You’ve probably never heard of Himeji: located about 100km west of Osaka, or about an hour and a half as the bus drives in the rain, this coastal city has the most visited castle in Japan, and for a while back in the 1930s was in danger of becoming the country’s capital following a massive earthquake that struck Tokyo.
These days it’s a mainly industrial place, with thermal energy plants and gas terminals rather than beaches and whatever it is the Japanese do instead of donkey rides: it’s overshadowed as a port by the massive complex in Kobe, and as a city by Osaka itself, Japan’s second city.
However, go there hoping to see the 17th century castle right now, and you’re going to be disappointed: it’s under extensive (and extended) restoration, and will be until 2014, its fine towers and roofs covered by a great box of white cladding.
Fortunately, we’re not here to see that big white box, but another one, a more recent addition to the Himeji skyline – or rather its seafront. This is Panasonic’s brand-new LCD TV cell facility, its biggest and greenest to date, and capable of churning out the better part of a million units a month.
The pictures make it look like an anonymous white factory, of the kind you see all over Japan, but when you approach it – past narrow canals lined with moored-up fishing boats, the local baseball practice ground and even tiny traditional houses, each with its rows of vegetables planted outside the door – and start to glimpse it through the trees, you realise that the place is huge.
It isn’t just there: it looms, and as you drive up the entrance it presents a wall 56m tall to the world, and is 226m wide and 430m long.
It’s one serious building, and when you get taken up to the roof-level observation deck you see what you’d guessed from the empty space around the plant: there’s room for another smaller factory on the seaward side, and a huge empty area landward for further expansion. The main factory building itself takes up just over 97,000 sq m – there’s also a power plant and a colour filter facility –, but the total site is almost four times as large.
From up at roof-level you can also see, across the bay, the massive Asahi Glass factory which produces the raw material the factory uses, although strong hints are dropped that some of that space onsite may already be allocated to an even more local glass-production facility.
Look back inland and – just about, in the distance – you can see the white shape of the castle under restoration, and beyond it Shoshazan, the mountain on which sits the 1000-year-old Engyoji temple. That’s the one where, our factory guide informs us, Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe filmed The Last Samurai, and it's very beautiful. Well, he adds, maybe not on a grey day like this, but...
Anyway back to the factory, which has just one function: the processing, coating and cutting of the huge 8.5th-generation glass sheets on which LCD TVs are based. These sheets, around 2.5 x 2.2m and just 0.7mm thick, can produce the glass for 18 32in TVs or, as Panasonic’s Shinji Inoue explains, a smaller number of 42in panels, with smaller screen sizes such as 26in and 19in squeezed into the cutting.
Bigger sheets of glass minimise wastage
The 18-cut (those 18 32in screens per sheet) is the main thrust of the work here, the factory processing enough of them to produce the glass for the equivalent of 810,000 32in screens per month, but the clever mixing of sizes cut from a single sheet minimises wastage and environmental impact, which is a major part of the agenda for this ‘green factory’.
Everything is done here to reduce CO2 emissions: robots handle the big glass sheets to speed things up and this is allied to faster exposure and developing of the panels in the photographic process used to turn raw glass into LCD TVs in waiting.
The processing time is 20% less than at Panasonic’s existing Mobara plant, which handles 6th-gen glass, and the production energy cost for each 32in panel also down by a fifth.
100% of the water used in the process is captured and recycled, saving the equivalent of 21 25m swimming pools of water per day, and other innovations include greener wall-coverings, pavings and so on.
What they do at Himeji
So glass goes in one end of Himeji, and out of the other end comes – well, glass, actually. The factory doesn’t produce finished LCD display panels, or even LCD sub-assemblies: that’s done in the Czech Republic and Malaysia, where driver technology, backlighting and more are added. That holds true for the majority of Himeji’s output, but a smaller amount of cells go to be built up elsewhere in Japan for domestic consumption.
The finished panels are used by Panasonic itself and third-party customers, and with the addition of 19- and 26in sizes as well as the core 32in and 42in, the company is aiming to supply over 30% of the world’s LCD screens.
The Himeji facility began operation less than a year ago, and was officially opened in November last year: we were the first visitors from outside Japan to get the tour, and while viewing is limited to observing the highly-automated process from above through a couple of huge picture windows, everything here being done in ultra-clean-room conditions, and with hardly any workers in sight, the sheer scale of the operation can’t fail to impress.
The glass here goes into Panasonic’s IPS Alpha LCD panels, their In-Plane Switching to giving a thinner design offering better colour, faster response and a wider viewing angle, with improved colour fidelity even when viewed off-axis.
In fact, the screens have the same 178 degree viewing angle, says Junichi Oowada, head of LCD R&D, as some rival designs, but the company is working on further improvements to both exploit the benefits of the thinner panel gap of IPS, and address some of its limitations.
For example, the IPS technology may be faster, but it loses some brightness, he says, so they're working on improving the transmittance of light, as well as enhanced LED efficiency and a better diffuser layer behind the screen.
However, all the time the company is thinking about power reduction regulations, the demands of 3D content, and the need to keep the products competitive.
As Oowada explains, 3D TVs do require more power, and its need for a black screen between frames can affect brightness. The temptation is simply to throw in more power to improve the picture, but it’s not quite that simple: different regions of the world have different regulations on power consumption, and the trend is ever downwards, so more hi-tech approaches are required to keep picture quality high and power consumption down.
He says that this turns into a chicken and egg game, with better panel technology requiring better driver technology requiring better panels and so on, but it’s clear the Panasonic engineers are thriving on the challenges of development, and manufacturing, this constant quest for improvement and efficiency brings.
And they’re keeping it real: for example, we were shown an ultrabudget LCD TV being made for (and indeed in) India: a 32in LCD, complete with a single fluorescent backlight tube in a deeply dished reflector, selling for the equivalent of €149.
It’s not the highest of tech, but it satisfies a consumer desire for an LCD TV at an affordable price, and has the side advantage of decent sound, thanks to that larger enclosure. In fact, the Panasonic are now looking at a more energy-efficient version, but still pitched at this budget level for emerging markets: this will use a twin strip of LEDs across the centre of the backlight, again with a dished reflector.
Is all this a long way from the latest 3D TVs, and talk of higher light transmittance, market leading colour quality and the onward race between panel technology and driver advances?
Maybe, but simple TVs for emerging markets, as much as the massive investment (getting on for £2bn) in Himeji, are an example of the many ways in which Panasonic is working to strengthen its share of the highly competitive global TV market.