NOVA PBS -- "Inside China's Tech Boom"

NOVA on PBS is, in my opinion, the best science show on TV for general audiences. (Not counting the highly technical YouTube videos, etc., meant for specialists.)

The newest NOVA, “Inside China’s Tech Boom,” is well worth watching. The program begins with the 5G rollout with particular emphasis on Huawei. (Huawei has been translated as “splendid achievement” or “China is able”, which are possible readings of the name.)

Since I’m not @WatchingTheHerd I will try to put the show in a nutshell. :wink:

  1. China’s government has succeeded in supporting several high-tech industries, including internet telecommunications, solar panels, transportation and others. Many third-world countries use Chinese equipment and have no American equipment.

  2. Due to national security issues, the U.S. is tearing out Huawei communications equipment all over the country. Unfortunately, U.S. equipment costs 3X as much, leaving some areas without internet.

  3. Chinese manufacturing is organized and motivated using militaristic-style ideology. Chinese workers work hard for long hours. The program didn’t mention it, but Chinese youth unemployment is around 25% so the employers can be selective.

  4. The Shenzhen manufacturing area has tremendous hands-on experience in manufacturing, enabling fast prototyping and construction of equipment. The factories include R&D departments where new ideas for incremental improvement from the factory floor can be tested and incorporated in the process. The U.S. has lost an incredible amount of manufacturing experience since the 1980s and has nothing comparable. One example is the reliance on Chinese manufacturing for face masks during the Covid pandemic.

  5. China’s most striking weakness is in advanced semiconductor chip manufacturing. They are working on it very hard since the U.S. cut them off from advanced semiconductors, devastating Huawei’s cell phone manufacturing. The current centers are in the U.S., South Korea, Japan…and, of course, TSMC in Taiwan. NOVA didn’t mention it but TSMC is the crown jewel that could tempt China. However, the manufacturing of advanced semiconductors is extremely sensitive. It would be the height of stupidity to destroy TSMC in an attempt to steal it.

Since NOVA is a science program there were no financial numbers. A different show, “Frontline,” would have addressed this but the NOVA show is science.

The NOVA show made the point that hands-on experience is essential to make processes work. An inexperienced cook in the most advanced restaurant kitchen with a cookbook in hand probably wouldn’t be able to fry an egg successfully.

The decline of hands-on training in U.S. schools has produced generations of graduates who can’t cook a meal, sew a seam or fabricate metal. The entire generation of trained factory workers is retiring.

The 2022 CHIPS Act is providing $280 billion over the next 10 years for semiconductors and science.

The long-term impact of the U.S. running gigantic import deficits with the loss of manufacturing competitiveness has yet to be seen. China has always seen itself as the greatest power in the world. China’s history consists of the rise and fall of dynasties in waves so they are familiar with this dynamic. They have every intention of displacing the U.S. as the primary superpower.

As a brash new superpower, the U.S. still has plenty of hubris. Will we follow Rome, Venice, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England into the mediocrity of once-great commercial empires?

I recommend “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000,” by Paul Kennedy for a broader perspective.




One observation I would make in this area from an #itellyouwhut vein would be…

There would seem to be little excuse for a lack of innovation and new product development in the realm of basic electronics, an area currently totally dominated by China. I say that because…

A trend in project management tools, task tracking tools and collaboration tools that added capabilities exponentially from about 2014 through the COVID lockdowns has blended with an older trend in computer aided design dating back to AutoCAD to create tools for electronics design that are simply mind blowing.

As a hobby, I’ve been trying to combine my interest in guitars and amps with an effort to resurrect old BSEE skills by going through the complete design and implementation of a old-school, tube-powered guitar amp (think Fender, Marshall, etc.). After getting past power supply concepts, amplification and tone controls, I reached a point where I wanted to start modeling some building blocks to see how modeled performance matched theory.

I quickly found old tools used by BSEEs back in the 1980s and 1990s like SPICE actually still exist. You can still create a text file naming components, connections, etc. and run a command to spit out a text summary of voltages, currents, etc. However, the libraries for these tools were open-sourced then embedded in other open-source tools and some new commercial tools. These tools still generate those low level script files but allow the user to use a modern GUI and typical copy/paste techniques to speed the process. The tools combine all of the following:

  • basic schematic level design creation
  • electrical circuit rules validations
  • mathematical modeling
  • mapping of logical schematic to physical components (vendor, part#, value)
  • mapping of physical components to physical dimensions and footprint data
  • mapping of circuit component footprints into printed circuit board layout
  • mapping of connections from schematic layer into PCB traces
  • specification of trace routes per PCB board manufacturer capabilities
  • generation of electronic PCB board designs in an industry standard file (Gerber, like a PDF for electrical engineering designs)
  • generation of a full bill of materials for the entire design
  • integration to online parts vendors (DigiKey, Mouser, etc.)

Those capabilities have been available as an integrated CAD environment for 10-15 years. Now, over the last 5-7 years, new companies have blended this core CAD capability with the tracking / collaboration capabilities needed in modern distributed team-based software development. Now hardware development can benefit from the same type of “hive” re-use and best-practices in software engineering. Hardware designers can edit the same diagram at the same time over the web and handle all of the version control problems on a circuit board like they were checking in code for writing a web service, etc. Essentially, these tools have turned hardware specifications into code, making this possible.

Most shocking was that printed circuit board manufacturing has advanced so much based on these standards that it is DIRT CHEAP to get boards made, even in small hobbyist quantities. I could design a new custom device just for me, ship the design electronically to one of a dozen firms in the world and have top quality, multi-layer boards made to my spec down to a tenth of a millimeter within a week for maybe $5 per board. Some board makers also offer auto-population of components on the board with wave soldering for an additional fee. AMAZING.

If firms want to begin making stuff domestically to hedge growing concerns about political struggles affecting supply chains, shipping or raw materials, the first step to take would be to begin using these kinds of tools and taking all of the design work back to domestic shores. Once the design work leverages this type of tooling, switching fabricators becomes painless, making it attractive for fabrication plants to set up here and ship in 3 days rather than 10-15 days on a boat. And this type of fabrication is no where near as complex or expensive as nanometer-scale silicon chip fabrication.