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VIERA TVs are sent to market from assembly plants all around the world. In Spring of 2011, a specialized team was formed to consolidate VIERA's quality-related information in order to solve problems as quickly as possible. Sometimes, the team will spend several months at an overseas plant, and other times, they'll be sitting in a laboratory reproducing harsh environmental conditions such as high heat and humidity. We set out to learn the true nature of this quality control work. As we'll see, it takes shape day after day through persistent trial and error by a team of engineers who are also fielding information that arrives non-stop from growing global markets.
The Quality Engineering Group that we belong to consists of two teams: the Quality Assurance Team, which watches over quality before products are sent to market, and the Market Quality Team, which oversees quality after the products have reached the market. Our territory is mainly within the latter team, as we're involved with the quality of products that have left the factory and are in the hands of customers. We're tasked with gathering and consolidating highly detailed data from bases all over the world, and in the event of a problem, we work to discover the cause and implement the necessary countermeasures. Also, while we use the fairly simple word "market," it actually covers a very wide scope, from ordinary home-use customers to B to B customers, and even overseas production plants.
Whenever there's a countermeasure being applied, we immediately collaborate with the production site to resolve the problem, and when we find a problem that's difficult to solve quickly, we feed the information back to teams that are involved in new product development. In this way, we work to revise designs so that improvements will definitely be made in the next batch of products.
That's right. From the newest prototypes to the first plasma TVs that were released in 1998, we're constantly running test signals on more than 100 TVs, all produced in different years, with different screen sizes, and belonging to different series. We collect data while operating these TVs continuously 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
More than 2,000 plasma TVs have undergone continuous, stringent running checks for more than 10 years here in this test room.
Yes, I was working on panel device design and evaluation. Kobayashi came to oversee plasma work after developing CRTs as an electron beam specialist. And Sasaki specialized in panel drive development.
In the past, all new products were launched in Japan, and then sent to various countries and regions once their quality had completely stabilized. Nowadays, though, it's just common practice for new products to have a simultaneous global launch. If a quality problem appears, it'll also happen simultaneously and in a larger number.
If you don't have a data-gathering function when that happens, you can end up with the same problem happening in a number of bases with a wide range of different, piecemeal countermeasures being used for each one. That's why a specialized team became essential to gather and consolidate the newest data and quickly formulate a countermeasure. And that's what we're here to do.
Of course, this isn't only for panels. We need to have a good grasp of the power supplies, peripheral circuits, and all other areas, so the field that we cover is quite a bit larger than that of a conventional engineer.
Basically, we're in a position of having to respond and take action on whatever data comes flying at us without any previous notice. We can't even imagine what each day's schedule is going to be like until we arrive at the company and check our mail in the morning.
In addition to Japan, there are assembly bases in the Czech Republic, Thailand, Shanghai, Mexico, Brazil, and Taiwan. This means that assembly lines are running all day long somewhere. So it doesn't matter that it might be the middle of the night in Japan. We're often flooded with requests all around the clock. The same is true, of course, during long weekend breaks and summer and winter holidays.
Every day, we have to look at the tasks that remain from the day before and the new tasks that popped up in the morning. We have to be flexible enough to adapt to circumstances and prioritize our schedule for the day.
It was pretty tough at first, but since it happens almost daily, we've gotten used to it.
When we get a report of a problem, the first thing we have to do is to come up with a theory as to what caused it. Then we create the same environment in which the problem happened and repeatedly test it to identify the mechanism behind it. This will lead to a solution, such as a component that'll work as a countermeasure.
Speaking of the mechanism, our experience sometimes allows us to find it right away, and other times it doesn't. Naturally, the latter case is frustrating.
The point at which we understand the mechanism for reproducing the problem is the starting point for deciding the countermeasure for it. There are a lot of cases, though, where the hurdles are pretty high in getting to that point.
Well, we once had a case where parts corrosion caused a defect, but when we tried to find the underlying cause, it turned out to be a problem with the air quality in the place where it was used.
A chemical substance that was mixed in the air gradually had an adverse effect on the part. In a case like that, it's difficult to reproduce the problem in a lab with accelerated testing over a short period of time, considering that the problem occurred after one or two years in the actual usage environment. We also had a case where we were testing the balance between humidity and impurities in the air, and the impurity concentration got so high it turned the part totally black.
Sometimes we have to be like detectives, for example, picking up a piece of a wall that dropped off onto the floor and bringing it back for testing to give us a hint for reproducing the environment.
There was a time when the staff visited a home in Vietnam where a complaint was received for a product had been delivered. When we walked into the room, it was so drafty that it was almost windy, and the room was about as hot as the outdoors. However, cold air from an air conditioner was aimed directly at the TV. This was causing very severe condensation in the TV.
This kind of thing happens in tropical countries. There are cases where the product is being used in a level of humidity that far exceeds the design expectations.
A professional display was delivered to a commercial facility in China that was underground and extremely hot and humid. An air conditioner was also blowing cold air, and there was steam rising from several dim sum stands.
I heard that when Koto visited, there were traces of water dripping from the product.
Yes, but even so, we were able to come up with a countermeasure part to somehow solve the problem.
Well, as you've probably gathered from the discussion so far, it's not enough to simply provide high quality in Japan's usage environment. It's only meaningful when we can provide the same high quality under a variety of environments all over the world.
The areas where our products are being marketed are growing every year. This means that products will be sold this year in places where there weren't any sold last year. In such a case, we have to ensure high quality under an entirely new environment.
That also means that it's not good enough to offer the same quality as last year. One of the most difficult things is that everybody just expects the quality to improve every year.
Naturally, our team can't solve all of the problems by ourselves. We run trial and error processes over and over to collect data, and then we provide it to the factory staff, and to product development people, and get them to work on it. That's also part of our job.
That's right. Step by step, we gather the reasoning that we need to enable other people to pitch in and help.
It's also vital to build up relationships of trust with the other people involved.
Just before I came to this section, I was involved in set assembly at our Thai factory for the launch of a new model in January 2011. A problem unexpectedly happened that was caused by the difference in temperature between Japan and Thailand. It turned out that I ended up doing the exact same kind of work there that I'm doing now.
I heard you were originally supposed to be coming home from that trip in one week, and it just kept getting extended for another three days, and then another three days, until it stretched out to an entire month at the site.
That's right. My wife was sitting here wondering just when I'd be coming home. But as a result, I became very good friends with the local staff. Nowadays, when we need to communicate with the Thai factory, everyone just says, "Leave it up to Sasaki."
At the company, some people call him "Mr. Thailand." Considering how important it is for us to get people to help us, the ability to develop a relationship of trust with people around the world is an asset that is just as valuable as technical skills.
In product development, it's common to use other brand products as a benchmark for improving your own product. It's different, though, when you're dealing with quality assurance. Since there are cost considerations, it's possible to think, "The competitor has this level of quality, so we'll be OK with the same level." That kind of comparison can lead to lowering your standard.
Yes, that's right. Of course, we do study competitive products so we know the level of quality that these other products are set to. But this doesn't change our own standard.
The important thing is that we hold firm to the level that Panasonic needs to be. My own judgment criterion is simple: Would I feel that a product with this level of quality would be OK if I bought it for my own home?
Another thing that we do regularly is to use our information channels to help the staff at production plants to reconfirm the importance of the work that they're in charge of. When we get this kind of feedback from them, it really pleases us. Everyone is happy in their work, and that leads to higher quality. There's nothing else that can motivate us quite like that.
In other words, when everyone shares the same feelings, they naturally devote their efforts to their work as professionals. That's why we feel the responsibility, as the technical section that's the closest to the end customer, to continue communicating with technical staff all over the world.
I simply want to challenge the goal of zero defects. Defect rates are expressed in units of ppm (parts per million). However, while we see this as ppm, an ordinary customer who buys a VIERA TV sees it differently. If that TV malfunctions, it's a 100% defect rate from the customer's perspective.
Originally, quality is something that customers simply expect to be good. So if there's any kind of a problem, it's a minus. About 99% of our daily work has to do with "bringing that prohibited minus back to zero." However, by discovering the means to improve the next batch of products through our daily efforts, even if it only results in a 1% change, we need to work toward bringing zero a little closer to a plus.
Nothing would make us happier than to have the production staff tell us, "We didn't have any of the defects this year that we had last year."
We have total confidence in VIERA quality. You won't be frustrated because the colors aren't right or the picture is grainy. You'll definitely be pleased when you watch your favorite movies on a VIERA. Plasma displays really do have wonderful image quality. They're ideal panel devices, especially for watching movies and travelogues.
I also don't think that any other device can give you the beauty that you get from the rich images of a plasma display. Please enjoy it to the fullest. And we'll be hard at work removing any problems that might prevent that enjoyment.
If there ever is a problem, don't worry, we'll be there to solve it, wherever you are. We have people everywhere who are devoting themselves to this kind of service. I hope everyone will enjoy their VIERA, everywhere in the world.
* The group name, job title and product information on this page were accurate at the time of the interview.
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