Deep in the northwest corner of Kobe, Japan, there's a factory hidden away among green rice paddies, and sleepy farming villages of tiled roofs. If you were to travel here, to Takatsukadai—the middle of nowhere—you'd find Panasonic's Toughbook plant quietly making notebooks with the world's lowest failure rate. Well, not so quietly, actually. They employ a regimen of over 500 different tests, smashing, dropping and soaking Toughbooks, with over a thousand sacrifices each year. This is where I learned how the old computer plant manages to pull it off, miraculously, almost all under one roof.
Toughbooks have been pulled from car fires, blown up and stopped bullets. Their outer strength is derived from magnesium shells; Panasonic says they are 20x stronger than the typical plastic laptop case.
After the design comes the testing, where only the fittest prototypes and models survive. Fittingly, the slogan of the Kobe plant is "Productive Destruction." Toughbooks are put through a battery of tests under MIL-STD-810F. Here are some of the highlights of the super rugged laptop testing:
Also known as the "Transit Drop Test," this procedure involves dropping the powered-down machine from three feet onto each face, edge and corner a total of 26 times. The computers are dropped onto two-inch plywood placed over a steel plate on top of concrete—the triumvirate of hard everyday surfaces. Visual checks and a Windows boot-up are done after each test.
The Toughbook is placed in a water spray chamber for 12 straight hours, powered on but with its ports closed tight. Afterwards comes an inspection for water "intrusion."
Thermal Shock and Temperature
When shut down, the computer is subjected to three cycles of massive temperature swings, from a balmy 96º C to a chilly -51º C. Separately, Toughbooks are turned on, and tested actually operating at temperatures ranging from -20ºC to 60º C. For these tests, Panasonic uses special environmental chambers made by a company called Espec. (Hopefully they don't also build saunas.)
With the help of an outside firm, Toughbooks are tested to see if they withstand the most challenging air pressure conditions that could be encountered in military aircraft.
This test takes 10 whole days to complete. Toughbooks are placed in a chamber with extreme jungle-like humidity at temperatures fluctuating between hot (30ºC) and impossibly hot (60ºC).
Superfine silica flour is applied to the machines in a 60º C environment at a facility in Yokohama; this punishment goes on for 8 hours while the laptops are turned on. They pass the test if moving parts don't bind or become blocked, and relays and contacts continue to operate properly.
Toughbooks are clamped to aluminium plates that simulate the mounting in vehicles, and then are subjected to various intensities of vibration while turned off and on. When on, the HDD also spins.
In a test you can easily envision, Toughbooks are put through 30,000 cycles of open-and-close-and-open-and-close, testing hinge sturdiness.
Nasty-looking typing machines pound Toughbook keyboards through their paces, testing them to withstand 25 million keystrokes. (Wonder how long they have to type before complete works of Shakespeare appear...)
Toughbooks are tested for their ability to fend off spills, one of the more common assaults to a laptop. Mil-spec requires them to withstand more than 6 ounces (200 cc) of... whatever.
At the development stage, Toughbook covers and bases are squeezed super hard, tested to withstand over 980N (100kgf) of pressure.
During development, electromagnetic wave testing is performed in the plant's 10m radio-frequency anechoic chamber, used to check conformity with CISPR and FCC electromagnetic regulations.
Although not to the level of the mil-spec lines, whose testing is detailed above, Panasonic's business-rugged models—the kind our Benny Goldman tested in his own, uh, laboratory—are dropped from 1 metre, pelted with dust, doused with 6 ounces of liquid (half a can of Coke), squeezed, pounded on the keyboard, stretched open for hinge reliability, and shocked with an electrostatic discharge. Notebooks also go on racks at the Kobe factory, and are given massages. Using Panasonic-branded handheld massagers (what else?) testers check for vibration resistance as part of an "aging" process. The vibe simulates shaking during shipping.
The plant was established in June 1990 and began PC production in August 1991, now turning out an average of 2,500 to 3,000 Toughbooks a day. In 2007 production hit 660,000 units—Panasonic plans to ramp up output to 800,000 units this year and then 1 million units by 2010. The plant can turn out Toughbooks in up to 2,000 variations of memory, hard disk, LCD panel, software and shiny magnesium-alloy shell, in 10 different colours. Repairs are also carried out on-site 365 days a year.
A Matsushita warehouse in nearby Osaka holds US$14 million dollars worth of components, about 2.2 million pieces in 60,000 varieties. The warehouse operates under a system it calls "5S" for five words in Japanese: seiri (arrangement), seiton (tidy), seisou (cleaning), seiketsu (cleanliness), and shitsuke (discipline). Like the factory, which requires all visitors to remove their shoes and don slippers as in a Japanese home, it's spotless.