It started as a hobby, something they did in between classes and assignments at university. But by the time Sun Zebo and Hu Jiaqi graduated in 2012, it had become an obsession. While their classmates got busy looking for jobs that would set them on conventional career paths, the two friends focused on a slightly different pursuit – building the perfect little robot.
"We wanted to design something useful and affordable and cool," says Hu. "We didn't want to do anything else."
The result is Ai.Frame, a low-cost humanoid robot with a range of more than 300 movements, and a motion sensor that helps it avoid obstacles. It's also fully customizable, with parts that are easy to replace. Hu and Sun recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, hoping to raise a modest $5000, which will help them produce their first batch of robots and continue their research.
"These two could have found work at some big technology companies," says David Li, founder of China's first hackerspace, Xinchejian, where Sun and Hu are members. "They chose to be inventors instead."
They aren't alone. China might be better known for cheap labor and shoddy knock-offs, but in recent years, a grassroots movement in innovation has started to evolve. Where high-tech research and development was once seen as something only large companies could afford, more and more individuals like Sun and Hu are going it on their own.
Li founded Xinchejian after discovering open-source hardware a few years back. He soon turned his kitchen into a mini-workshop, accumulating piles of gadgets and electronic gear in the process. And then his wife decided she'd had enough.
"I thought the best thing to do would be to start up a hackerspace and invite people to join me." Li recalls.
It was a novel idea for a country like China. Hackerspaces – key to a booming DIY, or 'maker-movement' that had taken root in countries like the United States – were non-existent in 2010. But the concept's quickly taken off. Xinchejian now boasts some 200 active members at any given month, working on a diverse range of projects, from robots to hydroponics.
"There are people here who are passionate about the maker culture and innovation," says Dr Silvia Lindtner from the University of California, Irvine and Fudan University in Shanghai. "There is an open hardware scene in China tapped into the global maker movement, and it is growing.
Hu and Sun say they've benefitted from the networking opportunities that come with being part of the movement. Workshops and informal get-togethers allow them to exchange ideas with like-minded individuals, and think up new ways of getting their invention to a larger audience.
"There are a lot of these young, passionate teams in China," says Li, "but there are language barriers, international trade barriers. They need partnerships to help smooth these out."
Copycats and innovators
Help is also coming from an unexpected quarter – shanzhai companies. The word is commonly used as a pejorative to describe copycat manufacturers in China's Guangdong province. But Li says these production centers are now proving a boon for the maker movement. Tie-ups with such manufacturers offer opportunities for inventors to turn their prototypes into mass produced items. This in turn, stimulates innovation at shanzhai firms.
"In recent years, China has become an essential enabler in the global maker movement," says Lindtner. "That's because many factories in Shenzhen have long adopted a system of open-source sharing in order to lower production costs. "
Still, collaboration with a shanzhai firm might seem daunting for most makers. Few, after all, have experience navigating the cutthroat world of Chinese manufacturing.
This is where facilitators like Shenzhen-based Seeed Studio come in. The company aims to combine the potential of open-source hardware with opportunities offered by Guangdong's electronics supply chain. Makers looking to produce prototypes of their designs and small batches of samples can turn to Seeed for help. The company also hosts an active community on its site, where proposals are pitched and projects with the most support are manufactured and made available for sale.
To the outsider, it might all seem a little ironic: China's copycat factories have traditionally been derided as uncreative parasites. But the ability to duplicate products cheaply means shanzhai manufacturers are now helping spur innovation in the country and beyond.
For Sun and Hu though, it all makes sense - copying is part of the open-source ethos so celebrated in their community. Whether or not their project gets fully funded, they're planning to release all their project files online.
"We are not worried about copycats," says Sun. "Copycats just affirm we have a good product. Anyone is welcome to make it even better."
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