Heart and soul of new Sony
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name “Sony?” A transistor radio? A Walkman? Or Aibo the robot dog?
If you are a big fan of video games, your answer will probably be the PlayStation (PS). PlayStation 4 made its debut in 2013. Apart from gaming, the console is also a platform for movies and music. It can even be used for virtual reality games.
The PlayStation is a cash cow for Sony. The financial crisis caused by the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers dealt a heavy blow to Sony and the PlayStation was the driving force behind its recovery. Sony’s bestselling electronic product in recent years is neither a TV set nor a smartphone. It is the PlayStation.
In fiscal 2018 and 2019, the PlayStation became Sony’s top earner, outperforming its semiconductor and financial segments. FY2020 is a transitional period for the PS business with the latest model PlayStation 5 set to hit the market in the year-end sales season. Still, its network service continues to generate stable earnings and leads Sony Group amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet until now, the process of making a PlayStation console has rarely been examined because production sites have always been tightly controlled and closed off even to those involved.
It is off-limits behind this door.
We have now stepped inside.
PS4 hit the market in November 2013. Although smartphone app games are becoming hugely popular, PS4 sales have expanded steadily to over 100 million units. It took the shortest time compared with its peers to reach that milestone. Software sales have totaled about 1.2 billion units. Over six and a half years, it has generated 10 trillion yen ($93 billion) in sales and over 1 trillion yen in profit.
The PlayStation has over 100 million network service users per month and some 40 million paid subscribers. Ordinary living rooms become instantly connected to the outside world once logged onto the PlayStation.
Each console is made with precision. Every part is necessary, every design has a purpose. There is no waste in the creation of the PlayStation. “If you pursue technology, a mechanical device can turn into a beauty,” said Yasuhiro Ootori, head of the mechanical design department.
At that time, the home video game market was dominated by Nintendo. The PlayStation paved the way for high-definition video games by using CD-ROM and was marketed through Sony’s music record sales network. Sony actively sought out young creators and designed a new gaming business. Admiration for Nintendo's success was behind Sony's relentless strife to produce something better.
This is Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture. We are inside the Kisarazu site, a Sony base that is home to the key PlayStation production strategy team.
In this area of 31.4 meters by 6 meters, it takes just 30 seconds for a team of 32 robots to build a PS4.
The motherboard is moved to the starting point of the production line. The area beyond is off-limits even to Sony employees.
Flexible white arms suddenly appear from both sides of the line. They connect wires and tighten screws. They work without pause. The robots look like they are dancing elegantly. At the beginning, more than 80 robots worked in the area, far from practical.
Sony has reexamined every single process of the operation. Now, one robot repeats the motion of moving sideways from right to left and plays two roles by working with another in each position. Memos are attached to surfaces all over the place such as the operation line below and on the partitions that surround the robots. A great deal of trial and error can be found in those memos. Finally, the entire operation process was automated in 2018.
“If you keep watching them long enough, they will start to look like humans,” said one engineer. The look in his eye is gentle like a father watching over his children. Unlike large robots that lift heavy items, the delicate movements of compact robots resemble those of human arms and have surprising warmth. “Probably there is no other production site that uses this robot this efficiently,” he said. The soft-spoken engineer’s words show his confidence in the robots.
The production line works, thanks to the genius of the engineers. Its capabilities are best demonstrated in processing soft items such as cables and tape-like parts. Robots are not good at handling paper and strings. It is difficult for them to predict the slack and distortion of parts that flap or fold easily and they are also breakable.
Sony has made the PS4 as compact as possible. Soft foldable parts are attached inside the game console in tiny space.
One robotic arm picks up a cable and holds it while another robotic arm grabs the tip of the cable. It is twisted to adjust its angle and put into the connector. The sequence of this movement requires force and precision. Humans could do it in no time but it was difficult to replicate with a robot.
Sony decided that it could achieve the highest return on investment by employing a hybrid solution that kept human staff to operate the motherboard at the beginning of the process and in packing at the end. It started using this hybrid approach in 2019.
Labor costs still determine competitiveness because the assembly of electronics including TV set and smartphones is difficult to fully automate.
Japanese companies have moved production bases to other countries to secure cheap labor. In the 2000s, Electronics Manufacturing Service, or EMS, providers emerged in China and Malaysia to support production systems and many manufacturers developed close relationships with them. The PlayStation was no exception to this trend.
Automation changes how companies compete. Rather than going where labor costs are low, companies instead have to consider proximity to where the product is consumed, the stability of power supply, access to capital. Irregularities in operations caused by the difference in skill levels and a shortage of labor are no longer problems. The supply chain has been reorganized and making parts in-house is now central to the operation. Product design is also changing to accommodate automation.
The front line of manufacturing has become the trigger for innovation.
Kisarazu has been producing the PlayStation since its first model was launched in 1994. It has continued to support the PS business with technological developments by speeding up production and cutting costs further while maintaining quality.
Putting on the main unit cover is the last step in the production of the PS4. The crane grabs the PS4 that has passed the inspection process one at a time and places it on the lane. Neatly lined up PS4s are heading to be packed.
A father and son spending time together, a student glued to the state-of-the-art game and a man in a suit are all stopping by. The store’s PlayStation section attracts a wide range of people. The distribution network was cut off due to the coronavirus pandemic but has slowly started moving again and now the store is open. Things are gradually returning to normal.
PS5 is set to be released in the year-end sales season. Microsoft has already announced a new model of its Xbox. The two leading console makers are jockeying for supremacy in the next-generation gaming market and the outcome will determine the fate of Sony Group in the next decade.
This is Sony’s front line.
Sony has lifted the veil of secrecy.
Once a non-core product, the PlayStation will now determine Sony’s fate. You may have thought of audio equipment and TV sets when you hear the name "Sony.". If Sony plays its game right, the next time you’re asked to think of a product it makes, your answer may be PlayStation.
Sony manufacturing evolves with its PlayStation.