Anyone who likes playing with electronics knows about buying stuff from China. But how good is the stuff?
Based on my experience, I would answer “good enough”. During the past year, I have bought more than 100 electronic or electro-mechanical parts and modules from China directly. And without any serious complaints or problems. Except for the 3D printer, each of these were priced in the range of $2 to $20 including shipping.
I have found that the best deals were usually manufactured modules, such as the three shown above. On the left is a TFT Touch Screen, like you would find in your mobile phone. In the middle is a complete radio signal generator (DDS synthesizer) which can be computer controlled using an Arduino. On the right is a complete Wi-Fi system on a chip, which can be used for remote sensing and control. Total cost for all three adds to US$20. And hours of fun playing with them.
All of the stuff from China that I have ordered has been delivered and was exactly as specified. All of the stuff from China has worked. At these low prices, I don’t expect or ask for any support from the vendor. Although most of them seem to do a pretty good job of providing information and specs in their advertising.
Stuff from China is globally supported
Before I place an order for a complex module, I check on the Internet to make sure of two things. First, and most important, are technical specs and application notes available? Most of these modules are either original parts or clones. I only buy modules that are well documented. Second, are other people using the stuff from China successfully? Typically I can find a blog post or a video showing actual performance and providing advice on use.
Why is this stuff from China typically so good and so cheap? Here are my somewhat informed guesses. With respect to performance, I suspect these modules fall into three categories.
- They come from the same manufacturing processes that supply original equipment manufacturers, OEM. Once you have set up your plant to make say 10,000 modules for a single customer, the cost of running off a few more for the hobby market is pretty low.
- They are clones for popular niches. For example, since Arduino and other devices are open-sourced, designing a clone is easy.
- They have been rejected for quality reasons by the OEM, but still work well enough for less demanding users. For example, there was a manufacturing mistake in the signal generator shown above (center) but they still work well enough for a ham radio tinkerer.
With respect to marketing, the entrepreneurs selling this stuff from China have really cheap access to a global marketing and distribution platform: ebay, or other similar venues. These make everything easy for buyer and seller, and are trusted.
Finally, since most of these modules are quite small, shipping is easily and cheaply done by postal service. I don’t know the details, but I suspect that the international postal agreements allow Chinese exporters very low postage rates into Canada and elsewhere. To date, I have not paid anything extra for shipping on my stuff from China. Delivery is typically 3-6 weeks, and that’s a good trade-off if you are not in a hurry.
This type of manufacturing has grown tremendously in China over the past ten years. It has been part of a national strategy. Here in the west, we might say that this stuff from China is “subsidized”. There in the east, the Chinese government would probably say it is “encouraged”.
How big are these firms that export this stuff from China? I suspect some are pretty small, possibly just a single person acting as a sort of broker. But good for them.