Strange Parts: Making an iPhone in Shenzhen, China

Humbled and inspired, Strange Parts is excited to share more quirky, back-alley adventures with the world.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Scotty Allen is an American engineer, entrepreneur and hacker who left Silicon Valley behind to lead the life of a true nomad. He doesn’t have an apartment or a house anywhere that he rents full time and has been travelling the world for the past 3 years.

“I’ve always really loved adventure and travel. My parents were and still are rock climbers and outdoorsy people since before I was born. I first went backcountry backpacking at 9 months old. So the adventurous spirit was instilled early and runs deep,” explains Allen.

“I just wasn’t super happy being in an office all day.  I’ve learned that I’m way happier when I can choose what I work on, and where and when I work. Being independent, both in terms of income and location, allows me to do that.”

Talking to the camera. © Scotty Allen and Strange Parts, 2017

From riding a $120 bike through Laos and Cambodia to planting coral underwater in Borneo, Allen has always sought out the weird, wonderful, and out-of-the-way thing to do. With his affinity to make the most of his off-kilter passions, he started Strange Parts as a way to start telling stories about his adventures.

In the past year and a half, Allen has spent a fair chunk of his time in Shenzhen, China where he learns about the electronics manufacturing scene – the industrial markets, factories, and back alleys where the world’s electronics are made.

“I wanted to come see the electronics manufacturing scene here and spend some time making prototypes of various ideas. I came out with Mitch Altman of Noisebridge on one of his Hacker Trips to China and I liked Shenzhen so much that I immediately booked a train ticket back to Shenzhen when we finished in Beijing. I’ve been coming back ever since,” he says.

Back alley with street vendors selling used parts. © Scotty Allen and Strange Parts, 2017

During his time in Shenzen is when the idea for Strange Parts’ first viral video was born. While hanging out with a bunch of open-source hardware geeks, a random thought got thrown around the group:  ‘We’ve all seen these cell phone repair markets, would it be possible to use them to build our own phone?’

“I’d walked through the markets a bunch before, but I didn’t really understand much about them, or what all was happening there. But I was really curious about how it all fit together, and this seemed like a great excuse to dive deeper.”

Screen repair booth technician applying optically clear adhesive (OCA). © Scotty Allen and Strange Parts, 2017

It took him about two months to figure out what parts were needed, how and where to buy them, and how to assemble the actual phone. All the parts including the logic board were bought from the wholesale phone repair markets in Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen – a known hub that caters to phone repair businesses all over the world.

Allen has spent over $1000 in the process, but a lot of it was for duplicate parts and tools that he didn’t need. He estimates the actual parts that went into the phone to be around $300. Knowing all he knows now, he believes he can buy all the parts and build another phone in a day or two.

Four main parts for a working iPhone showing the inside of the case. © Scotty Allen and Strange Parts, 2017

Looking back on his experience, he says, “I think my biggest takeaway is that phones are actually pretty accessible to the average person. I took apart or upgraded or built desktop computers when I was a kid.  This doesn’t really feel a lot different, even though it’s smaller. It’s just a bunch of different parts plugged together by cables, screwed into a metal case.”

Allen has been a bit of an electronics hobbyist ever since his dad gave him a big lantern battery, switches, light bulbs, and wire when he was just 5. And coming out to Shenzen has literally been a dream come true. “I’ve learned a ton about China and the tech scene here, Shenzhen is definitely the new Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is now Software Valley in my mind. Here, you’re surrounded by hardware engineers and various people that work in the manufacturing supply chain. But there’s that same density of knowledge and intense energy of progress and excitement.”

Scotty Allen-Strange Parts
Showing off the box. © Scotty Allen and Strange Parts, 2017

It took him another two months to edit all the footage together and to shoot the missing bits to tell a good story, but the response was something that he hadn’t expected, “I had a sense that people were excited about this story based on conversations I had with people while I was working on it.  But I had no idea the response would be this huge – I’m really grateful and humbled by how enthusiastic people are about it, and I’m really looking forward to making more videos for them.”

Allen is currently working on his new video and cannot wait to share it with the world. “I’m working on the next one now. I won’t say what it’s about specifically (that would spoil the surprise), but Strange Parts is all about interesting stories at the intersection of adventure, travel, and technology. I have a ton of cool story ideas, and I can’t wait to turn them into videos!”

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