GCN LAB REVIEW

Toughbook central

GCN senior writer Trudy Walsh travels to Osaka, Japan, to find out why Toughbooks are so rugged.

Panasonic Toughbook factory floorPanasonic’s Toughbook mobile PCs have earned a reputation for ruggedness from government users in all sorts of fields: law enforcement, the military and first responders. So when the GCN Lab staff was invited on a weeklong press tour of Panasonic’s Toughbook factory in Japan, we jumped at the chance to see how the legendary workhorses of the laptop world are made.

After a 20-hour flight, we arrived with a group of technology journalists in Osaka. Toshi Harada, director of Panasonic’s Kobe factory, explained his mission: “Our first job is to destroy the products.” Panasonic puts the Toughbooks through a series of extreme tests, including drop, water and heat cycle tests.

I kept thinking of Bill Murray’s character in the movie "Groundhog Day" when he says, “I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned.” Every day is Groundhog Day for the Toughbooks as they are put through their paces.

A refrigerator-sized chamber tested the Toughbooks for cold to 40 degrees below zero Celsius. A corresponding chamber on the other side of the hall tested the units for heat at 110 degrees Celsius. Another chamber tested the units with three different elements at once: humidity, temperature and vibration. This is similiar to the tests the GCN Lab conducts when reviewing the Toughbooks, though we normally only do them one at a time.

Drop tests were also very similar to the ones we perform routinely to test for Mil-Std 810F ruggedness compliance. Factory staff members dropped a Toughbook from three feet onto a 2-inch-thick plywood surface.

The factory also boasts a separate anechoic chamber, a noiseless facility designed for testing the wireless features of Toughbooks, without any electro-magnetic noise from TV, radios or other devices.

On the factory floor itself, the smell of molten metal filled the air. Much of the assembly was performed by robots. The PC board of each Toughbook was soldered by robots, which are also made by Panasonic. About 1,000 components are mounted onto a Toughbook circuit board.

But robots can’t do everything. All along the assembly route, Panasonic employees performed quality checks. Parts that are deemed worthy are allowed to continue along the journey; parts that are not OK are removed from the line. Every PC board received a five- to six-minute inspection per piece.

The employees wore uniforms, but they varied a little according to task. Some wore outfits with a bit more protection, with long sleeves and pants.

The Toughbooks are also put through what our factory tour guides described as “the aging process.” To simulate the vibrations experienced during shipping, each Toughbook was jiggled with a small rubber-tipped hand massager for about two hours. Only the ones that pass muster can move on.

The precision assembly and extreme testing pays off in maintaining the Toughbook’s legendary ruggedness. The average business notebook PC has an annual failure rate of 24 percent; Toughbooks have an annual failure rate of less than 3 percent, the company said. Some of the first Toughbook 25 laptops, manufactured 16 years ago, are still in use, said Rance Poehler, president of Panasonic Computer Solutions.

Solid state drives are now all the rage in mobile PCs, but they aren’t really necessary in Toughbooks. The failure rates for a Toughbook equipped with an SSD don’t decline because the Toughbook failure rates are already so low, so it only adds greater expense, Poehler said.

Our Panasonic hosts accompanied us on the bullet train to Tokyo for the formal launch of the F8 Toughbook. At 120 miles per hour, the train got us to Tokyo in about three hours. The scope of Panasonic’s products on display at its Tokyo headquarters was staggering. In addition to computers, Panasonic makes monitors, household appliances, health care products and the world’s largest plasma screen high-definition TV. You can buy a whole “Panahome,” equipped with all Panasonic-made products. Now that is something we would love to test out. Wonder if they just need a local address to get things set up?

On our last night in Japan, our hosts treated us—a motley crew of American, German and Japanese technology journalists—to a night of real Japanese karaoke, which is nothing like American-style karaoke. In Japan, everyone sits around what looks more like a kitchen table than a stage. They pass the microphone around like it’s a ceremonial teapot, not the torch of “American Idol.” One of our Japanese hosts pointed at me and yelled, “Gloria Gaynor? Gloria Gaynor?” Instinctively, I knew what to do. I grabbed the microphone and belted out the 1970s empowerment anthem, “I Will Survive.” Everybody understands the language of disco.

The whirlwind tour over, there was only time to grab some duty-free Mothra and Ultraman action figures at the airport and fly back home to a U.S. economy that was unraveling. Inspired by the Toughbook’s ability to withstand the rough-and-tumble of life’s hard knocks, I know we will survive.

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