An artisan responsible for making LaVie Z lighter/thinner
"I want to continue pursuing the value of "lightness" that will delight customers."
In fall of 2013, NEC's LaVie Z achieved the phenomenally light weight of 795 g, making it the world's lightest mobile notebook computer※. Hidetaka Umezu is a structural design professional who strives for weight savings and robustness without compromise. Here he speaks of his zeal and determination during development as an engineer who continues to uphold the values of Japanese manufacturers, pushing the boundaries for every tenth of a gram or hundredth of a millimeter.
- ※For a notebook PC equipped with a 13.3" wide-screen LCD. Based on the findings of NEC Personal Computers, Ltd. as of September 1, 2013.
I joined NEC because I wanted to make notebook PCs.
--First, tell us about the role that you and the Product Development Division you belong to played in the development of the next-generation LaVie Z model.
Umezu: At the Yonezawa plant we develop and produce a range of PCs, and the role of the Product Development Division differs depending on the characteristics of each product. This new LaVie Z model project mainly involves three departments of the Product Development Division. The first is the product development department, which handles the overall coordination of devices, including the schedule and making arrangements with production subcontractors. Then there is the design engineering department, which deals with the architecture and circuit board. Finally, there is the technical strategy department, which is responsible for elements such as the touch panel, keyboard, and battery. These departments coordinate closely with each other, as well as other teams such as the Product Planning and Purchasing Divisions, to further specific product development. I'm in charge of structural design that we call "mecha" in the design engineering department.
In mobile notebook computer development, the majority of manufacturers aim for a light and thin product, and the most important mission for us in structural design is figuring out how to elevate these two crucial factors. However, it's not as simple as just pursuing lighter and thinner designs. Working out how to retain robustness at the same time is another essential issue. "Lightness and thinness" and "robustness." We are tasked with fulfilling these conflicting requirements in a balanced way without making compromises. Constant research and hard work is vital, including being first to take advantage of technology that competitors have not yet worked with. This time around I handled the structural design for two next-generation LaVie Z models -- one the world's lightest, and the other featuring a touch panel. I believe we were able to create products that surpassed our customers' expectations due to the culmination of constant research and labor.
--How have you been involved with NEC's PC creation up to this point?
Umezu: To put it simply, I've done nothing but structural design ever since I joined the company. The university I went to was close to the Yonezawa plant, and I knew that NEC was making notebook PCs here. My father was a carpenter, and that's part of the reason I've wanted to do a job that involved creation ever since I was little. Later on, while working for NEC part-time as a student, I became thoroughly fascinated with the appeal of rapidly-advancing PCs, and so I took the NEC entrance examination. I want to be involved with the creation of PCs at NEC at any cost, so I didn't apply at any other companies. After joining, I was put in charge of structural design for notebook PC development just as I had long sought, and I've been carrying out that task ever since then. From the early mobile PCs in Japan, to the "UltraLite" that was the first to break 1 kg, and the current LaVie Z, you could say I've had a first-hand view of the history of PC weight reductions.
The development and production of PCs in Japan has undergone a variety of changes over the years, including the shift to overseas manufacturing bases, and the outsourcing of production to other companies. However, if we allow ourselves to be swept along by the tide of the times, Japan's PC manufacturing technology will all flow overseas. At the time, I also felt a strong sense of impending crisis at the possibility of Japan's technological progress in PC creation stagnating. After deciding to aim to build PCs with distinctive Japanese qualities that overseas manufacturers could not replicate, and create value as only NEC can, we reached the conclusion that lightness and thinness were the answer.
The light weight of the original LaVie Z sent shockwaves around the world.
--What memorable events or hardships did you encounter during development of the original LaVie Z model?
Umezu: We had already created a product under 1 kg with development of the 12-inch class "UltraLite." So when we were asked to make the original LaVie Z model less than 999 g, we thought we had a good shot at it. However, the hurdle is of course higher when dealing with a 13-inch class product. During development we really had to rack our brains to work out overall structural weight savings, and we ended up having to repeatedly tell staff in each department that components such as the circuit board, keyboard, and battery weighed too much. At the same time, we also poured our efforts into finding ways to preserve strength. We incorporated a number of novel approaches, such as using a casing-integrated keyboard design unlike previous embedded ones. This was fastened using an unprecedented 64 screws to improve strength while also shrinking the pitch. After a period of trial and error, we showed a prototype we had successfully trimmed to under 900 g to PC creation professionals, and they were shocked to the point of suggesting we must have forgotten to put the battery in. In the end, we trimmed the weight of the original model down to 875 g, which was far less than the initial target value of 999 g.
Some may say we could have reduced the weight incrementally rather than carrying out dramatic weight reductions all at once. However, for engineers like us, it is only natural to apply all the techniques at our disposal to achieve the best we can. I believe our desire to pursue the lightest design we could without holding back any of our strength or skills is what ultimately resulted in achieving the world's lightest weight of 875 g. That said, when I was told they wanted us to go even lighter for development of the next-generation LaVie Z model, to be honest I wondered how on earth we would pull that off for a bit.
Our engineers' spirit caused us to surpass the requirements of the product planning division.
--How did it feel when you were asked to develop two models simultaneously for the next-generation LaVie Z?
Umezu: For development of the next-generation LaVie Z we decided to go with two models, one even lighter and the other with a touch panel, based on the results of a user survey. That doesn't necessarily mean that the development and manufacturing period would be extended, or staffing levels doubled. In light of this, we examined optimizations to the development process from the ground up, such as standardizing the lower body part of both models, and splitting development design for the upper LCD part. My area of expertise is making weight reductions while maintaining robustness. The request to bring the next-generation model in under the 875 g of the original was an unprecedented new challenge thrust upon me, as someone dedicated to making weight savings. To give a clear-cut example, that's like telling a boxer who has honed their body fat down to a lean level and lost more pounds by going without food and water to lose more weight. As we have single-mindedly pursued weight savings for PCs all this time, this is not a bout we are prepared to lose.
--We'll ask more about the specific work and effort you put towards weight reduction later, but can you tell us how you honestly felt when development of the next-generation models was successful?
Umezu: I honestly felt proud at how far we had been able to push the weight savings for the world's lightest model. At the same time, I also thought "Oh no, where do we go from here?" I believe we were able to far surpass the requirements set by the Product Planning Division because of the engineers' spirit that exists within the staff at the Yonezawa plant. The managers on the development side always goad us by questioning whether we're satisfied with just achieving what the Product Planning Division asks of us, or whether we have the courage to aim for loftier goals. That's how this mindset has been instilled in each and every one of us. For this round of weight savings, the target value we reported to the higher-ups on the development side was 820 g. Of course, they came right back and asked why we couldn't set the goal to 800 g. That put the fire into us, which helped us ultimately reach 795 g.