Why Shenzhen is Important for Engineering Students

The nondescript back-alleys of Shenzhen are some of the best spots in the world to learn about rapid prototyping and small-batch production. Collectively, these shops are poised to bring the price of products down and reorient worldwide supply chains.
These Shenzhen shops also provide insight in cutting costs when conceptualizing and designing products. It’s an environment unlike any in the world and a great place for engineering students to pick up valuable lessons in converting ideas to products, said Richard Lester, associate provost at MIT.
MIT is keen on bringing a taste of Shenzhen to its mechanical engineering students. It has formed a two-way partnership with Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology (Sustech) to expose students to those manufacturing shops for valuable lessons in innovation, design, and manufacturing. The idea is to give students hands-on experience to see how Shenzhen shops do rapid scale up of product design for the Chinese market.
“These are important assets and capabilities for our students and faculty to learn about. For MIT students it’s a sort of an on-the-ground ability to observe and learn about the capabilities,” Lester said.
Those lessons could be handy when building a manufacturing business or doing business in emerging markets like China or India. Students will also learn about innovating and building products without the benefit of cutting-edge technology, which are targeted at middle-income markets, which are growing fast in developing countries.
“In the course of their careers, those markets will likely be increasingly important. It’s not just the manufacturing capabilities, it’s also the capabilities for innovation,” Lester said.
Shenzhen and the surrounding province of Guangdong manufacture most of the world’s consumer appliances, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a 2017 report. Shenzhen shops have also played a role in bringing smartphone and tablet prices down. Also, when entrepreneurs entertain the idea of making products in China, one option may be to go to one the many factories in Shenzhen where they can prototype and manufacture products. 
Complete details of MIT and Sustech agreement will evolve in the coming years. The basic plan revolves around conducting joint research and for MIT students to do courses at Sustech, and also for six to seven Sustech students to do courses at MIT for a semester. MIT’s mechanical engineering department also focuses on areas like materials and energy technology, and the partnership focus could expand to emerging technologies. Sustech is a relatively young university, starting operations in 2011, and offers a wide range of courses in the sciences.
The MIT-Sustech partnership builds on a partnership MIT has with universities like Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Students can already take courses in Hong Kong, and the coursework includes travel to Shenzhen, which borders HK, to introduce them to the new set of capabilities in small manufacturing shops. Lester said. But only a limited amount of the time is spent in shops, and being in Shenzhen makes a big difference.
“We put a lot of emphasis on hands-on learning at MIT,” Lester said.
Agam Shah is associate editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.