What makes a TOUGHBOOK Tough?
What makes a TOUGHBOOK Tough?
A behind the scenes peak at TOUGHBOOK manufacturing in Japan
We don’t usually talk about our TOUGHBOOK devices much on this blog. We prefer to concentrate on the business and technology trends driving the adoption and use of mobile computing. But I’m often asked the question “Just what makes a TOUGHBOOK so tough?” A recent virtual tour of our manufacturing facility in Japan that I hosted was so oversubscribed that I thought a blog on this topic wouldn’t be too self-indulgent!
Many of us will have seen the videos online of a TOUGHBOOK surviving after being run over by tanks, blown-up, submerged in water or dropped from great heights. So what goes on at the manufacturing plant in Kobe, Japan to make them so tough?
The Kobe facility is about an hour’s drive from Panasonic’s HQ in Osaka and is 30 years’ old this year but maintains its position as one of the most sophisticated manufacturing plants in the world for rugged devices. The facility is designed to be fast and flexible and the centre is where we manufacture all of our TOUGHBOOK products. It’s amazing to think that many PC brands outsource their manufacturing and I’m sure our in-house approach is one of the reasons why our devices are so reliable.
The real skill in creating an effective rugged device is the ability to achieve a balance between robustness and lightweight – you can have the toughest notebook in the world but if it is too heavy to carry around and use on a daily basis, it defeats the objective. Creating this fine balance begins with the very first design drawings and is the reason that Panasonic TOUGHBOOK stands out so well against competitor products that ruggedise their already existing PC products.
A quality approach
The Kobe facility is a single-floor operation from start to finish and operates a daily production schedule to meet customer needs. It can be configured quickly to manufacture one-off products or the mass production of thousands of devices.
To ensure every TOUGHBOOK is as tough as it needs to be, the facility has two quality systems that underpin everything that happens in the plant. The first is the Traceability System, which allows Panasonic to trace every individual component from the point that it is first soldered onto a device. The second is the Kobe Intranet of Super Production System (KISS) which allows Panasonic to trace every component back to a device and then to a customer.
A third critical system for maintaining quality is the Early Detection System. Repair information from our service centres around the world is collected in a global database, which allows Panasonic to quickly spot any faults or issues early and action them – maintaining quality and our industry-leading low failure rates.
Built in from the beginning
The first step in the production of each TOUGHBOOK is to produce a QR code which is unique to the motherboard of the device. That QR code is soldered onto the motherboard and from this point onwards, all information relating to all components attached to that motherboard are allocated to the QR code. This ensures that if any issues arise further down the line, we can trace all components right back through the manufacturing process to the original QR code.
Next a specialist machine prints soldering paste onto the board. It places a thin metal plate over the top of the board and that plate has 5000 holes and we use those holes to attach around 1800 different components. Once the paste has been placed into the holes by the machine, it then automatically inspects and corrects them, for example, to prevent two pieces of solder coming into contact with each other. All this attention to detail helps to build in ruggedness into every device right from the beginning.
The next piece of machinery we see in the process is the latest generation production chip mounters. Working together in a long line, the machines communicate with each other using machine-to-machine communication as they attach all the necessary chips to the motherboard and record them against the QR code. As well as replacing traditional human labour, the machines improve efficiency and quality.
Next, a long coffin shaped machine adds the non-chip components to the motherboards, components such as the CPU and SD card slot. Then finally we move to the reflow furnace. Once all the components have been placed on the board, this sophisticated furnace melts the paste and solders the components onto the board in 10 different zones to ensure the solder is melted at the optimum temperature. It also pumps in nitrogen to prevent oxidisation and stop solder cracking and misaligning. So even at this early stage, we are looking to build in that ruggedness. Lastly there is a final quality check on the solder and then the board is ready to put into a TOUGHBOOK.
Bring on the robots
And that’s where the robots come in. All our mass production motherboard inspections are undertaken by automated, one arm robots, which enable us to analyse the boards faster and more accurately. An added bonus is that our robots are able to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year!
After the board test is completed, the motherboard is set in an automated unit which defines it into individual shapes using a fine blade. After splitting, an ID label is automatically added to each board.
A second, dual-arm robot – my personal favourite – then takes over. It looks a bit like something from a sci-fi film with two arms and two cameras on its head, which look like eyes, and a third camera on its arm. It is more advanced than the single arm robot and its big advantage is being able to inspect many different types of board. This helps us to pivot quickly to different customer product orders and quantities, saves labour and helps improve our product quality even further.
The human touch
Then it’s onto the main device assembly and inspection area. One of the surprising things that you first notice in this area is the number of people involved in the assembly of TOUGHBOOK devices and that is largely because of the huge range of configurable models that we offer – 10,000 different active configurations. The devices are assembled by hand, bringing in that element of Japanese craftsmanship into every single TOUGHBOOK, but backed-up with bespoke tools and equipment that Panasonic has developed to keep the quality high and removing much of the human error.
Testing, testing, testing
Once the device has been put together, we undertake the first tests, for example automated testing of the LCD display, as well as speaker checks, testing the wired LAN, and USB insertion and removal. Finally there is a CPU stress test for the memory. Many PC manufacturers take the approach of batch sample testing the CPU’s but at Panasonic, because of our obsession with quality, we test each and every device.
Then it’s on to the tough testing; where the tests are designed to reliably replicate the harsh conditions the TOUGHBOOK devices might experience in the outside world. We also carry out acceleration tests, which aim to replicate years of usage in a short period, so that we can see issues that might happen many years down the line, before we even go to market.
My particular favourites are the water proof test and the drop test. The water proof test is carried out in a purpose built chamber with a water jet sending 12.5 litres of water a minute onto an operational device. In the purpose built drop test, the TOUGHBOOK is dropped by a machine from a range of heights onto a wooden floor on top of concrete. This process makes me cringe every time I see it but, of course, the devices survive just fine. The TOUGHBOOK connectors and components are specially designed and embedded in a floating construction within the body of the device to help absorb such shocks.
The last test is the Anechoic Chamber, a strange dome like building with features that look like it stepped straight out of a deep space movie. The chamber is designed for testing electrical compliance and is used to block out any radio signals and electromagnetic waves. Our chamber is the biggest facility of its kind at any PC manufacturer. Again, many PC manufacturers outsource this requirement but Panasonic built its own facility to enable it to carry out testing up to 24 hours a day and to be able to make fine adjustments to our devices based on the feedback we receive from these tests.
As you can tell, there are many different elements that go into making a TOUGHBOOK tough but it’s the combination of design, passion for quality and testing and that bring it all together into one very rugged range of products.