WeChat ban may cut a vital lifeline to Chinese factories for U.S. electronics brands

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky

Originally published in Forbes.

For many U.S.-based engineering teams who assemble their products in China or greater Asia, WeChat is the messaging platform of choice. This includes many of the largest, most recognizable consumer electronics brands. Manufacturers rely on WeChat for direct communication between the U.S.-based engineers who design new gadgets and the Asia-based manufacturing teams who figure out how to build them.

Travel restrictions from Covid-19 were already a blow to an industry that typically relies on face-to-face interactions to troubleshoot prototype gadgets as they come off of the assembly line. Those restrictions forced engineers to find new ways to get their jobs done digitally – resulting in a variety of hacky heroics and a reliance on WeChat as one of the only real-time communication channels that works reliably across Asia. A ban of this service would provide yet another obstacle for engineering teams working on new gadgets intended to ship for this holiday season – likely resulting in additional delays.

Real-time communication is a necessity during electronic product development

Under normal circumstances, engineers working on new electronic products spend 25-50% of their springs and summers traveling to support build events at their factory partners in Asia. The goal of the New Product Introduction process is to rapidly find and fix issues with their prototypes – a process that is significantly easier and faster in person.

This year, Covid-19 made travel impossible, so these teams went digital. Emails, video calls, and WeChat filled the gap (Google and Zoom are blocked in China). U.S.-based engineering teams shifted their work schedules to correspond with when the lines are running in China – sitting on WeChat or FaceTime phone calls for many hours at a time. The long conversations are necessary to identify and make progress on failures they’re finding in the manufacturing process. For example, it’s common that early units might have wifi antennas that aren’t working as intended – they will pile up as failures on the line. Instead of huddling around the failed units in physical space, a team member in China will hold up a phone and describe what they see, and the team on the other end might review the CAD design and make suggestions for what could be tried to eliminate the failure from happening again.

This same conversation would take days if done asynchronously through email. Electronics brands have already absorbed a lot in 2020: two to three months of severe supply chain disruption from shutdowns earlier this spring and a complete adaptation of how they work to a remote, digital environment. WeChat has been a crutch, and removing it will slow them down further, increasing the risk of delayed launches this fall and ultimately, fewer days of peak sales before the holidays.

New product development is brittle, and losing WeChat could be the last straw

Electronics product development is a brittle and inefficient process because of the lack of investment in modernized, connected, and smart technology. Engineering teams are globally distributed, but their data is local and siloed: without easy access to know which units failed the antenna test, or what the test data looked like, it’s hard for a distributed team to make progress in solving the issue on their own.

Reliance on band-aid solutions like eight-hour calls in the middle of the night, 20-person email chains, and massive WeChat groups is evidence of a problem. Distributed teams don’t have the data they need to solve problems quickly on their own. This adds a high degree of risk to the success of new hardware programs. Most electronics brands are starting to realize that it is silly to rely on engineering heroism, travel, and a chat app to make their fall revenue numbers.

Modern solutions exist and leading brands are adopting them quickly

To solve manufacturing problems remotely, engineers need real-time access to the right data, at the right resolution so they can take action. Covid-19 has tested assumptions about whether manufacturing development must be done in person, and some companies have found it does not. Those who have adopted modern manufacturing technologies accelerated this time-consuming part of new product development, even beyond their pre-Covid-19 status quo. These electronics brands and manufacturers have had a huge leg up on their competitors in the 2020 development cycle, and will likely continue to pull ahead as they start new programs for 2021.

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