The Better Bike Light Blog

Behind the scenes with Bike Engineers and Entrepreneurs. Fortified Bicycle Alliance.

14 Chinese Factories in 3 weeks: The Terrible, The Filthy, and the Wonderful.

The black 2012 Buick picked me up at my Beijing hotel at 7am.  During the two hour drive I made small talk with the engineer who shared the back seat with me, asking him, “how’s the factory?”  He paused and then laughed a sheepish laugh.  “They have dogs,” he said.

The engineer told me it was a bad day in Beijing – 350 parts per million in air pollution. Unhealthy starts at 100 ppm – dangerous is at 200 ppm.  I don’t know what to make of 350, I just know it makes me cough and the sky looks like a dense and low fog.

Having been farmland for centuries, the provinces south of Beijing have seen an explosion of heavy industries in the last 10 years.  But the industrialization of China doesn’t mean that farms turned into factories.  The farms never left – they just put the factories next to them.

River (1)

The above photo shows a river of sludge next to reaped corn fields. Adjacent is a brick-making factory fueled by smoke stacks spewing black coal sediment into the grey sky.  The rivers and creeks are filled with plastic bags and sludgy water.

We drove through miles and miles of grey and until we arrived at a stone-walled compound with red gates.  Driving inside, underfed mutts growled and barked at us viciously as the factory owner approached us with a smile and a business card.


He proudly gave us a tour of his injection molding facility – a metal roofed room overflowing with sacks of plastic and rubber resin beads.  These beads are melted into the molds to make small parts.  He showed me the current product they’re working on – rubber motorcycle pedals branded “YANAHA” and labeled “Made in Japa”.  This isn’t a typo.


The air smelled of melting plastic, after ten minutes and I began to get a headache.  Meanwhile, his employees have spent the last 15 years working in these conditions.

Through the translator I said, “we won’t produce at a factory that doesn’t care about its employees.” After some awkward pleasantries between the translators and the factory owner, we got in the Buick and had a long, quiet, grey drive back to Beijing.

Fortified would refund all of our Kickstarter backers and bankrupt our company before producing products in a factory like this.

Here’s the silver lining on these grey, polluted clouds.  There are wonderful factories in China.  We found one on the other side of China, in Shenzhen – a two hour plane ride from Beijing.

Much more info to come but here’s some photos to enjoy….

1. Our factory cares about its people


Above shows the automated PCB assembly area. The working conditions are immaculate and the employees have fair wages.

2. Our factory knows quality

Mid-production Assembly

Above shows the mid-production part testing line.

3. Our factory cares about its world

Booties - reusable

We know this from speaking to their leadership about their sustainability efforts, and by the washable, reusable booties they make visitors wear.  Disposable booties would be cheaper, but reusable is more sustainable.

To say that our factory is expensive is true, but it is also short-term thinking.  Low quality factories will cost us with defects in the short run and cost our planet in the long run.

In our next update we’ll take a deep dive into this wonderful factory.


Finding the Right Contract Manufacturer – The Aviator and Afterburner

Friends – on our recent trip to the far east, we saw some horrific things. And we saw some wonderful things. Here’s the scoop…

Manufacturing Schedule: We’re way behind on our spring delivery estimate but we found an excellent factory. We’re estimating summer delivery and will know more when we ink the deal next week.

We visited 14 factories in 3 weeks. If you remember, we started with a long list of 33 factories, short list of 10, and scheduled 4 visits. Each final assembly factory we saw had their own suppliers: PCB assembly, plastic injection molding companies and aluminum die casters. So of course we had to see those too.

factory tour

MIT: Made in Taiwan

Bleary-eyed and hung-over from 27 hours of travel, I couldn’t understand why people were pointing and laughing at me in the Taipei airport. To them, my MIT t- shirt meant something different and they thought I was being ironic. Taiwan reminds me of a small ant carrying 25X his weight – every person and every square meter of land was working. Our Taiwanese manufacturing agent told me that until the 1980s, many people subsidized their income with a lathe in their living room cranking out machined parts. Rice patties are crammed into every corner.

Highway overpass? Rice patty. Your house has a small yard? Put a rice patty in it. Tend it on nights and weekends. Of the three factories I saw in Taiwan, the best was in Taoyuan – one of the manufacturing cities. They specialize in commercial lighting – Philips and Home Depot are their clients. And they’ve been making bicycle lights since 2004.

Here’s what was important to us:

1. Multi-Stage Quality Control

They tested parts (LEDs, batteries, etc) upon receipt from suppliers. They test again partially assembled and again fully assembled. These guys understand Poka-Yoke.

LED and battery accelerated lifetime testing

2. Performance Testing

Below are two optical chambers that measure lumens. This means they don’t take their LED suppliers word for specs – they test specs.

Lumen Test Chamber

3. Factory Conditions

The Taoyuan factory was state-of-the-art. Automated equipment with safety checks, excellent lighting and ventilation. It reminded me of an Intel semiconductor clean room.


But this was only our 2nd best factory. We’ll show you the terrible factories and the winner next week!


Slava and Team Fortified

Adventures in China, Batteries, and Your Favorite Turn-Offs


First comes first… production update for our new bike lights – The Aviator and Afterburner. 

We’re behind. Way behind. We haven’t even ordered tooling yet. Here’s the scoop:

Remember how we rejected the first batch of quotes because of astronomical prices or untrusted quality? And then remember how we went full force to find the perfect contract manufacturer: starting with a long list of 33 potential partners à short list of 10? Now we’re down to 4.

All 4 come from trusted references but we need to be sure. So we’re flying across the world to visit them and scrutinize the full supply chain. And everything we see we will share with you: machines, labor conditions, materials, dies, molds, PCBs, assemblies.

We’re not delivering in April. We are now aiming for summer but will know more in two weeks when Slava returns from Asia. This kills us and we lose sleep over it but again we’ve prioritized quality and this is the price we pay.

Take that, Energizer Bunny. 

You may recall that our prototype for our new bike lights the USB battery was rectangular. Since then we’ve upgraded the design to make it more compact and easier to remove with the same charging capacity. We also added an anti-shock feature to the battery housing – a rib that slides into an internal groove in the light, fully securing the battery in place. This battery is going to be awesome!

Your Favorite Turn-offs!

You can turn us on with a press of a button but how do you want to turn us off? Remember there will be 3-4 light modes (Full on, Full blinking, eco blinking, etc.)

Option A: Cycle through from On -> Blink -> Eco -> Off

Option B: Hold down the button for 2 seconds to turn off

Tell us what you think in the comments!


Tivan, Bruno, Brian, Slava

True and Transparent Manufacturing Stories from the Trenches

Beloved Backers,


Perhaps you’ve heard the manufacturing horror stories. We have inside stories from many entrepreneur-friends. “We’re six months past deadline and still 9 months from delivery.” Another confessed, “$60K spent on tooling and the manufacturer stopped returning emails so we’re flying to Korea to try and get our money back.”

If you backed our first Kickstarter, you know we’re open kimono on everything. We are behind on manufacturing. We’ll share this story in because we believe it will help other entrepreneurs.

In July, we had 12 manufacturing leads. By September when we launched the Kickstarter campaign, we shortlisted 4. Let’s call them Doug, Jack, Janice, and Bill.

Because those are their names.

Bill had 25 years overseas manufacturing experience and we were ready to pay a premium for it. But the premium came back at $120,000 on top of all other production costs. Bill dropped in October.

After asking Janice questions about how her factories inspect parts and do QA, her quality was questionable and we can’t afford reliability issues. Janice dropped in October as well.

Doug, a resourceful engineer at a reputable company, became our frontrunner. He initially quoted the tooling and part costs we were expecting. Then he came back one week later and added $40K to tooling and doubled the part cost. Doug dropped in November.

Jack inspired a lot of confidence with his technical knowledge. He became our new frontrunner with fair pricing and an April delivery date. Then, three weeks ago, his factory told got a large order from a big box US retailer and pushed the production start date to January. Of 2015! We still like Jack so he’s sourcing new factories for us.

Since Jack’s factory dropped, we called all the physical product entrepreneurs we know. Right now, our long list has 20 factories. In two weeks we will shortlist 10. After due diligence, we’ll find an awesome partner.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this process is agonizing. Had we gone with the low bidder, we would be on track now but our customers would pay later when bike lights failed them. By refusing to sacrifice QA and reliability testing, we are behind schedule.

You may be asking, “Why not just make it domestically?” I wish we could but if we did the Afterburner be a $150+ instead of a $45 bike light.

Lesson learned: more manufacturing leads. In our case, 12 sounded like a lot but it’s not enough. By the time this process is said and done, I will have personally spoken with >30 manufacturers.

Is sharing this story helpful? Any other lessons you’ve learned from watching us so far?

And hey, let’s be friends.


Electronics Upgrade Photos and Thwarted Thefts

It’s been all quiet on the Fortified Front. Apologies for the radio silence, we’ve cranking in the lab and working with manufacturers. Here’s the scoop.

1. Our new Electrical Engineer is more awesome than Doc from Back To The Future. He’s a MIT guy who built a speech recognition computer. IN 1978! We decided to give the Afterburner/Aviator electronics a major upgrade. This means more efficiency, faster charging, and smarter functions on a smaller PCB footprint.  If your friends missed the Kickstarter, they can still Pre-Order.


2. Every week, we get a new Thwarted Theft photo from a customer. This one came from Hector, an old MIT classmate. The would-be thief stripped the screwhead trying to steal it, but The Defender saved the day.

3. We’re in final negotiations with our manufacturer. It’s been a long, hard bidding process as we’ve been choosing a manufacturer. Several had the right price, but we questioned their quality. The manufacturer we’re (probably) using costs much more in tooling and part price, but it’s worth it for a lifelong bike light product. More info to come.

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