We recently sat down with Kristian Hansen, Mechanical Engineer at SIGMADESIGN, to discuss his travel experiences the last several months. Kristian has made four trips to China this year working on a project for one of SIGMADESIGN’s consumer electronics clients. Each trip averaged about two or three weeks.
What was the purpose of these trips to China?
SIGMADESIGN is performing design validation builds for a consumer electronics client. We built the prototypes here, and the client is testing and manufacturing the product in China. I was sent over to help with failure analysis and to ensure that our processes here “translate” correctly to the factory in China.
Did you ever see yourself traveling to China for work?
Before I worked at SIGMADESIGN, I never considered engineering to be a field that requires a lot of travel. When I started working here, I didn’t expect to be flying to China for work, so this was a bit of a surprise. But, I really enjoy the challenge, and have learned a lot.
What does a day in the life of a SIGMADESIGN Engineer in China look like?
I’m up around seven, or maybe six to go for a run. At eight, the team of SIGMADESIGN engineers and the client meet in the hotel lobby and hop on the bus. It takes about an hour to get to the factory. Testing runs overnight, so we immediately check on the testing results, which inform our work for the rest of the day. We have to check things such as supplier quality and also testing failures that may have occurred the previous night. Then there is a quick meeting with everybody on the team to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Next, I answer emails from the U.S. With the time change between Camas and China, SIGMADESIGN engineers can work on the project around the clock. When I go to sleep, somebody at headquarters is working, then I pick up the work in China while it’s night in the U.S.
Throughout the day, I help oversee the testing work on the factory floor. If changes need to be made, I communicate those to the line manager. I have my own computer station on the factory floor that I work from. Typically we leave the factory around five. Our team usually has dinner with the client engineers, which is a great opportunity to discuss the project. (We can’t do this on the bus in the mornings because of confidentiality.) Then it’s back to the hotel.
What are the challenges of working in China?
The biggest challenge is communication. Most of the factory workers don’t speak English. When I need to say something to a line worker, I have to go through the line manager who translates for me. That can be unnerving sometimes, as I never know for sure how my directions are being translated.
One day, we were running a very delicate process, so I decided to just sit on the line and do all the work myself for that one step instead of explaining the process through a translator and risking miscommunication.
Did you get to explore in China?
One Saturday, the team (Alexia, Peter, and Lindsey) went to Macau for a day trip. Macau is a special administrative region of China. It’s technically part of China, but requires passports and has its own currency. It’s an older town that was once occupied by Portuguese, so the architecture is really cool. Peter was pretty intent on finding a cup of real coffee, so we saw most of the town just searching for that.
What do you enjoy about going on these trips?
I enjoy the fear and excitement of not knowing for sure what the results of tests are going to be. Here, our testing on the project is pretty predictable. But every single time I get on a plane to China, I realize I have no idea what is going to happen. There is always something different or unexpected that I can’t specifically prepare for. But that’s the fun of working for a company like SIGMADESIGN. You’re asked to work on projects and your manager says, “Here’s a challenge. We don’t have much time to solve it, but let’s figure it out.” And once you get started on the project, priorities change even throughout the day, so you have to be very adaptable. That’s the fun of working in such a fast-paced environment- things are always changing, and you never get bored.
How have you grown through these trips?
I am learning a lot about client interfacing. In China, I have more exposure to client interfacing than I’ve ever had before, and I’ve realized how important it is to SIGMADESIGN. We’ll do what the client wants and have a good attitude about it. Each time I go to China, I learn something different about how to interface with clients.
I have also learned a great deal from the more experienced engineers that have been working with on this project, like Jamie Kelso, Peter Nikiforov, and Steve Stemple. Jamie has masterminded a lot of the different solutions we’ve come up with for the client, and I have learned so much by observing.
What advice would you give to another SIGMADESIGN engineer who is traveling to China for work for the first time?
Don’t eat the BBQ at the hotel. That will make the next week and a half miserable.
But seriously, I would say have an open mind and appreciate the culture. The first time I went, I felt so out of place and awkward because of the extreme respect the culture shows especially towards their clients. I learned to embrace this and grow my perspective on it. I even got to talk to a few different Chinese workers about their social customs and mindset. This made it a more enjoyable trip. I advise developing a cultural awareness to experience a much more enriching and enlightening trip.