Imagine for a moment that the entirety of New York City emptied out every Christmas. Close to 9 million people live in New York. Now ponder the global impact of that shutdown, in one of America’s largest economic hubs, every holiday season. What if it happened for three weeks every year?
That is exactly what happens in China for the Lunar New Year, also called Spring Festival. From late January through the end of February, millions of workers leave the cities where they work and head home to visit their families. It is often their only vacation of the year. The tradition turns factory-fueled cities into ghost towns—like Shenzhen, where most of its 12 million people depart for their hometowns. China’s National Development and Reform Commission estimates that 2.9 billion trips will be made by car, train, boat, and plane during the 40-day travel window for Spring Festival this year.
This is not the holiday travel season we know in America. It’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s on steroids.
With such close trade relationships and a solid reliance on the Chinese workforce, American manufacturers—particularly consumer-electronics makers—find themselves in the middle of a production calendar with a potentially significant gap every year.
“If you think about consumer electronics, even your traditional doll is now a consumer electronic to some degree,” says Dan Myers, CEO of Flair. “And that means you work with China because that is where your supply chain is.”
Myers and Flair CTO Kenny Tay found themselves smack dab in the middle of the Lunar New Year production cycle this past January as they were manufacturing prototypes for the Flair-integrated heating and cooling systems. Designed in Autodesk Fusion 360, Flair takes smart home systems and extends those capabilities to individual room thermostats and vents.
The bottleneck begins in mid-January, as companies inundate Chinese manufacturers, hoping to complete projects before the factories close. With the holiday fast approaching, Myers and Tay took a step back and reassessed their timeline and priorities instead of rushing through their production process with their Chinese partners in Shenzhen.
“If it were anywhere else in the world, it would be a substantial immigration event,” Myers says. “But here, [Lunar New Year is] an annual ritual. People warned us there would be a bunch of time where you can’t rely on external services like metal stamping or laser cutting. The city is empty, but other work can still get done.”’
Myers and Tay hacked a solution to keep their prototype on track and prevent a significant delay in production of a key circuit board: They set aside sizing until after the Lunar New Year. Then, they opted to use an autorouter to cut a circuit board that was larger than they ultimately wanted but workable for their next step of developing and testing firmware.
“Because we could work on firmware on our own, it made sense to guarantee that we had functional circuit boards rather than take a chance on sending the boards out a day or two later to get them into the right form at the factory,” Myers says.
The Flair team now knows how to make the most of the downtime during Lunar New Year. When the factories closed, Tay hunkered down in his office in Shenzhen to tackle the firmware. It turned out to be a critical time for developing and testing on the prototype.
But even with foresight and preparation, there are global implications with Lunar New Year. The Port of Oakland provides a key link for goods moving between China and the United States. Last year, nearly 2.3 million containers moved through the port.
Looking at the port’s month-by-month shipping-container numbers going back to the summer of 1997, the Lunar New Year slowdown is easy to spot: Between 9,000 and 30,000 fewer containers ship in January and February.
This past year, the slowdown was more dramatic. The port moved around 200,000 containers each month leading up to the 2015 holiday. But when January hit, that number plummeted by 32 percent and an additional 12 percent in February.
“There’s a surge of cargo leading up to the lunar-year festivities and then a drop while factories are closed in China for the actual Lunar New Year holiday,” says Robert Bernardo, communications manager at the Port of Oakland. “February is typically a slower shipping cycle.”
The Port of Oakland is accustomed to the fluctuation and adjusts staffing accordingly. American businesses that work with Chinese factories must do the same.
For NewDealDesign, the San Francisco–based industrial-design firm behind the Fitbit, both model making and communication with Chinese manufacturers come to a halt during Lunar New Year. So the company allows for extra time in its production planning if a project comes up before then.
“There are only two things we can do: Push back the schedule until Chinese New Year is over or ask your Asian partner to work harder to finish it before,” says Yoshi Hoshino, master designer at NewDealDesign. “We just plan ahead so we don’t have to unnecessarily push them too hard.”
From Flair’s hack on its circuit board to NewDealDesign’s “start the process early” approach, the common thread is to recognize the Lunar New Year will impact production timelines and adjust accordingly.
If you’re an industrial designer or engineer who manufactures in China, take a page from Flair’s playbook and hack your timeline. You might rely on China’s workforce and factories, but that doesn’t mean your entire project has to come to a screeching halt as soon as the red lanterns get hung up.
Divide your project into factory-dependent and factory-independent tasks. Adjust your timeline to get what you need from your Chinese partners before factories close. Then, take advantage of the focused downtime your team will have to work on those independent tasks during the Lunar New Year.
But take heed that you might not want to be working on those tasks in Shenzhen during that downtime. “You have this brand-new city that’s got 12 million people, and it goes dark,” Myers says. “There’s nowhere to eat. You can’t get coffee. You can’t go to the grocery store. It’s like a ghost town.”