An initiator of the world's lightest LaVie Z
"I want to surprise and thrill customers through the creation of products."
In 2012, NEC's LaVie Z took the crown as the world's lightest mobile notebook computer※, at around 875 grams. For the next-generation model developed this year, NEC pursued even greater weight savings. Yusuke Nakai, who continues to push the limits of lightness to meet the demands of users as part of the Product Planning Division, discusses NEC's enthusiasm toward product creation, as well as the commitment of the developers.
- ※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.
User perspective lies at the heart of product creation.
--What does NEC consider most important when it comes to the creation of mobile notebook computers?
Nakai: When making mobile notebook computers, NEC places the utmost importance on seeing things through the eyes of users.
I believe that applies not only to mobile notebook computers, but also to NEC's product creation in general.
As a manufacturer, regardless of how exceptional a product we develop is, we believe it must match the desires and needs of our customers, or it will not have much value as a product.
About two years ago, we made significant progress with the manufacturing of thin mobile notebook computers. However, compared to customer satisfaction with the thickness of our products, their satisfaction with product weight was still low at the time. NEC's decision to respond to customers' desire for a lighter product was a big factor behind development of the original LaVie Z. Although I work on the creation of mobile notebook computers, I am also a user. For development of the next-generation LaVie Z models, we placed emphasis on user perspective, while dedicating ourselves to developing a product that could provide inspiration and wonderment to our customers.
--Give us some specifics about the roles and areas covered by those in the Product Planning Division that you belong to.
Nakai: Our job starts with creating an overall roadmap for products, such as a new product lineup. For mobile notebook computers, it takes about a year from planning to shipment. In product planning we anticipate the state of the market and competing manufacturers, the evolution of processors and other technology, and trends in customers needs for a year in advance. We then consider what the optimal position is for NEC's PCs. To do this, it is extremely important to have the capacity for information-gathering through close relationships with Microsoft and Intel, as well as manufacturers of key components such as displays. We then compile all this into a "requirements document" for manufacturing the next new NEC PC product, incorporating distinctive features for individual products, as well as a business plan with regard to costs. Next, we start the process of product creation based on this requirements document, repeatedly evaluating and making adjustments as we work with other teams such as the Product Development Division.
The product planning work is not finished after the requirements document is wrapped up and internal authorization is granted. Actual development starts from this point, so we subsequently confirm and adjust specification details for the new product with the Product Development Division. Once the specifications are agreed upon, we go over the cost of components and parts required in detail with the Purchasing Division. From there we move to the design phase, and for the prototype form factors and designs we visit our factories in Japan and overseas, and actually check the results with our own eyes. After that is done, we finally enter the production stage. Once manufacturing begins the product planning team is no longer involved, but we have the next job waiting for us. That is the task of promoting new products to ship units. The Sales Division handles the advertising and other actual promotion, but as we planned the product, it falls to us to create a direction for promotion, indicating how we want each new product to be presented. In my case, I had quite a grueling year tackling the product planning for two next-generation LaVie Z models (laughs).
I want to leave an even bigger impression on customers than the original model.
--First, give us some background and your recollections of the development of the original LaVie Z model, which became the world's lightest in 2012.
Nakai: "Light weight," "thin body," and "long battery life" are universal themes when it comes to mobile notebook computers. At the time, many competing manufacturers were focused on long battery life, but we wanted to stand out and do something only NEC was capable of, so we decided to pursue weight savings to deliver a higher degree of satisfaction to customers. Back then there were mobile notebook computers that weighed 1.1 kg, and we expected competitors to put out new products under 1 kg. The NEC team therefore decided to set a goal of under 900 g, to achieve a weight that nobody else could even come close to matching. To do this, the development team actually had to pull out all stops, including revising everything from the development process up in the quest for both lightness and strength. In the end, despite our competitors not breaking the 1 kg mark, we were able to achieve an incredible weight of around 875 g. This original LaVie Z model was highly regarded by many customers, who were pleasantly surprised at both its lightweight design and price.
--Can you explain why you developed an even lighter version as well as one incorporating a touch panel for the next-generation LaVie Z models?
Nakai: The original LaVie Z undoubtedly received an enthusiastic response for its light weight. It still holds the title as world's lightest now, and there were those who said we'd done enough with regard to weight savings. However, with smartphones and tablets steadily getting lighter, there are still plenty of customers who want to see more weight savings for mobile notebook computers. We went ahead with development of an even lighter model to meet these needs. Another factor behind this was NEC's confidence that we could do better than the original. Earlier, I mentioned how placing importance on user needs and perspective was fundamental to NEC's approach to creation. We listened to the various views of our customers, such as those who valued lightness above all, those who wanted a high-quality screen, and those who wanted a black version. Giving consideration to these user perspectives, the new world's lightest LaVie Z model incorporates all these ideas.
Meanwhile, when we conducted a user survey, there were many requests for a model with a touch panel. We were already pushing ourselves to the limit to achieve these weight savings, so developing a touch panel model on top of that in a limited period of time raised the hurdle even higher. You may think we could have focused on either the weight savings or the touch panel model, but NEC values its users too much to settle for less (laughs). Although developing both placed an enormous burden on the Product Development Division and the Manufacturing Division, there was very little opposition from staff on the ground. On the contrary, the sentiment on the floor was "we can do this!"
The world's lightest. Our tireless journey to hit the 700 g range.
--Give us more specifics about the weight reduction challenges during creation of the next-generation LaVie Z models.
Nakai: Okay, let me talk about the pursuit of weight reductions from a product planning standpoint. When trimming weight, we normally move on to development after setting target values in the product planning stage. However, this time we weren't able to provide target values for the weight reduction. Although we can estimate weight savings due to advances in technology for key components such as CPUs to a certain extent, the fact is we couldn't predict how far NEC could push the envelope beyond that. However, we had faith that NEC's development and manufacturing staff were capable of more than just a 5 g or 10 g savings. Those of us in product planning also did everything in our power to help. One thing we work hard on was the black coating. Layered coats of black would give the top surface a finish that looked and felt good, but this overcoating adds to the weight, which wasn't acceptable for the new LaVie Z. Together with the designers we visited coating manufacturers many times seeking one that would achieve the look and feel we wanted with a single coat, and we ended up testing over 50 types.
The revisions to the LCD are another area we focused on. With the resolution of smartphone screens climbing, we were adamant we wanted to meet the expectations of users by enhancing the look of our mobile notebook computer screens.
And so we looked to IGZO, which provides high image quality with glass as thin as 0.25 mm. Together with the purchasing manager I went directly to a Sharp exhibition to negotiate the adoption of IGZO. The adoption of this LCD also presented challenges. Normally for the LCD we purchase and incorporate modular products from the manufacturer. However, modular LCDs are attached to a metal frame, and this frame would negatively impact our weight savings. After much consultation and discussion with Sharp, we implemented weight savings by incorporating only the film and TFT liquid crystals.