off, as it would have cost me more trouble and money to make do with the incorrect controllers than to travel. I suppressed the urge to cry out “Did I really have to fly seventeen hours to check this? It’s not complicated!” and kept coolly focused on the positive: I was going to get what I was paying for, gangganghao. I will never know if there was a complete run of incorrect controllers in the next room.

I had previously sent tools and sample stock for the connections. My goal is to assure that the same raw stock and tooling is available on both sides of the Pacific for repair and modification purposes, so we reviewed the tooling and connector assembly, both of us practicing making a few and comparing results. Though I had sent at least three renditions, in photographic, schematic, and textual formats describing the proper pole orientation for the power connections, five minutes of hands-on assembly produced a constant chorus of “O, now I get it!” sounds and thumbs-ups. Yup, good thing I traveled. I took a video clip of some of the discovery. I suppose they’re saying in Mandarin “yeah, that’s what he wants, can you believe this nutcase?”

ah-hah!I showed the controller bag that I brought from Portland, and how the controller was to fit in it, so the “why” questions about the layout could answer themselves. Again, invaluable. I had my laptop with, and showed photos and video clips (the same you’ve seen on this site) of the product installed and in action. Lan had never seen these, which bothered me a bit. He seemed fascinated and bemused by the driven-pedals feature, turning his arms in a pedaling motion and chuckling, but also impressed at the speed and climbing capabilities shown. He even began to propose some application-specific controller improvements to Kenny, which in my opinion is the kind of thing that can and should happen all along any production process when the people involved understand the context of their work. The ideas that emerged right there seemed dubious to me, but I expect that Lan will sleep on these impressions and some breakthrough may emerge effortlessly, just from having seen the whole picture. I feel strongly that the ability to participate imaginatively in the real effects of one’s work is a more important part of good labor conditions than, say, clean toilets, even if it doesn’t change the work itself.

Kenny apologized for the lack of labels on the case, and for the unblackened aluminum end panels. I asked him to leave off the labels per my spec (the fonts and process look too crude), and told him I thought the raw aluminum look was better. “But how you know the function of switch without label?” “Well, the power would be the two-pole one that causes the power light to come on and off, and the motor mode switch would be the other, three-pole one.” “Oh…” “And when you scratch blackened aluminum, it shows silver, but when you scratch plain, it looks the same. So blackening only makes things look bad faster.” He seemed to like this strange “less is more” reasoning.

geese and chickenselectric bike, coal Lan’s bed is in the same room as his workbench; this is his home. Lan is a member of Kenny’s wife’s family. All the principals and many of the 35 or so workers involved in the production of the motors and controllers are part of Kenny’s extended family, and except for a few subcomponents sourced elsewhere, the work occurs in shops integral to their courtyard homes. Kenny is from Hong Kong. His wife is from Beijing. He moved to Beijing rather than she to Hong Kong because his wife’s extended family around Beijing are the guanshi (connections) he needs to operate his business. That’s how it works.

Lan’s home/shop is of newer, solid, tidy construction, but the restroom is a closet with two buckets in it; it smelled better than many a porta-potty. There are chickens and geese in the passageway between his and the next building, and a rabbit hutch. His dusty electric bike is parked against a pile of heating coal.

I thanked Lan and gave him a picture book of Portland, and he rushed to reciprocate with two foil packs of tea as we drove away to the motor factory some 40 Km distant. We took the newly assembled reference controller with us to assure proper mating with the motor portrait

  1. Arrival
  2. Gay shepherds
  3. The controller shop
  4. The motor shop
  5. Kites and jets
  6. Hutong
  7. Zombies, animatrons, and the UNICEF guard
  8. Tiananmen Square demonstration
  9. Getting lost and getting home

6 thoughts on “Beijing: The controller shop”

  • Bartosz


    I have to tell you, I’m reading al this with my eyes wide open. Like it was some sort of criminal novel. Cant’t wait to see more of your adventures in China!
    IMO it was a truly great idea that you did go there to see with your own eyes the people, the place and the process. Just like T.Peters is saying- 5K miles trip for 5 minute meeting is worth the hassle.

    And BTW, do you know if there are any stokemonkey’ed bicycles in Poland?


  • Bill Manewal

    Thanks for posting the details of Todd’s Big Adventure. Interesting reading.

    Question: In the first picture, what is the device at the back of the workbench next to the windows? At first I thought it might be a lathe, but after blowing it up, I see there is a hub motor on the left side, an AC motor mounted on top, and a 2″ wide belt going down through the workbench. Dyno? The missing WMD?

  • Todd

    A dyno, Bill. He had an older generation 408 motor hooked up. 35Nm torque at 20A. Bartosz: no Stokemonkifications in Europe yet, but there’s one going to England soon.

  • RoySV

    Thanks for really fascinating story. I will be checking your blog for more! Now I know (sort of) who the mysterious "Kenny" really is.

    Myself, I run a Crystalite #408 front wheel in a tandem at 48v and I use this bike both as my primary vehicle and to transport children (they don't need to pedal!) Kind of a poor-mans strokemonkey.

    Best of luck on your enterprise with strokemonkey.

    Roy in Santa Clara

  • [...] most as unreliable. The process has led to a complete redesign of Stokemonkey’s controller by the manufacturer to fix this problem decisively, and to incorporate several other improvements. Meanwhile, we have [...]

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