Huawei: More Than Mobile Phones and Bigger Than China

I like to know how things are made, and I get a special thrill when I’m invited to take a behind-the-scenes look at a product — especially something that I regularly use — being made from start to finish. Recently, along with a small group of writers, I went to Shenzhen and Beijing, China for a behind-the-scenes look at Huawei.

Huawei: More Than Mobile Phones and Bigger Than China

A lotus plant sculpture installation inside the Huawei Bantian Base in Shenzhen. You may have noticed that the Lotus flower has special significance for Huawei; it is used in their logo.

While we’ve been reviewing Huawei and Honor devices on Gear Diary for years, something I don’t think we’ve hammered home enough is the fact that they are ranked number three in the world for sales and brand valuation — right behind Samsung (#1) and Apple (#2). Were you surprised?

According to an overview that we were given at Huawei HQ, Huawei phones are sold in over 170 regions; they are ranked #83 in the Forbes top 500 (as of July 2017), and they employ over 180,000 people — with approximately 80,000 of those employees being research and development engineers. Huawei has 36 joint innovation centers and 15 research and development centers located around the world (those locations include Russia, several in China, Sweden, France, the US, and Brazil to name Just a few). Their sales revenue for 2016 was $75.1 Billion, and one of the things they invest their money most in is continuous innovation. Realize, that this is a company that basically started producing mobile phones in 2003 — when they first established their mobile handset department (you can read more about Huawei’s R&D here).

Huawei: More Than Mobile Phones and Bigger Than China

Each of these numbers is a Huawei patent.

To date, Huawei has partnerships with Microsoft, Intel, Google, Amazon, Audi, ARM, Leica, Porsche Design, Daydream, Dolby, and Pantone. Huawei has 62,519+ authorized patents, but those aren’t only for mobile handsets.

As I would learn on this trip, Huawei has their fingers in many technology pies; some of those include digital face recognition (useful for finding known criminals or terrorists in public spaces), intelligent operations for traffic and city management, remote classroom setups (where the teacher is in one city and the students are in another), medical management, smart aviation, and high-speed train operations. Huawei makes the hardware that handles all of these and more, and they have the cloud storage to operate them all.

After this trip, I’ll never think of Huawei as “just” a phone manufacturer again.

Unfortunately, much of what I saw on the production floor at their Songshan Lake production line and Beijing R&D Center are considered trade secrets, so we weren’t allowed to take photos. I also had to sign several NDAs preventing me from discussing the Mate 10 that they’ll be introducing on October 16th …

Huawei: More Than Mobile Phones and Bigger Than China

The banner reads,”This is not a smartphone. This sees, thinks, learns, with AI built-in. This is an intelligent machine.”

… but there are still some things I can tell you that I think you’ll find interesting.

Huawei’s Songshan Lake Production Line

In order to enter this area, our group had to remove our shoes, belts, and our watches; any larger metal objects (like the necklace that I was wearing) had to be taken off as well, and we had to leave all phones and cameras in the locker room. We donned cloth overcoats, rubber sandals, and cloth hats to cover our hair, and then we had to stand on some kind of body scanner to make sure we were ready to walk through a metal detector leading onto the production floor.

Once through, we saw line after line of high-tech machines manned by people and robots building various devices from the first circuit board to the finished device. Each production line (there were quite a few in this huge warehouse) was creating a different device, and as the robots would complete their work, line workers would inspect and then test the resulting products along the way.

I can’t tell you how many devices are made by each of these lines per month, but needless to say, the numbers were impressive. Watching the dance between the robots in their stations and their human counterparts standing nearby was mesmerizing, fascinating, and so futuristic. I can’t state emphatically enough how cool it was to see a fresh batch of Huawei phones start as chips and then come off the line fully boxed and ready to ship.

When’s the last time you gave more than a fleeting moment to think about the work that goes into producing whatever phone it is that you keep in your pocket? I have to admit that I’d never given it much thought, but if I’d had to guess, I would have expected to see rows of workers sitting at desks soldering things and putting each piece together. Um … no. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. The Huawei production line was like something out of a science fiction movie, and I’m still shaking my head, marveling at what I saw. I so, so wish that I could have taken a video to show you, but alas.

Huawei’s Beijing Lab

Here’s another thing you might not have given much thought to — the kind of testing goes into making sure that a phone is ready for real-world use. Inside Huawei’s Beijing Lab, we saw a multitude of machines and engineers doing everything from testing devices for water, shock, and dust resistance to machines that would test whether the phone would bend or break in someone’s back pocket (seriously, there is a machine for that!). Just about any kind of stressors you can imagine, there is a machine that will test for them. Security is also very important, and Huawei has a large crew of people who are constantly monitoring and testing to be sure that their software is secure for end users and safe from attacks. We got to see much of this in action

Huawei’s Shenzhen HQ and New Songshan Lake Campus

The current Huawei campus is sprawling, modern, and beautifully landscaped with greenery and lakes. The facilities are beautiful and spacious, and from what I understand there are about 60,000 people working (and some living) there. But evidently, it’s not big enough. The company is rapidly growing, and so is their need for more space.

About an hour away, Huawei is building a new Dongguan Songshan Lake campus which will soon be ready. We were driven through its main road; judging by the construction, it will look like a large European city once finished. The campus will include subsidized housing for workers who choose not to take the new bullet train (the track is also under construction) to the campus from Shenzhen, and it will include a SIX-star hotel. I have no idea what amenities get added to make the jump from five to six stars, but I’m guessing that visiting dignitaries and high-ranking officials will enjoy whatever that might entail.

Here are some pictures that I took through the bus windows while touring the new campus …

If you didn’t see the banner in Chinese, wouldn’t you have assumed this building was going on somewhere in Europe? It was quite impressive.

We also had a look inside the Huawei exhibition hall in Beijing. It showed much of the technology we had seen in Huawei’s Shenzhen’s exhibition hall, but I thought this room was just lovely.

Huawei: More Than Mobile Phones and Bigger Than China

My takeaway from this trip was that Huawei is a rapidly growing technology company (not just phones!) which contributes much to the global economy. It was honestly a bit mind-boggling to think about all of the different technologies that Huawei is invested in, but I suppose that helps explain how they have become such a juggernaut. Right now, they are the number three mobile phone manufacturer; who knows where they will be in a few years?


Disclosure: Huawei paid for my flight and food with no expectation that I would write about the trip or anything I saw along the way.

Side note: I actually (unknowingly) ate a duck’s tongue on this trip, to the great amusement of everyone else. In my defense, I thought it was a weird-looking squid. Oops.

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About the Author

Judie Lipsett Stanford
Judie is the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of Gear Diary, which she founded in September 2006. She started in 1999 writing software reviews at the now-defunct; from mid-2000 through 2006, she wrote hardware reviews for and co-edited at The Gadgeteer. A recipient of the Sigma Kappa Colby Award for Technology, Judie is best known for her device-agnostic approach, deep-dive reviews, and enjoyment of exploring the latest tech, gadgets, and gear.