Engineering Innovation – TE Connectivity and DuPont: Day 12

The bright, warm sun greeted us as we finished up our breakfasts, boarded the bus, and headed to our first company visit of the day – TE Connectivity. My four-person group researched TE Connectivity as a part of our pre-departure presentation. As we found in our research, TE produces components and sensors for electronics, including smartphones. However, it was unclear to us whether or not the TE branch in China, specifically, manufactured these products onsite.

Onsite at TE Connectivity

The unassuming façade of a beige building welcomed us as we passed onto the company grounds through a retractable accordion gate. From the façade, the brief walk upstairs to a conference room, and the office space we passed through, the aesthetics and the atmosphere waxed dull and bland compared to the other company facilities that we had visited in Beijing, which included Cheetah Mobile and Microsoft. In the conference room, a head manufacturing engineer discussed TE Connectivity’s purpose, operations, and facilities. This China site of TE focused on the molding, stamping, plating, and assembly of components. Our host explained that they manufacture all kinds of electronic connectors – external connectors, internal components, cards, sockets, etc. The workforce of the site comprises half direct labor, operating machinery; checking quality; and packaging parts on the machine shop floors, and half indirect labor, working in the offices and elsewhere.

After talking about the machine shop floors and the purpose of the China TE site, everyone rose, donned a pair of safety glasses, and followed our host to those floors to see the manufacturing in progress. This site was, in fact, a factory, but it didn’t look like the kind of factory that I expected. I envisioned smokestacks and rows upon rows of assembly lines with machines and workers laboring to piece together components. What I found instead were two floors, one largely automated with robots and one brimming with more machinery. On what I presumed to be the automated floor, rhythmically precise robotic arms grabbed pieces and displaced them, while other stations molded, cut, ground or otherwise formed pieces. In the cavity next to this one, big whirring machines sucked up shiny metal sheets from a spool and quickly stamped and pressed them into repeating chains of intricate designs.

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We went up a floor to the machine shop floor. Here, we witnessed the assembly of the pieces into electronics components by the machinery. Once the machines had produced a finished product, either human workers or more machines assessed the components for quality and appearance. The human workers then filed the passable components into white plastic-looking trays. Upon asking what one of the machines was (it was a quality check machine), our host explained to me that the pieces or newly formed components would be conveyed through the machine, which, with a laser and camera, analyzed the dimensions and fit of the components and displayed the scans on a computer screen.

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The end of the factory tour brought us back to the conference room, where our host finished presenting TE and gave us the opportunity to ask questions. He mentioned that in China, TE Connectivity is focused on consumer electronics, while in the United States, TE works on parts for airplanes, especially for military purposes. He told us that the site is active 24/7 and, consequently, that work is done in three shifts throughout the day. Additionally, the company has to change their equipment about every three years to reflect the life cycles of electronics, attesting to the rapid development of consumer electronics – not to mention technology in general – and the effect that these quick changes have throughout the supply chain.

Lunch, Featuring My Many, Many Mishaps

This concluded our visit to TE Connectivity, so we moved on to lunch. Hilary pointed out that the restaurant is known for sweet and sour food but that the dishes tend toward the sweet side. For dessert, each table shared a delicious bread bowl. To me, it looked as though a section of a loaf of bread was hollowed out and stood up on a plate. Inside the hollowed crust rested chunks of fruits and cubes of the soft insides of the bread, drizzled in sweet sauces that reminded me of icing and fudge. The bread wasn’t quite the same consistency as American grocery store bread and seemed to be denser and slightly crunchy.

I was quickly finding out that today just wasn’t my day. One of the first things I managed to eat at lunch was a piece of food with a flaming hot pepper on it, so I sat there in shock and in pain while my face heated and my mouth, especially the fleshy underside of my tongue, simmered in the cruel heat of the pepper. As much as I tried, I had extreme trouble maneuvering the chopsticks; I dropped a lot of what I picked up, and I easily spent five minutes poking and prodding a chicken wing trying to eat the meat off of it. Back on the bus after lunch (we unfortunately didn’t have much time or funds for ordering juice or fruits at the café across from the restaurant), I had a fantastic surprise in the form of a broken travel-size deodorant crumbling onto my black business casual pants. In tune with my personality, I freaked out a bit and laughed hysterically while trying to figure out the best solution to get the white marks off (cue the supply of baby wipes). Later in the evening, while we were walking into a store, I tripped up a small step and sat for a moment, laughing at myself.

“Stand Back – I’m Gonna Do Science” at DuPont

Nevertheless, we made our way to DuPont, where each of us received a green visitor pass. The DuPont company is one of the oldest Fortune 500 companies, if not the oldest. A chemical and materials company established in 1802, it started its days dealing with explosives, evolving through the decades to focus on chemicals and materials and then on agriculture and nutrition, bio-based industrials, and advanced materials. Dr. Li, who is a chemical engineer, fanboyed to us about how, when he was younger, he applied to work at DuPont but didn’t get the job, so to be at DuPont now was a dream come true for him.

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The Shanghai location of DuPont acts as a research and development center with comprehensive lab facilities and is one of over 150 DuPont R&D locations and 12 Innovation Centers around the world. DuPont uses their Innovation Centers to show their products to customers and, in turn, to get ideas and feedback from them. In China, DuPont has the opportunity to address food looking at increasing food production and safety, consumer electronics and energy with concern to people’s increasing disposable incomes, and automobiles considering decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. Another interesting project that they’ve been working on is high efficiency ingredients; for example, they have looked at a yogurt suitable for underdeveloped areas lacking cold chain distribution, the health needs for longevity, and the Chinese preference of warm foods. These points functioned as a part of DuPont’s presentation; they wanted to teach us about their history, vision, and product solutions.

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Following the presentation, our hosts – the site officials – guided us to the Innovation Center. This white-walled room with bright lights and windows filtering in sunlight to touch the pops of color throughout the room amazed me. I’m the kind of person who goes to a clothing store and feels the clothes as I walk by. Here, as a testament to the aim of the Innovation Centers, I could see first-hand the products that DuPont has developed and interact with them, feeling the products and playing with them as I wandered around. They displayed everything from washable walls to bio-based carpets to food packaging to car parts and more. I felt plastics and polymers and fire-resistant fabrics. The center even had an ice cream machine. I asked one of the site heads why in the world there was an ice cream machine. He responded that DuPont had recently acquired a company that made ice cream. Quite a few of my classmates swarmed the ice cream machine, but I skipped the ice cream for the lab tour.

Putting on my stylish safety glasses, one of the site heads beckoned several of us through a secured door into the lab section of the site. Through windows, I watched one researcher, all suited up in safety gear, mixing something as I passed. We entered a lab where solar panels underwent rigorous testing to prove their worth. Solar panels are actually very fragile, so they are encapsulated in several layers that protect them and help them to function as intended. Regardless, this lab subjected solar panels that DuPont has worked on to extreme research to simulate a lifetime of stress condensed into about two to three weeks. In one machine, panels faced heat and humidity; in another, they were stretched and compressed over and over.

In another lab, we saw some internal automobile parts scattered around the room and on the table. Ducking through a side doorway, we entered a soundproofed room in which we couldn’t hear anything outside, but the sounds inside felt magnified to me. The purpose of this quirky room with squishy but rigidly-backed foam triangles protruding from every wall was to test the car parts for noise. Basically, you don’t want the parts of your car to obnoxiously rattle as you drive, so DuPont tests the parts and the materials to minimize the noise that they make.

Busy with the Business Plan

Emerging from the labs, we reentered the cozy conference room and wrapped up our visit at DuPont. At the hotel, Eli, Hayley, Shreyas, and I took a short break and then met up again at the bar lounge to finish up our business plan project. Since none of us wanted to order anything, as happened to the group of Sophie, Nilaani, Robert, and Justin, the waiter more or less kicked us out of the bar lounge. Scrambling for another place to work, my group settled on a small circular table near the patisserie where the four of us plus Robert finished inputting our project information into a Powerpoint. As we worked, I savored a strawberry mascarpone cheese cake, which tasted wonderful but pushed the sweet side.

Soaring in a Whole New World

Finishing up the project, I agreed to accompany Sophie to the Shanghai Tower, the second-tallest building in the world, and the two of us planned to meet with another group of our friends at Nanjing Road afterwards. Pushing through streams of people catching subways during rush hour, Sophie and I made our way to the city center, where we passed a big sparkly Louis Vuitton store that Sophie joked would be too expensive to breathe in. Armed with Pennsylvania driver’s licenses, we managed to get the student discount on Tower tickets, so with tickets in hand, we excitedly descended the escalator to the security checkpoint and entrance.

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After quickly browsing an exhibit documenting the progression of the world’s tallest buildings and detailing the features of the Shanghai Tower, we (without option) had our pictures taken for those novelty photos before getting into the world’s fastest elevator. So smoothly and rapidly, the elevator ascended through the hundreds of meters to the observation floor near the top of the tower. From there, we gawked at the nearby skyscrapers, looking down on the Oriental Pearl and the unknown-named Bottle Opener Tower, and followed the lights and the river into the distance until what I concluded to be smog swallowed the horizon. As the good problem-solving engineering students that we are – civil for Sophie and electrical for me – we effectively failed to figure out how to utilize the sensors on the user-interface hub to bend the forces of the bird’s-eye-view world cities exploration screen to our will.

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A Shopping Mall + Times Square = Nanjing Road

Satiated with the in-person bird’s eye view of Shanghai, the two of us flew to the bottom floor in the elevator and tried to contact the other group to see where we could meet them. Discerning that we would probably be on our own for dinner, we shared a delectable fresh passion fruit snow pear juice and ordered burgers from a Carl’s Jr. joint, which was immensely but humorously delicious. The group told us that they were at a Pizza Hut on Nanjing Road, so by our powers of directions (read: smartphone GPS), we employed a subway and our feet to convey us to the Pizza Hut. Bathed in the lights and crowds of this Times Square-esque shopping center elongated into a street, fast food restaurants repeated themselves as recognizable or prominent-seeming brands showcased their wares. After poking into two wrong restaurants, we finally discovered the entrance to the Pizza Hut and, with it, Hanna, Chandler, Lauren, Justin, Shaymi, Kieran, Chloe, Angeline, and Jake.

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The group of us walked around the street and browsed through a few shops. I found it peculiar that the shops on the one side of the street, at least the several that I visited, were openly connected, so instead of having to walk out of one store and into its neighbor, you could walk straight through to the neighbor through an open space in the wall. At the end of the street, Justin, Shaymi, Sophie, Jake, and I broke off from the other group, who decided to visit the Bund, which is an area near the riverfront, and went off in search of touristy souvenirs. Failing to find any, we caught the subway back to Hengshan Station and walked the few blocks back to the hotel. On the way, I spent one hundred yuan to rebuild my chocolate stash and to stock up on Dove green tea chocolate to bring home.

I was so tired that my several minutes of relaxation on my bed not long after 11 PM turned into waking up at 2 AM realizing that I fell asleep in all of my clothes, setting an alarm for the morning, and going right back to sleep.

End of the Day Note

An interesting but bothersome tidbit that I have encountered so far in Shanghai: there have been several instances when we’ve walked down the street and had to walk around an individual glued to their smartphone. It isn’t like in America where phone-wielding pedestrians will frequently glance up from their screens to assess their surroundings and avoid potential dangers, though I consider scrolling through a phone while walking to be a danger in itself; instead, a few people that I have noticed never look up from their phones, even as a massive group of foreign students is compelled to walk around them

As our trip enters its last day, I’m faced with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I’m ready to go home and to swaddle myself in the comforts of my family and of life back in the United States. On the other hand, I’m grasping for just a few more moments to explore and to experience life in China alongside Dr. Li and Jordan, our Asia Institute friends, and my new Pitt friends. On a very different hand that exceeds my two hands, I loathe the thought of enduring another Arctic winter’s night aboard the plane from China to the States. Nevertheless, we have one more day here when we’ll visit a garden, present our final projects, and spend the evening embracing what little time awaits us on Plus3.

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